Graham 'Smithy' Smith reviews the used Nissan Pulsar SSS (N15) 1995-2001, its fine points, its flaws and what to watch for when you're buying it.
The SSS badge is a proud one that dates back to the 1960s when Datsun, as it was then known, applied it to its sporty sedans.
Cars like the Bluebird SSS were standout tearaways back then, and the most recent SSS, the N15 Pulsar, was a similar standout in its time. The Pulsar SSS was the performance leader in its class.
The N14 model that preceded the 1995 N15 was popular with young buyers who wanted the day-to-day practicality of a hatch without giving away anything in the way of performance and handling. The SSS was the answer to their prayers.
The N15 Pulsar was an all-new, fifth-generation, model released in 1995. It was longer and wider than its popular predecessor, with a longer wheelbase, which resulted in more leg and shoulder room from front and rear seat passengers.
Bigger, and better, the Pulsar was yet another Japanese car that could best be described as bland when it came to its looks.
Round, and a little dumpy, the N15 sedan was pleasant if not overly attractive, but the SSS wagon-styled five-door hatch took some time to get used to.
It was hard to know whether it should be called a hatch or a wagon, because it more closely resembled a wagon than anything else. One of the more cynical motor noters of the time described it as a “transvestite bread van”.
Quirky looks aside the SSS was a serious small sporting hatch with a handy power-to-weight ratio of 10.87 kg/kW in its base form, which was the key to its zippy performance.
Power came from Nissan’s SR20DE 2.0-litre double overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine that boasted four valves per cylinder and fuel injection. At its peak it put out 105 kW at 6400 revs and 179 Nm at 4000 revs.
That was enough to have the SSS racing to 100 km/h in a little over eight seconds. It would account for the standing 400-metre sprint in about 16.5 seconds, and reach a top speed in excess of 180 km/h. It was indeed a hot hatch.
All of that power was transmitted to the front wheels through a slick shifting five-speed manual gearbox. There was also the option of a four-speed auto, but quite why anyone would want one in a hot hatch like the SSS escapes me.
The Pulsar’s suspension was a mix of MacPherson Strut at the front and a multilink beam at the back. There were coil springs and anti-roll bars at both ends. Handling was sharp and precise.
The steering was rack and pinion with power assistance, and the brakes were discs all round with ABS standard.
The sporty picture was finished off with attractive alloy wheels, which came standard with the SSS.
Inside there were vibrant new colours for the cloth trim, along with a raft of neat standard features, including a premium four-speaker sound system with CD player, air-conditioning, sports seats, and power windows.
A minor Series II update freshened it in 1998 and that can be identified by a revised mesh grille with the Nissan badge fitted to a centre vertical bar.
ON THE LOT
The SSS is a popular car with younger enthusiasts who appreciate its blend of performance and economy, and that appeal keeps values on the up.
Expect to pay between $10,000 and $15,500 for the earlier models, add $500 for the later Series II.
IN THE SHOP
There’s not much that goes wrong with the N15 SSS. The body remains tight with the result that there are few squeaks and rattles, the interior trim wears well, and the plastics are good quality that don’t fall apart.
Mechanically the 2.0-litre motor is a gem and gives little trouble. Jerry Newman of Nissan specialists, the Cheltenham Service Centre, says the cam timing chain can rattle if the car hasn’t been serviced regularly and according to Nissan’s recommendations. Timing chain rattle can also develop at high mileage, but the noise is more a nuisance than a sign of impending doom.
Newman also says it’s important to use the Nissan recommended 7.5/50W oil or an equivalent, as heavier oils can tend to clog the engine internals and lead to damage.
The drivelines are generally trouble free, but be sure to check the CV joint boots that can crack and split. Let go they can lead to more expensive failure of the drive shafts.
Dominic Sequeira owns a 1998 N15 Series 2 Pulsar SSS with 75,000 km on the odometer. It’s comfortable for daily driving, has plenty of grunt and is just the right size to weave in between gaps in traffic. He has had no problems with it, but says it can be thirsty if driven hard and it prefers premium unleaded.
Glen (surname withheld) owns a 1999 SSS manual 2.0-litre Pulsar hatch, which he says has been totally reliable. It is economical and has excellent performance around town and responds well to mild revving to give a nice ‘kick in the back’ for an engine of its size and age.
Kay Hamer-Finn’s 1999 SSS has done 90,000 km without the need for any major work. As president of the Nissan Datsun Sports Owners Club, Kay regularly competes in club events, and says her SSS has stood up well, it still has the original clutch, and there have been no engine problems to date.
David Sporle says the N15 was a good car, but not great. It was where the cost cutting measures started to show, with Nissan deleting things like fully adjustable seats, leather around the gear stick, and other small touches that made the previous Pulsar feel like a $30,000-plus car.
Ian Bock bought his Nissan Pulsar SSS new in 1999. It now has done 113,000 km and has been very reliable, although he was disappointed that the front discs needed replacing at 63,000 km. It returns an average of 9.73 L/100 km.
• quirky wagon like styling
• larger size means roomier interior
• sizzling performance
• safe handling
• impeccable reliability
• timing chain rattle
• Honda Civic VTi-R – 1995-1999 – $11,500-$20,000
• Seat Ibiza GTi – 1995-1997 – $7500-$14,000
• Toyota Corolla Sprinter – 1994-1996 – $7000-$11,500