Car reviews - Nissan - Pulsar - ST-L
Good value for money, generous rear-seat legroom, big boot, supremely hushed interior around town, more standard safety kit than the car it replaces.
Room for improvement
Steering that feels vague at freeway speeds, sluggish continuously variable automatic transmission, tight rear headroom, no split-fold rear seats.
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13 Mar 2013
By BARRY PARK
Price and equipment
The list of standard equipment for the entry-level Pulsar’s $19,990 asking price – Nissan was at pains to note that this is the same price the car was in 1996 – is quite competitive.
However, our test car was the mid-range ST-L, priced from $23,650 before on-roads, with the optional automatic transmission adding an extra $2250. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard on both the entry-level ST and mid-spec ST-L, while the range-topping Ti, priced from $28,990, is an auto-only proposition.
The list for the entry-level car runs to 16-inch alloys (although the full-size spare wheel sits on a steel rim), single-zone air-conditioning, six-speaker single-CD audio with auxiliary inputs, powered windows and mirrors, a Bluetooth phone connection, adjustable headrests for all seats, and LED tail lamps.
Paying the extra money for the mid-ranger adds features including a 4.3-inch colour screen in the middle of the dash, a USB port hidden away in the centre console, better fabrics on the seats, “premium” interior trim, fog lights, LED accents on the headlights and a boot lip-mounted spoiler. Leather is confined to the steering wheel and the automatic transmission lever’s boot.
Upping to the range-topping Ti adds satellite navigation and leather trim, as well as automatic wipers and xenon headlights.
It is also the only model to get a reversing camera.
The ST-L’s exterior adds to the sense of value for money, with classy-looking chrome-finish features on the door handles and a string of LED-style running lights below the headlights.
Then there’s the Pulsar’s size. It is a lot of metal for the money compared with others in its class, even out-stretching the i30 wagon in its dimensions.
Our test car included $495 metallic paint.
There’s no denying that the Thai-made Pulsar is built down to a price, even in mid-range ST-L specification. Velour-clad seats, abundant hard plastics, the odd bit of painted metal and the faux aluminium-look trim do little to hide the fact.
But Nissan has done something to make things a little more presentable. For instance, there’s a soft-touch dash, and the door trim has cushioning velour trim where the elbow falls.
The functional instrument cluster is standard two-binnacle fare, trimmed in chrome and lit up with a richer-than-it-is white backlight at night. The only pain is a trip computer that insists on reporting fuel use in a confusing kilometres per litre rather than the more easily digestible litres per 100 kilometres. The driver’s manual gives no clues on how to change this.
The steering wheel includes reach and tilt steering that is fairly limited in range, but does allow taller drivers to get comfortable behind the wheel. A small footrest helps.
One confusing point is the boot release button, which sits right alongside the fuel flap release under the dash in front of the driver’s right knee. Thankfully, the fuel filler flap is on the same side of the car as the driver’s door, so if you pull the wrong lever it’s easy to remedy.
Small-item storage is a bit scarce, so stashing a mobile phone, wallet and purse is a bit of a challenge.
The alternatives are the small door pockets, the rather shallow glovebox, a small flip-up cubby on the centre stack, or the lidded cupholders in between the front seats.
A lidded centre console bin is set well back from the front seats, and requires an uncomfortable twist to access. Plugging something into the USB port hidden away inside it is definitely best left for when the Pulsar is parked. Steering wheel-mounted audio controls that interact with music stored on a smartphone are a big help in this respect.
Rear-seat legroom is generous and at the better end of the class. A full-size adult will have no problems fitting in behind a tall adult in either of the two front seats, although the sloping roofline over the rear pews eats into head room. Storage is limited to a pair of seat-back pockets, and a small bottle holder recessed into either door. The centre armrest folds down to reveal an extra pair of cupholders.
Where the interior falls down, though, is in versatility. The Pulsar has a big 510-litre boot that outclasses its competitors, but buy any flat-pack furniture and the lack of a split-fold rear seat will have you paying extra for delivery. The centre armrest hides a narrow ski port, but it is little compensation.
Engine and transmission
Nissan has fitted the Pulsar with a 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine as the default powerplant across the range.
On paper, it pushes only 96kW and 174Nm to the front wheels, compared with the Corolla’s 100kW and 175Nm, and the stronger-selling Mazda3’s 108kW/182Nm mix from its older 2.0-litre engine, or 113kW/194Nm from its new, more powerful and fuel-efficient Skyactiv mill. Even Hyundai’s i30 outshines it with 110kW/178Nm from its 1.8-litre engine.
While the opposition includes a diesel engine among its options, the Pulsar does not.
But the Pulsar’s more minimalist performance numbers combine with a lithe 1280-kilogram kerb weight to deliver what turns out to be reasonable on-road performance.
However, tap the engine’s performance and it becomes a bit rowdy as revs rise to meet the challenge. The increased noise is associated with a similar lift in the amount of vibration spreading out from the engine bay.
