A stellar performer? Nissan Pulsar reviewed

24 November 2014

Nissan Pulsar side view

Nissan Pulsar
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Good: spacious, refined, well equipped
Bad: sluggish, patchy interior quality
Price: from £15,995
In 1967, astronomers briefly thought they might have made contact with little green men. A rhythmic radio signal, steadily beeping away every 1.33 seconds, was picked up from somewhere out there in the cosmos. It seemed too steady and quick to be natural – more like a beacon.

But alas it wasn’t a beacon and no little green men were involved. Eventually it was deduced that the signal was the death rattle of a supernova. Light years away, the rapidly spinning cinder of a giant exploded star was choking out its last gasps in radio waves. Astronomers named it a pulsating star, or pulsar for short. Eventually, even the pulses will fade away.

And that’s the name that Nissan has given to its new medium-sized hatchback. The Pulsar shares its label with a warm cosmological corpse. Not an auspicious choice then, but probably better than being named after an old-fashioned automated gramophone like the Juke.

Nissan Pulsar front side view

Pulsar – the Nissan version – is not exactly an attempt to boldly go where no-one has gone before. Quite the opposite. The Japanese company is instead going back to a place it beamed bashfully away from seven years ago. The unloved Almera hatchback was pensioned off in 2007, to be replaced by the chunky Qashqai, which paired a 4x4 shape with front-wheel-drive simplicity.

That combination was, of course, hugely successful. But ubiquitous as the Qashqai may seem, it doesn’t quite have the mid-size, mid-price market sewn up. The Almera’s demise left a hole in Nissan’s range of roughly Golf proportions. Large numbers of both fleet and private buyers continue to choose five-door hatchbacks that aren’t on stilts as a sensible means to get from A to B.

And it’s a hole of this shape and size that the Pulsar will fill, meeting the needs of buyers who don’t desire a mock 4x4.

Nissan Pulsar dashboard

It may slot roughly into VW Golf territory but Nissan is not aiming the Pulsar at Volkswagen clientele. That’s the Qashqai’s task, wielding its greater size and presence against the Golf’s quality and snob appeal. Instead, the Pulsar is intended to compete with more value-conscious offerings such as the Toyota Auris, Kia Ceed and Hyundai i30.

The Pulsar’s key weapon for bludgeoning that trio is simply its size. Pictures don’t tend to reveal it but the new Nissan is longer and taller than its key rivals, with the lengthiest wheelbase and biggest boot. But it’s not, fortunately, the heaviest – actually weighing in a little lighter than its three key rivals.

Increased size on the outside does indeed translate to a spacious cabin, with generous rear legroom the most noticeable benefit.

Nissan Pulsar rear legroom

The Pulsar’s exterior style is clearly designed to echo the new second-generation Qashqai, and is not a bad effort. Like the Qashqai, the Pulsar was designed and engineered to meet European tastes, making it not nearly as Japanese as its badge might suggest. Unlike the Qashqai, it’s built in Barcelona rather than Sunderland.

The Pulsar looks purposeful from the front, a bit fussy from the back and lean and muscular along its flanks. Relatively deep windows bring good visibility and the screen pillars in particular seem unusually slim by modern standards. That means less need to bob your head like a pigeon at junctions and greater confidence that you haven’t failed to spot a cyclist when pulling out.

The interior seems a rung down on visual appeal and tactile quality from the Qashqai, making it an even greater distance short of the Golf’s fit and finish. A five-inch colour display comes as standard, helping to clear away button clutter, but there’s a manual handbrake lever, which seems like a throwback for a brand new car. The latest Qashqai’s handbrake has gone electronic, not least because unyielding metal mountings in the middle of the car are not welcome for side-impact safety. So the solid, dependable lever reveals either cost-cutting or conservatism at the Pulsar’s core.

Nissan Pulsar front interior

Equally uncertain is why anyone might order the colour of cloth selected for the interior of my particular test vehicle, a sort of sticking-plaster beige at least two decades adrift of today. I’d strongly recommend choosing anything other than this upholstery.

All Pulsar models do come with six airbags, and a tyre pressure monitoring system is also standard. A fuel-saving stop-start system comes fitted to both engine options – a 1.2-litre, four-cylinder turbo petrol offering up to 115 horsepower, or a 110 horsepower 1.5-litre turbo diesel.

The car I tested was the diesel, which is the heavier of the two cars by about 50kg but comes with a combined cycle rating of 78.5mpg and a CO2 score of 94g/km. The petrol Pulsar, by contrast, is rated at 56.5mpg and 117g/km.

While these scores are competitive they do seem to have arrived through compromise, with a setup designed to keep the engines turning lazily during the official tests rather than through outright, efficient economy. The diesel I drove seemed as if its six-speed manual gearbox might be one slot adrift, making you want for another gear below first. Driving the result, you’ll find yourself waiting for bigger than average gaps on roundabouts and at busy junctions, unless you enjoy being hooted at.

Nissan Pulsar rear view

Thankfully, other aspects of the driving experience are more positive. The Pulsar’s cabin is extremely peaceful at motorway pace, and through corners you’ll find a suspension setup that strikes what felt to me like a happy medium between rock and sponge. The suspension is nothing special – struts up front and a simple twist-beam axle at the rear – and the clever Active Ride Control of the Qashqai is absent. So don’t expect hot-hatch composure in extremis.

The steering wheel – visually identical to the one in the Qashqai – feels light but not excessively so and the gear shift action is very pleasantly free of rubbery notches.

Four trim grades are available – Visia, Acenta, N-tec and Tekna. A petrol Visia starts at £15,995 and includes niceties such as wheel-mounted buttons, Bluetooth, aircon and 16-inch alloys. Opting for the diesel engine adds a noticeable £1,600. Next up, the Acenta trim starts at £17,645 and brings emergency braking cleverness, automatic lights and wipers, and keyless entry and ignition.

N-tec level begins at £18,995, bringing 17-inch alloys, privacy glass, LED running lights, a reversing monitor and smartphone-integration for the central screen. At the top of the pile, Tekna costs from £20,345 and boasts a full suite of electronic safety gear including emergency braking and warnings for lane departure, blind-spot risks and moving objects in the vicinity of the car when parking.

Overall, the Pulsar feels like a reasonable if unremarkable re-entry into the five-door hatchback market. Nissan has built a comfortable, spacious car that’s easy on the eye and relaxing on long-distance journeys. It’s not overly expensive, and it promises reasonable economy.

I can’t help feeling, however, that Nissan has put a lot more effort into the Pulsar’s big brother. While the latest Qashqai seems unarguably state of the art, the Pulsar somehow manages to feel more like a mid-life refresh of a car from a few years ago. Which is odd, for a brand new vehicle.

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