The new Pulsar proves to be robust and dependable transport, but a little lacking in character
Nissan's small/medium front-wheel drive car has changed its name frequently over the past few years. It was the Sunny which was then joined by the Pulsar. They merged under the one name, Sentra, and most recently are the Pulsar again.
Pulsar evokes connotations of pulses, as well it might given the word's meaning: "cosmic source of regularly and rapidly pulsating radio signals" (Concise Oxford Dictionary).
There have been Pulsars to quicken the pulse, like the GTi-R four-wheel drive and its front-drive sibling the GTi. There have also been mundane ones, like the lacklustre 1200cc five-door of the mid-1980s with its impossibly high gearing that made fifth superfluous in city running.
I've always liked the Pulsar and its Sentra forebear. The late-1980s Sentra five-door and sedan was a fine car for its day, throwing down the gauntlet mightily to Toyota's standard-setting Corolla. On gravel the Sentra set small car standards with rock-steady handling. I ran gaudily signwritten Auto Trader Sentra Sportwagons for years. They gripped the road well, had finely-sorted handling and were stupendous load-carriers with unbeatable reliability. Their only real shortcoming was the massively-heavy, non-power-assisted steering.
The last Pulsar, launched as a Sentra, provided memorable driving on deserted, wintry South Island roads on the model's media introduction. It was fast, agile and handled well. Through the Haast and on the winding roads of the interior, it was enjoyable company. We had a great time that day, and subsequent testing nearer home confirmed my view that - Corolla aside - the Pulsar set the small/medium mainstream standard. Even the more recently-introduced Ford Laser with essentially similar five-door styling had its work cut out to equal the nimble Nissan.
So I approached the new Pulsar LS sedan with anticipation and enthusiasm. Sadly, it disappointed me.
Sentra/Pulsar four-door sedan styling has always been stolid, but the new car's looks don't ring any bells with me. It's like a smaller Maxima, complete with chrome grille detailing, and in the metal looks taller and less sleek than it does in photographs.
The test LS's cabin was upholstered in grey velour, in a type of fabric that looks like it will pill but almost certainly won't. There's a similar fabric in my 100,000km Toyota Corona EX, and it's as good as new, and very hard-wearing.
Then Pulsar's cabin is roomy: 25mm wider than the old model's and with a minimumn of 22mm more headroom. It's a pleasnt cabin, with comfortable seats and an airy feeling. It was particularly popular with both front and rear-seat passengers. There's good storage space; cup-holders; electrically-wound windows. In fact, the Pulsar - even in LX form - is comprehensively-equipped. It has a good quality Compact Disc player, and air-conditioning is standard. If you're not sold on the benefits of dual airbags, ABS anti-skid braking, and seatbelt pre-tensioners, you can save $1600 and get the same creature comforts in the LX.
The test LS was a four-speed automatic: three speeds and an overdrive. It shifts smoothly enough on a light throttle, but like many automatics in smallish-engined cars becomes jerkier when you're using the throttle hard. Again, like many automatics in this type of car, you often find yourself wishing you were a ratio lower when pressing on in winding country.
Nissan's brochure assures potential buyers that the DOHC 1600cc engine is very impressive. Certainly it looks so on paper, with output of 87kW at 6000rpm and 143Nm of peak torque generated at 4400rpm. Ten years ago figures like that were the stuff of high-performance 2.0 litre twin cams.
But we were disappointed with the power delivery. Winning the drag race at traffic lights was a virtual impossibility. There was a pause and a collecting of resources before the car launched and the newly-minted Hakkinen clone next to you left you sitting there like Schumacher, thankful only that neither Zonta nor Fisichella was starting behind you. The Pulsar - at least in automatic form (we haven't driven the manual) - lacks low-down punch. That initial lack of thrust apart, the Pulsar auto is relaxing and comfortable commuter transport.
Once under way, it cruises smoothly and quickly. The engine is better higher in the rev range, and at highway speeds it gives the Pulsar the legs for quick point-to-point open road driving.
We managed only 26 miles per gallon in a mix of commuting and motorway running. The fuel gauge needle dropped more quickly than we'd have liked. We suspect the car may have been running a little rich.
Handling is light and there's good feedback through the steering. We felt the car might have been happier with tyres wider than the 175s fitted to the test car, though they provided unshakable grip and failsafe roadholding on dry roads. They were predictable in the wet.
But the car has a tendency to understeer more strongly than expected when pressing-on on winding roads. Initially we found ourselves missing apexes and running wide on exits, and had to increase the amount of steering lock we were using. The old front-drive technique of a strong turn-in earlier than usual worked well in quick driving on demanding roads.
A supple, bump-absorbing ride is definitely a Pulsar strong point, adding to the car's appeal as comfortable daily transportation. Wind and road noise levels are also low.
All-round it's a comfortable, well-appointed sedan, well-built, roomy and a good commuter and highway conveyance. Nissan's traditional solid build and reliability are beyond question and the Pulsar sedan should provide long-serving, robust and dependable transportation.
We just wish it had more character, a little more of the spark that made its forebears as much fun to drive as they were dependable. We could live with the Pulsar day-in and day-out as commuter transport, but we couldn't see ourselves choosing it for a quick, press-on blast in the country.
Words and photographs: Mike Stock.