The Nissan Pulsar is back after a six-year absence – with a 16-year-old $19,990 price. The company has wound back the clock and pumped up the level of equipment in its biggest effort yet to reclaim the small-car crown.
It may seem a distant memory but the Pulsar was Australia’s favourite small car in 1996; now the company wants a chance at the top spot as the biggest selling car in the country.
The Mazda3 knocked the Holden Commodore off the podium two years ago, but the Toyota Corolla is favourite to win this year’s new-car sales race given that a new model has just been released and the Mazda3 is in runout.
Enter from stage left the new Nissan Pulsar and we have a small-car scrap on our hands. The Pulsar made a welcome return to showrooms this week after the boring box-shaped Tiida hatch that failed to meet sales expectations – despite a steamy TV ad by Sex In the City’s Kim Kattrall.
Nissan dealers were so furious the Pulsar name was dropped that it pleaded with Japan to reverse the decision. But the Tiida name stayed and sales tanked, so it became a rental car fleet favourite, generally known as the last resort for car sales.
By Nissan’s own admission, 71 per cent of small car buyers still remember the Pulsar name. Why it was ever dropped in the first place will remain a mystery.
In the meantime, Nissan has high hopes for the Pulsar. The company wants to quadruple sales – but in fact it will need to sell 15 times as many small Pulsars as it sold Tiidas last year if it is to overtake the Mazda3 or Toyota Corolla. Good luck with that.
The last time Nissan sold a Pulsar for $19,990 it was considered a luxury to have one airbag, a CD player, air-conditioning and central locking (although no remote control button).
As a sign of the times – and how much buyers get for their money these days – the new Pulsar comes loaded with six airbags, stability control, cruise control, Bluetooth phone connectivity, remote central locking – and alloy wheels instead of plastic hubcaps.
“Australia is the most competitive market in the free world,” the boss of Nissan Australia, William Peffer, says. “At this price, the only inflation is in the tyres.”
But the Nissan Pulsar is not perfect in its most basic “ST” guise. It inexplicably misses out on a couple of key features. On the $19,990 headline act there is no USB connection, no Bluetooth audio streaming, and no rear parking sensors. Metallic paint is a $495 option.
The back seats don’t fold and the exposed “goose neck” hinges impinge on boot space. At least there is 510 litres of cargo capacity, and Nissan deserves kudos for retaining a full-size spare tyre in an era of space-savers. Oh, and it’s an alloy wheel.
The mid-grade model adds larger alloy wheels, rear sensors, a colour audio display, a USB socket and a few other touches. But you have to climb to the range-topping model to get Bluetooth streaming, a rear camera, leather upholstery and sensor-key start.
Meanwhile, Nissan still has one of the dearest fixed-price servicing campaigns; each service is dearer than the industry average and requires a visit to the dealer every six months.
The Nissan Pulsar isn’t a technology showcase. Its engine lacks direct injection, and idle stop-start. There is no digital speed display. Instead, Nissan has spent money on some bright-work and soft-touches to give the Pulsar a slightly upmarket feel.
The big chrome grille on all models is bordered by LED daytime running lights; there are LEDs in the tail-lights as well. At least the CVT auto is a highlight, with a wider ratio than others of this type for better acceleration at low speeds and fuel economy at high speeds. It adds $2250 to the price.
The Pulsar is roomy, especially in the back seat which has plenty of kneeroom and a flat floor. The fabrics have a plush feel but seem hard wearing. Most materials have a quality feel, even though they look plain compared to the Toyota Corolla and Hyundai i30.
For example, the elbow pad on the door handle is fabric, there is also soft padding on the centre console. Oddment storage is minimal, however, and the Pulsar could do with bigger door pockets, a bigger centre console and more storage forward of the gear lever.
Visibility all around is good thanks to large windows and convex mirrors on both sides of the car. Unfortunately, access to the boot is only a ski port, the back seats don’t fold flat for a larger load space.
Independent authority ANCAP is yet to publish a crash safety rating for the Pulsar, and it would be unwise to assume five stars because Nissan has disappointed before (the current generation Nissan X-Trail was four stars when its twin under the skin Dualis was five).
But all the early signs are good: six airbags, stability control and a big body should equate to relatively strong crash protection. Check the ANCAP website in a couple of months for an updated score.
In a word: good. The steering is light and smooth, with a relatively tight turning circle. The engine is responsive, especially when matched to the CVT auto. The suspension soaks up bumps and thumps from the daily grind with ease. The steering feels predictable and secure in corners – whether on the open road in the suburban sprawl.
In general terms, the Nissan Pulsar is not astounding – but it’s more than competent. Call it above average. Based on a brief preview drive I would rank the Nissan Pulsar ahead of the Toyota Corolla and the Hyundai i30 – but not ahead of the Mazda3. Check back later for a back-to-back test.
The new Pulsar is a welcome return to form for a familiar name, but Nissan needs to address some of the missing necessities in the standard car – their absence takes some of the shine off the sharp $19,990 headline price.
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling
Price: from $19,990
Made in: Thailand
Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder, 96kW/174Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 6-speed CVT auto
Standard features: Six airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability control, cruise control, MP3 and CD player with four speakers, Bluetooth phone connectivity, steering wheel audio controls, remote central locking, alloy wheels.
Price: from $21,490
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cyl petrol, 104kW/176Nm
Transmission: 5-speed manual or 6-speed auto, FWD
Price: from $20,990
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cyl petrol, 110kW/178Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 6-speed auto, FWD
Price: from $20,330
Engine: 2.0-ltre 4-cyl petrol, 108kW/182Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 5-speed auto, FWD