A famous nameplate returns to make a more convincing small-car case for Nissan.
The Nissan Pulsar is back.
Plenty of Australians have missed the badge – which still has a 71 per cent recognition rate in Australia despite the nameplate taking a seven-year sabbatical from the market.
The Nissan Pulsar replaces the Tiida that has 56 per cent recognition and has cost Nissan some popularity in the small-car market, and would find itself in the Handbook of What Not to Do in Automotive Marketing (Chapter: Changing popular car names).
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The Nissan Pulsar was last sold in 2006, but the starting price tag for the new model – available initially in sedan form, with hatch to follow mid year – is the same as what the model cost back in the mid Nineties: $19,990.
You get more metal for your money these days, too. Nissan’s rival for the Mazda3, Corolla, Focus and company now stretches to 4.6 metres nose to tail. The Pulsar’s body is also wider, countering feedback that buyers didn’t appreciate the Tiida’s tall and narrow proportions.
Nissan hasn’t been inefficient with the increased dimensions. Another 30mm of shoulder width has been liberated in the rear where passengers – courtesy of one of the longest wheelbases in the class (2700mm) – will find vast leg space and a healthy amount of headroom.
Further back, the 510-litre boot beats the capacities of both Nissan’s own (outgoing) large car, the Maxima, and the current (VE) Commodore.
Three downsides, though, are gooseneck hinges that can pinch luggage, the lack of a boot release button either on the bootlid or the ST’s keyfob (it’s on the dash) and seatbacks that don’t fold down to improve the sedan’s ability to carry longer items.
When it comes to cylinder capacity, there are just 1.8 litres under the bonnet of the Nissan Pulsar, which is made in Thailand. Here, it follows the Corolla in keeping away from the 2.0-litres that are common to the class or the burgeoning smaller-capacity four-cylinders that employ turbochargers to maintain performance while attempting to improve fuel efficiency.
While the Corolla’s four now edges just clear of 100kW, the Pulsar’s unit, which features dual variable valve timing, produces 96kW with torque rated at 174Nm.
Accelerating in the ST with the standard six-speed manual, the Pulsar certainly doesn’t feel brisk. But while momentum takes a little time to build up, the engine keeps things rolling along nicely once up to speed.
There’s some notchiness as you palm the gearlever between the six gates, though the ratios are well spaced and a well-engineered clutch pedal action ensures changing gears doesn’t become a reluctant or overly frequent chore.
At higher speeds, the engine gets a bit boomy in the upper part of the rev range – while a switch to the Ti model featuring a continuously variable (belt and pulley) transmission (CVT) also reveals the manual’s top gear is lower geared than the CVT’s (artificial ratio): 2750rpm versus 1800rpm at 110km/h.
Refinement, then, is most impressive in CVT versions of the new Nissan Pulsar, though wind noise and tyre roar are well suppressed even in the manual version.
Unlike some examples of the CVT breed that can bog a vehicle down off the mark or from very low speeds, the Pulsar’s version employs a sub-planetary gearset to help make it relatively quick to get underway, and it contributes to smooth progress.
It also brings the best official fuel consumption figures for the Pulsar – 6.7L/100km versus 7.0L/100km for the manual – though the CVT isn’t perfect. There can be a slight boomy resonance at times, and the more linear rise and fall of revs – as the CVT’s pulley system expands and contracts to match engine and road speed without using excessive revs – brings that characteristic slipping-clutch sound that isn’t endearing to all.
The Nissan Pulsar also won’t trouble the likes of the Mazda3, Focus or even the Corolla as a small car that will adequately entertain those buyers who prioritise handling enjoyment. (The return of the SSS badge in mid 2013 – in hatch form only – is intriguing, though.)
The steering is a tad vacant on centre, though at least it’s consistently weighted and the heft itself is well judged.
For motorists after a small car that is sufficiently composed through curves but brings relaxed driving through a pleasantly supple ride, however, the Nissan Pulsar excels.
The Ti is the best-equipped variant, of course, extending standard features over the ST and mid-spec ST-L with dual-zone air-conditioning, satellite navigation and reverse-view camera.
Electrically adjustable seats aren’t part of the mix, though, and while the Ti’s leather seats are comfortable we found the ST’s cloth versions even better – with a perfect balance of firmness and plushness.
Both front and rear, the under-thigh cushions of the ST seem slightly more supportive. The ST, though, surprisingly misses out on both a USB input and Bluetooth audio streaming.
The cheap-feeling roof lining is the main thing that goes against the general positive perception of quality in a cabin that is mostly helpful with storage options (could be a more ideal place on centre console for a mobile).
A sense of high build quality is also there when you hear the solid thud as the Pulsar’s doors are shut.
Solidity, in fact, is a good word to describe the new Nissan Pulsar.
The name alone will be enough to guarantee better success than its predecessor, but the Pulsar has more than a badge among its virtues.