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Video | I Spent the Day With a U.S.-Legal R34 Nissan Skyline GT-R

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author photo by Doug DeMuro November 2017

I recently had the chance to drive a Nissan Skyline GT-R "R34," which is the oft-used model code for the Skyline GT-R that everyone wants: the one that was made from 1999 to 2002, the one that was in all the video games when we were kids, the one that is absolutely not legal anywhere in the United States, and especially not in emissions-obsessed California. Naturally, I drove it in California.

Before I get into the driving experience, allow me to state how this happened. A few months ago, I received an email from someone in California who said he had an R34 GT-R. I believe literally everything I read, so I replied to him, and it turned out he wasn't lying: He has an R34 GT-R, and it's fully legal for the United States market. "But how?" you're wondering. "It's not 25 years old! I want a legal R34 GT-R!" Yeah, well, prepare to pay. There are about a dozen legal R34 GT-Rs out there, and they came by way of Motorex.

Motorex, for the uninitiated, is a company that started in the early 2000s with one goal in mind: to import Skyline GT-Rs from Japan. Nissan wouldn't do it, but there was clearly demand, so Motorex actually went through the trouble of crash-testing an R33 GT-R for the U.S. Department of Transportation and certifying it for emissions compliance with the EPA; the entire thing surely cost into the millions of dollars. Then the government gave them their papers, and they were allowed to import the R33 GT-R after making a few little tweaks to it (like, for instance, changing the speedometer to read in miles per hour).

So Motorex did this, but then they decided they wanted to also bring in the R32 GT-R and the R34 GT-R, so they did that, too, and they didn't tell the government they were importing different models. Then they stopped performing the necessary changes to the cars in order to make them legal. Eventually, Motorex was raided, and the Skylines stopped streaming in. But this left a question: What about the 20- or 30-odd cars Motorex already imported and sold to buyers who thought they were purchasing a U.S.-legal car?

In an amazing display of uncharacteristically rational reasoning, the U.S. Department of Transportation decided to let those people keep those cars, even though they were technically illegal for the U.S. market. The thinking was, they bought them legally, thinking they were legal, so it would be wrong to confiscate them. To this day, Motorex Skylines can be legally driven around the United States, and their owners have a nice little letter from the U.S. Department of Transportation explaining the situation and guaranteeing their legality. The whole story is pretty unbelievable.

More unbelievable, however, is how this thing drove. Even though I owned an R32 GT-R, I'm not a huge Japanese-car enthusiast -- and of the dozens of cars I've owned, only a small handful have come from Japan. But I've always wanted to get behind the wheel of an R34 GT-R, because this car was the king of every video game I played growing up -- and it was the forbidden fruit we just couldn't have in the United States. It couldn't possibly live up to my expectations, but I wanted to drive it so badly just to see what it was like after all these years. So I drove it. And it lived up to my expectations.

Let me put it this way: The R34 GT-R is not a brand-new GT-R. It's not that fast, and it's not that sharp, and it's not that much of a crazy sports car. But it's truly the perfect car for someone like me, who isn't obsessed with getting ten zillion horsepower or bumping along over very single painted road line because they killed ride quality to perfectly dial in the suspension. Instead, the R34 GT-R is a practical, reasonable Nissan, with a practical, reasonable interior and truly the perfect level of power: 276 (according to Nissan, in keeping with a "gentlemen's agreement" among Japanese automakers not to start a hp war), but 320 in actuality. It's fast, but not excessive -- just quick enough to give you a nice, big smile as you accelerate hard from a stop light or punch it in the middle of the power band, but not so ruthlessly brutal that you push the accelerator and you're in the next ZIP code.

Then there's the handling. The R34 GT-R is sharp, surprisingly sharp, definitely quicker through curves than my R32 -- possibly a function of simply being newer and less worn out. The steering is quick and linear, though there's a little on-center vagueness; body roll is minimized, and the car corners flat and with no drama. Turn-in could be a bit more aggressive, but steering in the middle of the corner feels aggressive and sharp -- very precise and very controllable. I spent all these years idolizing this car for how it looks and what it represents, and I'm thrilled to discover it's actually a great vehicle to drive.

And I mean that: It's a great vehicle to drive. No, it's nowhere near the Godzilla that the new one is; in fact, I'm surprised it developed such a "Godzilla" reputation back in the late 1990s, because the car is largely without drama, offering a relatively simple interior and a mundane driving experience when you aren't going full-tilt. It reminds me a lot of a 911: a regular ol' car, right up until you don't want it to be anymore.

Although, if I'm honest, there are two reasons why it's hard to say that statement really applies to the R34. One is, quite simply, that this car generates more thumbs-ups and stares and points and dropped jaws than virtually any other vehicle I've ever driven; it's one of those few car-enthusiast cars that everyone appreciates -- even if you aren't into Japanese cars, even if you aren't into sports cars, even if you don't know much about imported cars, you know the Skyline and you like the Skyline. In a half an hour of driving around in the car, at least a dozen people noticed it, and some of them truly freaked out like I've never seen before with a Lamborghini or a Ferrari.

And then there's the other reason why the Skyline isn't really a regular car: Because you're sitting on the wrong side of the interior. And, really, that's the rub -- this car is amazing in every way, but I probably wouldn't want to spend the $80,000 or more required to buy a Motorex car, or the $40,000 or more (plus a 7-year wait) required to import one from Japan, simply because you'll always be sitting on the opposite side of the car, drifting into the next lane, leaning over the passenger seat to see if it's clear to make a left turn. It will never quite be perfect. But it's really, really close.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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