The Nissan Pulsar ST is the base grade in the reborn small-car range, yet it is by far the most convincing model overall.
Priced from $19,990 (and at the moment driveaway), the six-speed manual, 1.8-litre entry-level sedan is simple and basic, light and hugely spacious, economical and reasonably punchy. The Nissan Pulsar ST rides quite well, and handles decently, though it ultimately can’t match the depth of ability of more expensive class benchmarks – namely the Mazda 3, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf.
When the ST-L and Ti models, and CVT automatic-equipped versions, start to climb towards those rivals in the mid- to high-$20,000 bracket, the Nissan Pulsar becomes much less competitive.
Reflecting its budget price tag the Nissan Pulsar ST isn’t gushing with standard equipment. The monochromatic audio display and basic air conditioning controls could have come from the old new-millenium Pulsar, with the ST even lacking the USB and iPod connectivity standard on the ST-L and Ti.
Cruise control, a trip computer and power windows are standard, but rear-seat air vents – standard on Ti only – and auto-off headlights miss the cut.
The interior itself is hugely spacious and comfortable, though. Velour-covered front seats are wide and supportive, and rear legroom is among the best in the class.
Further back, the 510-litre boot is also one of the largest in the small-car class, but unlike with most rivals, Nissan only offers a small ski port, not full split-fold rear-seat capability. Luggage-crushing ‘gooseneck’ bootlid hinges are a further disappointment.
At least on the outside the Pulsar ST doesn’t look like a base model, with chrome door handles and 16-inch alloy wheels standard.
Being one of the lightest cars in its class, tipping the scales at 1226kg, the Nissan Pulsar doesn’t suffer from using a smaller engine than most rivals. Producing 96kW of power at 6000rpm, and 174Nm of torque at 4800rpm, the 1.8-litre Pulsar has a torque-to-weight ratio only 2Nm/tonne less than the 2.0-litre Mazda 3.
It helps explain the Nissan Pulsar’s fine urban driveability. Should revs trickle to just above idle it will maintain or increase speed around town on light throttle. Only at higher speeds on hills is the lack of outright grunt exposed; revving at a high 3000rpm at 120km/h in sixth gear, the Pulsar struggles to maintain speed on steep freeway inclines.
The 1.8-litre isn’t a nice-sounding four-cylinder engine, either. It needs to be worked hard when driven enthusiastically, yet the loud and grainy engine note betrays the Pulsar’s otherwise impressive refinement when cruising. Other than some wind noise on the freeway, it is mostly hushed.
Competitive refinement is backed by ultra-competitive ride quality. Using its chubby, 60-aspect 16-inch tyres to maximum effect – generally the thicker the sidewall the better the ride – the Pulsar ST is nicely absorbent over the potholes, cat's eyes and ripples that plague urban roads.
Yet hit a decent-sized undulation at speed, or attack a lumpy country road with enthusiasm, and the Pulsar also demonstrates that it has a fine shock absorber tune. The Nissan is soft, so it floats slightly, yet it always maintains control.
Driving the Pulsar Ti, which gets shallower, 50-aspect 17-inch tyres, confirms that urban ride comfort is reduced dramatically in the top-spec car; it’s more sensitive to small road irregularities especially.
Around town the speed-sensitive electro-mechancial steering system is at its worst. There’s too much freeplay on the centre position, necessitating plenty of guesswork and readjustment on sweeping corners, and the steering itself is slow meaning plenty of arm twirling in shopping centre carparks.
Interestingly it is when the Pulsar is driven harder that its steering gets better. Once the front wheels are loaded up and lock is applied, beyond the on-centre vacancy there’s fine consistency and accuracy when stringing corners together.
Corners also reveal the Nissan to be a safe-handling car – neither sharp and keen to clip apexes, nor dull and unresponsive. Brake late into a bend to get plenty of weight over its nose and it resists understeer reasonably well. Push harder and a lift of the throttle mid corner slews this small sedan into slight oversteer, revealing quite nice front-to-rear chassis balance supported by solid suspension composure.
The manual transmission itself is of the long-throw and slightly rubbery variety, but it doesn’t baulk during quick shifting; it’s preferable to the $2000-optional CVT automatic most buyers will pick.
An impressively subtle yet effective stability control system also highlights that while this Pulsar appears quite basic – and gets the basics right – it also has degrees of engineering sophistication that some competitors, particularly the Koreans, are still grappling with.
Critically, it is possible to have fun in the Nissan Pulsar, something for which the mid-1990s models were renowned, even though the car looks like an evolution of the ultra-dull last Pulsar which sent the nameplate to rest in 2006.
While the Nissan Pulsar ST isn’t as dynamic as the Mazda 3, which costs only $1000 more, it is roomier and rides better. More sophisticated rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf and 2.0-litre Ford Focus can’t match the ultra-sharp $19,990 driveaway pricetag, while the similarly priced Holden Cruze weighs a hefty 140kg more and lacks interior polish.
Being good at most things, but not outstanding in one particular area, marks the Nissan Pulsar ST as a reasonably impressive package overall. Higher-grade models may offer the allure of more equipment, but the car is best as a base model.