First drive: Nissan Pulsar

Meet the car Nissan thinks will be a best seller.

The Pulsar is back and Nissan Australia is hoping consumers will remember why it was such an enduring and successful small car from its inception in 1978 through several generations up until it was bizarrely replaced seven years ago by a model known as the Tiida. Awkward name; forgettable car. Its successor doesn’t have a lot to live up to. Last year just 3059 Tiidas were sold in Australia, less than one-tenth that of the class leaders.

To help rekindle fonder memories, an all-new sedan with the old Pulsar name has been launched here at a retro price of $19,990 (plus dealer charges and on-road costs). That’s the same price it carried back in 1996.

Roomier than its immediate rivals, with soft-touch interior materials and a big boot, the new Pulsar carries Nissan’s high hopes of making a huge impact on the bountiful small-car market dominated last year by the Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla.

Nissan Australia boss Bill Peffer originally predicted the Pulsar could outsell the Corolla, which would make it close to the best-selling car in the nation. But he was cautious about nominating just when this might happen. Since then Peffer has tempered that initial unrestrained optimism.

While the Tiida may have been an unremarkable sales performer, Nissan Japan’s chief vehicle engineer Grahame Cornforth insists the new Pulsar will be again part of the mainstream. The narrow and tall appearance of the Tiida has been banished along with other perceived weaknesses.

At a glance the Pulsar looks bigger than a small car and bigger than its rivals, especially from the three-quarter rear where its large booty screams Kim Kardashian.

The cabin length – taken from the heel of the driver to the hip-point of rear passengers – is something Nissan boasts about. Biggest in class, it asserts, with excellent egress and entry. The hip-point for front-seat occupants has been lowered while maintaining good visibility

Built in Thailand on a wider platform with overall length increased but height reduced, the Pulsar’s extra space has been given to the rear passenger compartment and the boot. The luggage area of 510 litres is a tad larger than the mid-sized Maxima’s 506 litres. And very usable. While there is a load-through flap in the centre of the rear seatback, one glaring weakness is the lack of a split-fold arrangement.

Chrome exterior door handles and accent mouldings help the Pulsar’s quality pitch. The comfortable, well bolstered seats and generous shoulder and leg room give the impression of a Camry-sized car. Soft-feel coverings are used for the armrests and dashboard, while low-gloss finishes help reduce dashboard reflection in the front glass.

Nissan executives in Japan never quite understood why their Australian colleagues were so aggravated when they thrust the Tiida badge on them back in 2006. And though the Tiida never got close to matching healthy Pulsar sales, they didn’t understand why its Australian arm wanted to revisit the past and revive the Pulsar name.

But they’ve agreed, and the Nissan folk at the local headquarters are relieved. The right name won’t magically bring back the boom times, but even after six years the Pulsar carries recognition in the marketplace (72 per cent) that the Tiida didn’t remotely approach.

Ironically, eight years ago, Toyota Australia was faced with a similar name-change scenario, with head office in Japan insisting on a name change to the Corolla hatch launched in 2007. Toyota Japan wanted Auris. Robust discussions followed with Toyota Australia strongly favouring the retention of the Corolla badge for both sedan and hatch models because it was considered an iconic name.

“Corolla had been manufactured in Australia for so many decades it was considered part of Australian automotive history,” recalled Toyota spokesman Mike Breen. “I think it took a couple of years to convince them, but in the end they agreed to support our strategy.”

But name changes don’t have to be a bad scenario like Pulsar to Tiida (or Ford’s less than successful transition from Laser to Focus). Go no further than Mazda’s 323 to Mazda3. Holden’s dumping of Kingswood in favour of the nautical Commodore worked for a lot of years too.

Punterville should have no trouble accepting the reborn badge. It’s then a matter of whether consumers like what they see in the new Pulsar.

Buyers of cars of this category inevitably want safe, reliable, practical transport with reasonable running costs. Nissan is also counting on the Pulsar’s attractions of space, refinement and high-end styling touches such as the bold new trapezoid-shaped grille and large wraparound LED-accented headlights and taillights. The new 1.8-litre engine and next-generation CVT – constantly variable transmission (a $2250 option) – delivers impressive 6.7 litres per 100km fuel economy.

