Nissan Pulsar: First Drive Review

It’s been a while since Nissan built itself a family hatchback. When the relatively unloved Almera and its bigger brother the Primera were unceremoniously killed off in 2006 the days of grown-up hatchback motoring had gone, replaced with the astoundingly successful and highly-rated Qashqai crossover.

But, good though the Qashqai is, crossover life isn’t for everyone. The high driving position, price and perception of size (and all the negatives that brings) are off-putting to those who just want a regular hatchback into which they can stuff their luggage and offspring. So Nissan has taken an unusual retrograde step and come back to the norm of the market it once sought to redefine.

Styling

From many angles the Pulsar looks for all the world like a shrunken Qashqai and it’s actually a pretty bold face for a car this size. While Ford is busy grafting its current Aston Martin homage face onto everything in the range and Volkswagen continues into a 40th year of middle-of-the-road Golfs that don’t really challenge aesthetics, it’s good to see this chunky and curvy front end. There’s a set of LED daytime running lights (for n-tec grades and higher) that complement the shape and fit in with the ‘brand identity’ of the front end too.

There’s a little bit of contrived design down the sides though, as the plunging styling lines swoop into nothingness and leave a mess of counter-angled creases, particularly under the door mirrors. It’s not unpleasant, rather it’s just a little awkward.

It’s at the rear though where things go wrong. Though the outside edges of the tail lights are reminiscent of the Juke and 370Z, as you head inboard they’re just too dominant over the surrounding design. The overall look is of an early Noughties Toyota Corolla – practically the benchmark for white good motoring. The colour palette is a little unadventurous too, with only the odd red, blue or brown to really stand out from the neutral background.

Interior

A lot of attention has been paid to the living space inside the Pulsar as Nissan hopes to capture sales both from youngsters upsizing from B-segment cars and older parents looking to downsize from larger family barges. Some of the materials don’t bear close scrutiny – the silvered areas are a little low rent and there’s a truly strange black plastic insert across the width of the cabin that looks like it should be textured, yet isn’t. The centre console housing also looks like an afterthought from the passenger side, though clearly marking the manufacturer’s intent to find a low cost solution for switching between LHD and RHD vehicles.

The controls are all obvious and sensibly placed and there’s plenty of kit. We drove the top spec Tekna models, which include a large touchscreen infotainment system dubbed Nissan Connect 2 and includes a self-cleaning reversing camera and the Around View Monitor that projects an image of your surroundings on the screen knitted from four different cameras for better manouevring. Buyers of the entry level Visia model won’t be able to specify this, but there’s a good chunk of equipment – including a five-inch colour information screen between the dials, Bluetooth and air conditioning right from the bottom of the range.

Pulsar’s party piece is space though. There’s plenty of room up front, with deeply scalloped door cards to provide good elbow room and lots of cubbies to lose stuff in – even if the armrest cubby containing the USB port and 12v power point could do with being larger to hold a smartphone on charge. It gets more generous in the back as the relatively large wheelbase (2700mm – more than the Qashqai) gives class-leading legroom of 692mm. To put this into context, it’s not just larger than anything else in the class, but well above the average for the next class up – pushing even into large executive car territory.

This hasn’t come at the expense of boot space which is, at 385 litres, around average in the class. That swells to 1,395 with the rear seats folded flat, again above the class average. There’s a high loading lip and the wheel arches intrude significantly though, so it’s perhaps not as practical as it could be.

Driving

As a driving experience, it’s fairest to say that the Pulsar is relaxing and predictable. On the smooth Spanish highways around Barcelona there was little from the outside world allowed to penetrate the cabin and it was perfectly happy to settle into a 74mph cruise. There’s perhaps a little wind noise from the mirrors, but it’s not intrusive unless you intend on doing autobahn speeds.

On slightly harsher backroads there wasn’t much by way of crashing and banging, though we’d have to get the car out on British quality roads before passing a clear judgement. It handled reasonably well when poked onwards too – never getting flustered by tight corners and absent of excess body roll. The steering is light and predictable, though not especially tactile and there was no misbehaving from the back half of the car. It’s a fairly confident and surefooted car that isn’t going to set the loins aflame – at least not until the 190hp 1.6 version or the rumoured Nismo version arrive – but it’s no woeful, softly sprung cornerphobe either.

Engines

At launch there’s a choice of two engines from the standard Nissan-Renault alliance stable. The 113hp 1.2 litre petrol (DIG-T) and 108hp 1.5 litre diesel (dCi) have both already been used in the Pulsar’s crossover sibling Qashqai. Both are only offered with a six speed manual gearbox, but there’ll be an Xtronic automatic available for the petrol car in November 2014.

The petrol is the performer of the pair, moving the Pulsar to 60mph in 10.7s, while still returning 56.5mpg on paper on the combined cycle. We managed to clip just into the 45mpg range on our mixed driving route, so in the 50s should be possible with a little more care. It’s also the more lively of the two engines, proving a bit harder to catch off-boost, and was much better suited to a quick countryside point-to-point back to the major roads.

It’s the diesel’s character to be more suited to mile munching. The 190lbft peak provides a better shove but it’s easier to labour with inappropriate gear selection – on twisty roads we were always hunting for a gear between 2nd and 3rd to make best use of the torque curve. The 94g/km figure – equivalent to 78.5mpg – means it’s free VED and it should potter at over 60mpg all day long.

Nissan confirms that a 1.6 version of the DIG-T petrol will be available in early 2015, with 190hp to establish some warm hatch credentials – and there’s a Nismo version rumoured to be in the works too.

Value for Money

At £15,995 for the entry level Pulsar Visia petrol, it might seem a little steep – the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra both undercut it – but there’s a lot of car on offer here that other manufacturers might struggle to match. The big threat here comes from the Hyundai i30 and Kia cee’d siblings, which can offer as much kit as the Nissan, though they’re not as roomy. The gap is even narrower when the cars are financed rather than bought outright.

Ploughing up towards the top of the range sees other manufacturers get in on the fight. The top of the Pulsar tree is the £21,945 Pulsar Tekna diesel – one of the cars we tested – and at this kind of price there’s some pretty serious alternatives. While you can still get your choice of Focus, Astra and Hyundai i30, there’s also good offerings from the new Mazda 3, SEAT’s Leon and the Peugeot 308, each of which has its own charms and unique selling points. The elephant in the room here, of course, is the Volkswagen Golf which provides a reasonably competitive package at this sort of price and the brand cachet that money can’t buy.

Verdict

In almost all aspects, the Pulsar is wholly adequate as a car. It does nothing overtly wrong, considering the price bracket, but by the same token there is very little to get you truly excited by it. It’s hard to argue with the amount of space you get for the money you pay, but that on its own is not the kind of statement that would make one leap out of your chair with chequebook aloft.

Nissan really did reinvent the C-segment when it birthed the Qashqai and was proven right with its gamble that people wanted something a bit different. But this hatchback sector represents nearly half of the new & fleet market in the UK and Europe and Nissan has been losing out through not having a conventional model in the sector.

And conventional it is, in all senses – this is a car made out of necessity. While others may loathe what that represents, and indeed it’s a pity that a company like Nissan which thrives on reinventing image (Qashqai, Juke) and physics (GT-R) to suit itself feels the need to take this path, it’s a very well judged effort indeed.

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