Nissan goes back to the future and brings us an honest to goodness fast hatchback. Jonathan Crouch gets nostalgic.
Ten Second Review
The sporty Pulsar is back! This time Nissan has done without all-wheel drive and rally styling and instead given us a lower-key but high efficiency quick hatch, in this case powered by a 190PS 1.6-litre DIG-T turbo engine. It's available in a couple of trims and is one of the more discreet fast hatches.
Nissan was last here way back in 2000. By 'here', we're talking about selling a recognisable quick hatchback, in that case the Almera GTI. After that the Almera was facelifted and got a bit boring before Nissan decided that it didn't need fast hatches any more and started selling us all sorts of wacky crossovers and SUVs. So is Nissan's return to the hatch sector with the Pulsar an admission that it got that call wrong? After all, despite the encouraging sales of the Qashqai, it still only peaks at around 50,000 units sold per year, against around 90,000 for the Ford Focus.
The 1.6-litre DIG-T engine has been the secret weapon that's powered the most underrated Nissan Juke, so plumbing it into the front of a Pulsar was always going to make an entertaining hatch, maybe a little on the warm side rather than hot. Still, it more than merits your attention.
Those of you with longer memories might remember the Pulsar GTi-R, launched in Japan in 1990. It boasted a 227bhp turbocharged version of the famous SR20EDET engine used in the 200SX driftmobile. It deployed its power through a five-speed gearbox and all-wheel drive to quite devastating effect. Born for rallying, the GTi-R also made a fantastic, if slightly fragile, road car. This time round, the sportiest Pulsar hatch sends drive to the front wheels only and makes 189bhp, or 190PS metric.
It makes this peak power output at 5,600rpm, so it enjoys a few revs, although the turbocharger starts developing its 240Nm torque maximum all the way from 1,500rpm through to 5,200rpm; one reason why this DIG-T engine is so easy to drive. It's engineered to provide exceptional flexibility at low engine speeds and in doing so, delivers performance that outshines rivals units with six gear transmissions.
Against the clock, expect 62mph to arrive in around 7.8 seconds with a top speed of around 135mph. Riding on Nissan's state of the art CMF2 chassis, a modular system that's very similar in its concept to the ingenious Volkswagen MQB platform, the Pulsar's lowered and stiffened and rides on either 17-inch alloys in the Acenta model - or 18-inch rims if you choose the Tekna range-topper.
Design and Build
Nissan has given the 1.6 DIG-T models a little bit of tinsel to set them apart from the less sporty cars in the Pulsar range. They can be identified by their distinctive alloy wheels, finished in a diamond cut two-tone black and silver and a sportier headlamp design which comes with a black finish to the bezel offering a greater contrast to the chrome finished projector. At the rear, a chrome exhaust finisher is fitted as standard.
The interior features higher quality materials than we've seen on Nissan hatches to date, and there seems to have been a concerted effort to create a common look and feel across typefaces and grains on the dash. It's certainly not what you'd call adventurous though, especially from the company that brought us the Juke cabin. Again, the impression is that everything has been deliberately toned down. Look hard and you'll spot Qashqai items like the steering wheel, clocks, gearlever and central display. Thanks to the longest wheelbase in the class at 2,700mm, the Pulsar offers considerably more rear legroom and shoulder room than its sector rivals. Indeed, with 692mm of rear knee room, the Pulsar is more spacious than many cars from the class above yet at 4,385mm long, it shouldn't prove a problem to park.
Market and Model
Allow a budget of around £19,000 for this car once you've allowed for dealer deals and a few well chosen extras, which seems good value given the performance on offer. Both variants include a unique trim finisher that extends to the full width of the dashboard, while alloy sports pedals give a sportier look. The Acenta model gets equipment Forward Emergency Braking, automatic lights and wipers and Nissan's ingenious i-Key system.
At the top of the range, the Tekna gets distinctive white stitching on the three-spoke steering wheel and leather seats. Plus there's Nissan's 'Safety Shield Technologies' package, including Forward Emergency Braking, Moving Object Detection, Lane Departure Warning and Blind Spot Warning for the ultimate in passenger protection. Both models are well kitted out for more common safety equipment, with six airbags, wheel-mounted audio controls, a tyre pressure monitoring system, anti lock brakes backed up by electronic brakeforce distribution and a stability control system that also includes Nissan's Active Trace Control, which keeps you from deviating from your steered path.
Cost of Ownership
Nissan has come a long way in terms of engine efficiency compared to that last hot Pulsar, the GTi-R. Where that car would struggle to better 20mpg on a good day, the latest 1.6-litre DIG-T model gets 39.2mpg on the combined cycle, with carbon dioxide emissions pared back to a more than reasonable 138g/km. These figures are for the Acenta with its 17-inch alloys. Apparently the bigger rims of the Tekna model result in marginally higher emissions.
As well as fitting stop/start systems, reducing engine frictional losses, optimising gear ratios and reducing weight where possible, Nissan has also devoted a great deal of attention to the Pulsar's aerodynamics. Residual values are another area where the Pulsar will have to excel, but it's off to a good start including enough equipment to prevent buyers from needing to dilute their residuals by adding expensive options. What the 1.6-litre DIG-T cars don't have on their side is a particularly overt image. Maybe that will come with later NISMO editions.
Fit a 1.6-litre DIG-T engine to a Nissan Pulsar and you end up with quite an unusual vehicle. What's more, it's one that doesn't have too many absolutely nailed-on direct rivals, so in that regard at least, Nissan have boxed clever. The engine is an underrated gem, which you'll know if you've driven a Qashqai or Juke, and in the Pulsar it delivers a car that's quick but which doesn't draw a huge amount of attention to itself. It also results in some very respectable economy figures, making this a very solid choice if you want to cover ground quickly and discreetly but don't like diesel engines. We can think of quite a few customers who'd like that sort of package.
Of course, there are more overt claims for your pound when spending almost £20,000 on a quick hatch, but choosing the Pulsar shows that you've done a certain amount of homework and value something a little different and that you don't need to be seen to be trying too hard. In its own quiet way, that makes this 1.6 DIG-T model an unexpectedly attractive proposition.