The automatic of choice for Pulsar is a continuously variable transmission, which holds the engine at its optimum revs for performance or fuel efficiency. CVTs are fitted to quite a few Nissan models these days, and cars such as the X-Trail soft-roader and even the Murano crossover show that the gearbox can be a good match for city driving.
The version bolted onto the side of the Pulsar’s mill doesn’t make as good an impression.
In stop-start city traffic, the gearbox is slow to respond to the throttle. A gap opening in the lane beside the Pulsar becomes too much of a challenge when you press the throttle and the CVT’s pulleys hesitate while the electronic brains work out the best ratios and apply them, not helped by software that attempts to smooth out throttle inputs. It also makes low-speed maneuvering quite tricky.
The lack of low-rev pulling power on hills will also give the impression the clutch is slipping as the engine chases the speedo as soon as a slope appears.
The transmission has a sports mode that is set using a button mounted on the side of the Pulsar’s floor-mounted gear shifter. It keep the 1.8-litre engine in its power sweet spot, but in all other senses nothing else changes.
We recorded an average of 15.1km/L on the trip computer in our week behind the Pulsar’s wheel with a fair bit of long-legged travel thrown into the mix. That translates to about 6.6L/100km on corrected data, compared with an official combined average of 6.7L/100km.
Emissions are rated at 160 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre, which is enough to earn the Pulsar a 7.5 out of 10 for greenhouse emissions.
Ride and handling
At low speeds, the Pulsar feels like a much richer car. Ride on the 16-inch wheels is surprisingly supple and quiet, giving a level of refinement that is surprising in this class.
As speeds rise, though, the experience sours a bit. The suspension will slap over the smaller imperfections on the road surface, and bigger bumps transfer quite harshly into the cabin.
Road roar from the Continental rubber fitted to our test car increased considerably over coarse chip surfaces at speed, and stones kicked up by the tyres rattled around the rear wheel wells, highlighting where costs were cut.
The electrically assisted rack and pinion steering is light enough in city driving, and weights up as speeds rise to give an acceptable level of feedback. However, at freeway speeds the steering needs constant small corrections to keep it pointing in the right direction, which can become tiresome on a long trip.
The Pulsar is no dynamic leader. Body roll and a slow-to-recover suspension set-up mean quick changes in direction lack the responsiveness of the cut-price small-class leader, the Mazda3.
The engine’s class-lagging performance won’t often worry the Pulsar’s stability control system. Deliberately push it too hard into a corner and the car’s electronic brains allow for the nose to run wide as the front wheels lose grip, dissolving into easily controlled understeer.
Disc brakes front and rear provide enough stopping power without being grabby.
Safety and servicing
There’s no official independent crash test rating out yet for the Pulsar -- the Tiida it replaces was rated only four stars out of five -- but default safety across the range runs to a class-competitive six airbags, stability control and anti-lock brakes.
Front seatbelts have height adjustors, and every seat has an adjustable headrest.
Nissan gives the Pulsar a standard three-year, 100,000-kilometre warranty, and even throws in some roadside assistance should the Pulsar break down.
The car-maker offers six years of capped-price servicing, ranging from $212.51 for minor work to a worst-case $529.05.
More buyers than ever are tipping their money into small cars, so having some attributes that stand out in an increasingly competitive and crowded slice of the market is paramount.
In this instance, Pulsar can trade on its interior space, and around-town refinement. If space is a premium, then you’re going to have to be prepared to make some compromises, including interior versatility and longer-haul comfort.
Mazda3 Maxx Sport sedan:
, From $26,490 plus on-road costs.
Australia’s most popular car among private buyers, and a repeat performance best-seller. A bit thirsty in petrol form, but little beats it for driver enjoyment. Like the Corolla, this model is in its heyday with a new one expected next year.
Toyota Corolla Conquest sedan:
, From $26,490 plus on-road costs.
Dowdy styling and a dull interior disguise a car that ticks a lot of boxes without standing out. New version mirroring sharper-looking 11th-generation hatch due next year, so think hard about wanting one.
Holden Cruze SRi sedan:
, From $25,040 plus on-road costs. Deep in run-out mode ahead of significantly refreshed model due in April. Turbocharged 1.4-litre engine and better rear suspension add some sparkle to the drive, but still not up to the Mazda3’s benchmark.
, MAKE/MODEL: Nissan Pulsar ST-L automatic
, ENGINE: 1.8-litre 4-cyl twin-cam petrol
, LAYOUT: FWD, transverse
, POWER: 96kW @ 6000rpm
, TORQUE: 174Nm @ 4800rpm
, TRANSMISSION: Continuously variable transmission
, 0-100km: N/A
, TOP SPEED: N/A
, FUEL: 6.7L/100km (CVT) 7.2L/100km (man)
, CO2: 160g/km (CVT) 169 (man)
, L/W/H/W’BASE: 4615/1760/1495/2700mm
, WEIGHT: 1236kg
, SUSPENSION f/r: Struts/Torsion beam
, STEERING: Electric rack and pinion
, BRAKES f/r: Discs/discs
, PRICE: From $25,900 plus on-roads
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