Car reviews - Nissan - Pulsar - ST-L
Zingy engine, compact dimensions, roomy interior, fuel economy, zippy manoeuvrability, low base price
Room for improvement
Remote steering, expensive ST-L specification, engine boom, tyre/road noise intrusion, no audio streaming, underwhelming cabin ambience
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5 Aug 2013
Price and equipment
THE LIFE and times of the Nissan Pulsar makes for some intriguing reading.
Few would argue the two best were the 1987 N13 and the 1991 N14 series, putting the Japanese at the vanguard of the small-car class – in Australia at least.
Subsequent models sold strongly but languished in mediocrity, as rivals showed real engineering enterprise to improve the breed.
Nissan then abandoned Pulsar altogether, got creative by pitching the light-car-based C11 Tiida in the lower end of the class while fielding the pioneering Dualis/Qashqai as a quasi-small-car/SUV crossover above it, and hit the jackpot the world over.
Except in Australia – where the Tiida tanked against the likes of the larger and more refined Mazda3. But Nissan isn’t about to build a Pulsar just for us.
Solution? Rebadge the larger US B17 Sentra and second-gen C12 Tiida as ‘Pulsar’ Down Under. Brilliant!And it’s worked too – so far, anyway. Fleet and private buyers alike have flocked to Nissan’s newest, lured in by slick styling, low pricing, and that Pulsar badge magic.
Is nostalgia enough though? Here we look at the $22,490 ST-L Hatch manual – over $2K more than the better-equipped Mazda3 Neo, and more expensive than the only slightly less feature-packed Volkswagen Golf 90 TSI Trendline.
Perhaps one of the more questionable value propositions in recent memory, buyers score front fog lights, a rear spoiler, back-seat centre armrest, colour console screen, USB/iPod connectivity, and a few other fripperies over the base $18,990 ST.
The spec sheet also includes cruise control, four-speaker audio with an auxiliary port and steering wheel-mounted controls, a Bluetooth phone connection and 16-inch alloy wheels.
In isolation – i.e. away from a Golf, Mazda3, Focus, i30 or Cerato – the Pulsar’s cabin presentation and ambience is a big step forward from the bland and utilitarian Tiida’s.
The dashboard is neatly designed, with a pleasing symmetry to the layout, and topped off by squishy touch plastics and some interesting trim patterns – at least in the ST-L as tested.
Lots of side glass, wide opening doors, ample ventilation, and a perched-up seating position (rising up to nosebleed standards in the rear) further underline the Nissan’s suitability as a modern-day urban runabout.
In ST-L trim, the materials are subdued but classy, with excellent instrument dials (but no digital speedo), and switches and buttons that are as logical to use as they are within easy reach.
There’s also a fair amount of space front and rear (with legroom capitalising on the Tiida’s impressive length), plenty of width, and tons of head space too.
A bit more cushion depth in all seating positions would be appreciated however, but otherwise the Pulsar’s height and girth make it an ideal compact small car.
Child-seat anchorage points directly behind the rear backrest is a further bonus.
But the ST-L’s interior look and feel is not one of a $22,490 car – especially if you’re sat in the back. Has Nissan looked inside a Golf lately? The boot is deep and wide (thanks to a space-saver spare) but not very long, while there is too much road and tyre noise intrusion.
This is a low-priced C-segment hatch, and it shows all too readily in this mid-spec version.
Engine and transmission
A lusty and robust-feeling unit, the new-generation 1.8-litre twin-cammer is one of the Pulsar’s real plus points, providing plenty of oomph provided the driver is ready with the revs.
Indeed, floor it and the Nissan’s performance seems stronger than its mere 1796cc capacity suggests, pulling forward with surprising vigour, not running out of puff until it is well beyond the 6500rpm redline.
But the engine becomes boomy above 4000rpm, sending vibrations through the pedals and floorpan, severely undermining the Pulsar’s refinement.
Furthermore, despite its six forward gears, the 1.8 is working relatively hard at 2450rpm at 100km/h in sixth, so it never feels properly relaxed as a cruiser.
We averaged around 8.2L/100km, so at least that’s a welcome bit of news, highlighting the intrinsic efficiency of Nissan’s new small-car engine.
But the shift itself is a bit hit-and-miss, feeling loose and a tad vague. But not as much as the steering.
Ride and handling
Here, singularly, is the Pulsar’s least impressive characteristic.
No matter at what speed, the steering never feels properly weighted or sufficiently connected to the front wheels.
This is OK around town, where a tight turning circle for easy manoeuvrability is always a bonus. But at speed, whether on smooth bitumen or over gravel surfaces, the driver is forced to continuously correct. This makes the car feel nervous and unsettled.
Similarly, at slower speeds, the ride on the 195/60 R16 Bridgestone Ecopia tyres is fine. There isn’t much suspension travel over big bumps, the Pulsar takes most road irregularities in its stride.
But through faster corners there is a floatiness that – combined with the vague steering – quickly becomes undesirable.
This is one of the least pleasant new cars to drive on rural Australian roads we have encountered in a long time.
Good points? On smooth surfaces the car corners with a predictable attitude.
The brakes are on the money, especially on gravel roads, with the Pulsar hauling up straight and true. And this car is a cinch to park.
Safety and servicing
While Nissan offers fixed-price servicing, the warranty is only for three years while service intervals are at an inconvenient six months.
From an ANCAP crash-test rating point of view, the hatch hasn’t yet been tested, but the sedan scores five stars. All versions get six airbags.
Even in the context of a direct Tiida replacement, the latest Nissan small car feels a little disappointing compared to the Golf, Mazda3, Focus, Corolla, Cerato and i30.
The ST-L hatch is, to our minds, a little too expensive and noisy, while the dynamically-minded will note steering feel inferior to the opposition.
If you like the idea of a Pulsar – and let’s face it, it ought to be reliable, dependable, and economical, with decent cabin space and a strong turn of speed – then grab a cheaper ST. Nissan are doing some very sharp deals at the moment.
Alternately, wait for the funky Nissan Juke mini SUV due in October, or check out the likeable (though slightly more expensive) Nissan Dualis instead.
Serviceable transport it may be, but as a Pulsar nameplate torchbearer, the 2013 rebirth won’t go down in history as one of the better examples.
Volkswagen Golf 90TSI (From $21,490 plus on-roads).
The global benchmark for quality, the iconic Golf is the sweetest, quietest and most rewarding small car on the market today, backed up by a punchy 1.4-litre turbo and slick six-speed gearbox. Watch those service costs though.
Ford LW II Focus Ambiente (From $20,290 plus on-roads).
A bit more power, and extra ratio, and cruise control is what the roomy base Focus needs to be a class leader, for the combination of chassis dynamics and refinement is unbeatable at this price.
Mazda3 Neo (From $20,330 plus on-roads).
Excellent value and lacking for nothing in terms of power, dynamics, and equipment, the base Neo is a great all-rounder – though it can get noisy and requires six-monthly service intervals. Replacement imminent.
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