The Pulsar sedan is offered in three grades – ST, ST-L and range-topping Ti. Even the base ST (with cloth trim) is well specified with six airbags, stability control and traction control, along with multi-function steering wheel (adjustable for both reach and height) with audio controls, Bluetooth, MP3/iPod connectivity and auxiliary jack. Also standard: 16-inch alloy wheels, trip and cruise control.

Additionally, the ST-L ($23,650) gets a colour display, leather steering wheel and shift knob, rear spoiler, foglights and LED-accented lights.

The Ti, which comes with the standard CVT auto, is $28,990 and gets leather trim, 17-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, satellite-navigation with 5.8-inch colour screen, reversing camera, smart key entry with push-button start, distinctive LED-ringed Xenon automatic headlights, power folding side mirrors and tinted windows.

Nissan says that in (about) 100 days from now, the hatch variant of the Pulsar will be launched, simultaneously with the much-missed and anticipated direct-injection 140kW turbocharged SSS hottie.

First drive

The new Pulsar isn’t a sports sedan. Nor is it intended to be. Its prime attributes are all on the functional side of dynamism.

It’s not a device of unrelenting beauty but it’s acceptable visually, and has the advantages of roominess and comfort. In many ways, this new Pulsar’s appeal is like the attractions of the older models. It’s an honest and ready serve.

Climb aboard and get comfortable (the seating adjustments are manual and include a height lever on the driver’s seat only) and you’ll find the cabin has bottle and cupholders in all doors. Nissan is catering for the acknowledged thirst of Australians.

The 1.8-litre engine is about what a consumer might expect in terms of throttle response and driveability. That is, it’s acceptable without suggesting whiplash possibilities. In power and torque figures, it dips out to the 2.0-litre Mazda3 and to the 1.8-litre Corolla. With 96kW on tap, acceleration is similar to the 100kW Corolla and 108kW Mazda3.

The six-speed manual has a pleasing shift quality that only a small percentage of Pulsar buyers will experience. Eighty per cent are expected to opt for the optional thriftier, user-friendly CVT, which works nicely, as you’d expect from a company that has offered this type of gearbox for many years. At 100km/h in the low-friction CVT’s high ratio, the Pulsar’s engine barely ticks over at 1700rpm. The Pulsar also seems to step off the mark a little swifter than the Corolla CVT, probably due to the transmission’s lower starting ratio.

Handily, the windscreen pillars are narrow to aid visibility at intersections and pedestrian crossings.

The Pulsar is also a quiet car until the driver spins the engine to very high revs.

The ride and handling of the new Pulsar won’t offend buyers either. The suspension layout of MacPherson struts up front and torsion-beam rear axle springs no unruly surprises.

Though our experience with the newest small-car contender was limited to laps of a proving ground and some slalom work, its balance and grip brought confidence to the driver. Tyres – 17-inch Continentals fitted to the Ti model and 16-inch Bridgestones standard on the ST and ST-L – play their part in the confidence-inspiring road behaviour.

Passengers whose age and size dictate they climb aboard via the rear doors will relish the Pulsar’s roomy rear compartment. Rear seat passengers get the space normally found in bigger passenger cars. There’s 30mm more shoulder room, and wider and more comfortable soft-feel armrests. Knee room is more than generous for a small car. As for head room, a bowler hat anyone?

The boot too, while limited by the absence of split-fold seat backs, will swallow a family’s holiday luggage … without as much as a burp. Importantly, too for those who like to explore the big, brown land, the spare tyre is full size (on a steel rim).

2013 Nissan Pulsar sedan

Price: $19,990 (ST), $23,650 (ST-L), $28,990 (Ti)

Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder

Transmission: 6-speed manual or CVT auto (CVT standard on Ti, $2250 on others)

Power: 96kW at 6000rpm

Torque: 174Nm at 4800rpm

Fuel consumption: 6.7L/100km (CVT); 7.2L/100km (man)

CO2 emissions: 160g/km (CVT); 169g/km (man)

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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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