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Car reviews - Nissan - Pulsar - ST 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Dual airbag safety focus, equipment levels, driveability
Room for improvement
Low-speed engine torque, rear legroom, smallish boot

13 Nov 2001

NISSAN'S Pulsar has enjoyed a favourable small car credibility rating since the third generation model, using Holden's Family II engine, appeared in 1987.

The car's status has not lost any of its shine since then, even earning awards from national motoring magazines as it soldiered on to become the virtual saviour of Nissan's operations in Australia. In 1999 the Pulsar sedan was Australia's biggest-selling small four-door.

So a new Pulsar is an important event for the local company. As a substantial source of Nissan volume, it shares with the Patrol 4WD an ability to bring customers into showrooms.

The sedan version of the current Pulsar has been with us since July 2000, and has enjoyed a warm reception from small-car buyers with its choice of 1.6 and 1.8-litre engines and a classy look that owes more than a little to big brother Maxima.

The more youthfully oriented hatchback Pulsar has taken a full 12 months to reach us here and there can be no doubt dealers have been anxiously awaiting its arrival. They were also probably anxious to see what Nissan's stylists decided to do with the hatchback because the previous five-door tended to polarise opinions about its aesthetic qualities.

The new hatch shows there was no cause for concern there because it follows more conservative, predictable themes while still managing to send out pheromones aimed at attracting younger buyers.

The hatch shares its platform with the sedan, of course, which means it runs a slightly shorter wheelbase than its main competition. But it is clearly aimed at a different buyer than the one who favours the mini-Maxima sedan look.

The front-end is distinguished by a bold, aggressive twin-nostril grille and a Nissan badge that looks as if it might have been borrowed from the commercial vehicles warehouse. There is no question of the hatchback's origins.

The hatch comes as an ST, or as a Q, but both are well equipped with a standard 1.8-litre engine, dual front airbags, air-conditioning, remote central locking and 15-inch wheels. The ST misses out on the Q's alloy wheels, leather trimmed steering wheel, power windows, outside temperature gauge and rear spoiler, but is not otherwise disadvantaged.

The suspension is by MacPherson struts at the front with Nissan's clever beam-axle design (also seen in the Maxima) used at the rear. This system combines light weight, simplicity and better wheel location than many independent systems by employing a special linkage system that works similarly to a Watts Link to control lateral suspension movement.

The Pulsar's engine is new, too - or it was at the launch of the sedan in 2000. It employs the usual twin-camshaft, 16-valve design but adds individual ignition coils to each cylinder as well as variable valve timing.

The latter is aimed at helping maximise power spread across the rpm band but an examination of the figures reveals nothing special.

The 1.8-litre has slightly less maximum torque than the Holden Astra and develops it at higher rpm as well, while the maximum power is about the same as everyone else manages.

The rule does not always hold true, but the Pulsar's power figures give an accurate indication of how it actually drives. More of that a little later.

The packaging of the Pulsar hatch is aided by the tallish body height and restricted by the slight shortage of wheelbase compared to other cars in its class.

The slightly higher than normal roof allows passengers to sit up a little straighter, giving a little more leg movement, but in the back the Pulsar remains far from generous if tall people are travelling in the front.

It is noticeably down on its main competitors in this aspect and even suffers as far as boot space is concerned, despite Nissan saying that, at 355 litres, it is up on the previous hatch by 46 litres.

But none of this detracts from the fact Pulsar has a neat pair of front seats, arguably the best in its class, and does not skimp on looking after those travelling at the pointy end.

The driver's seat cushion adjusts via two rotating knobs for height and tilt and, unusual for a Japanese car, provides infinite backrest adjustment - also via rotating knobs.

The general architecture of the interior gives a quite upmarket look - with the two-tone treatment of the dash and a number of seemingly insignificant but in the end handy features.

Among these are the little recess on the top of the dash for temporary storing of lightweight items (this cubby is lidded in the upmarket Q version) and what the British describe as a "curry" hook for holding takeaway food, or a shopping bag.

Unusual for a Japanese car, but maybe in tune with Nissan's seeming desire to add some European feel to the Pulsar, is the location of the indicator stalk on the left of the steering column.

Overall, the Pulsar is a decidedly pleasant small car to sit in, touch and feel. The impression is one of high quality. There's plenty of soft padding - rather than hard, unyielding plastic - to add to those impressions.

Rear-seat legroom might be an issue for some, but mostly it is easily dealt with if the front seat passengers are prepared to accept a little compromise.

On the road, the Pulsar holds its own with a good balance between handling and ride quality, quite accurate and well weighted - if slightly on the light side - steering and a quiet, smooth engine.

Deciding not to mess around with the hatch by offering a 1.6-litre alternative as well helps give the 1.8-litre ST Pulsar a slightly sporting edge.

But as mentioned earlier, the engine really needs to be coaxed to give its best and is not really happy with low-speed work. But get it into its comfort zone - which occurs from around 4000rpm and continues through to just short of 6000rpm - and it propels the hatch with vigour.

The manual five-speed gearbox has well-spaced ratios and slots accurately between ratios. At 100km/h on the freeway, in fifth gear, the 1.8-litre is spinning just short of 3000rpm but the inherent lack of noise and vibration makes the Pulsar feel comfortable.

General road noise and wind noise are low, too - although on some surfaces the tyres will set up a distant but noticeable humming.

At the end of the day though, the ST is no sports car and there is never any doubt that understeer will set in early in the piece if the driver wants to continue pressing on.

With this unmistakable, very predictable characteristic, the hatch is therefore a secure-feeling, trustworthy companion on the road that will always signal when it is being pushed close to its limits.

Taken in the context of its chosen battleground, the Pulsar hatch tends to stand out among most of its peers with appealing style, quality interior and an engine that, though it might not have the best power delivery in its class, is still a 1.8-litre and could never be described as lacking in outright performance.

The back seat might be a little tight on legroom but that, to many, will not even be an issue.

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