Nissan Pulsar – the same old, same old, except it’s not
It has taken around seven years for Nissan to shake off its soft-roader ethos and herald the return of the hatchback, which Iain Robertson was ready to harangue, until reason was realised and rationale intervened
Nissan’s strategic partnership with Renault has been all-pervading for the best part of the New Millennium. Has it been a happy relationship? Well, the PRs of the respective firms would tell you so but there is always a niggling sense that internal competition is not all that it is cracked up to be. These carmakers might share some elements of hardware but they are also deadly rivals at street level, even though the powers-that-be might insist a warm association to the contrary.
Nissan used to rule the roost with its Primera saloon, hatchback and estate car. It was the darling of the fleet sector, loved by operators and users nationwide. The Almera, its Golf-sized junior rival, was a perfectly acceptable, if anodyne contender, in the busy B-sector. With looks to warm the cockles of blue-rinsers residing in Eastbourne, or Hastings, or Hull, or Partick, it possessed all of the best bits of the Primera, while lacking any particular place in the market. Even latter attempts to raise its profile above that of the Toyota Corolla were largely ineffectual.
Nissan opted out of the sector and concentrated instead on Qashqai and Juke and Leaf, all of which replaced Micra, Almera and Primera at the Sunderland factory, in the North-East of England. It worked for the factory. Job numbers increased. Local suppliers grew in number. Nissan Motor GB was playing the oracle and delivering in corporate terms.
Nissan, however, was suffering in other areas. The Indian-built Micra is merely a shadow of its former Sunderland, top-ten-selling (in the UK) self. Qashqai and Juke sales have been phenomenal. Although it could have been said that opting out of the former medium sector class, where the Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Insignia, Peugeot 508 and Citroen C5 languish, struggling to put up a modest fight against the might of the ‘Teutonic Threesome’, with their highly sought after class rival products, was a smart move. The Primera would struggle today, not merely in size but also prestige (vital to the business user).
Nissan recognises that it deserted a B-sector that has become even more competitive in recent years, thanks to the influx of decent South Korean Kias and Hyundais, let alone the increasingly pleasure-giving and worthy Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra. However, to return with an updated version of the Almera is just not good enough. In some ways, it is bad enough that the all-new Pulsar resists double-takes with the Toyota Auris, Kia cee’d and Hyundai i30, as they all look as if they had emerged from the same corporate design studio.
Nissan is an ingenious player, though. It is too easy to dismiss Pulsar (a brand name under which both Sunny and Almera were sold in other new car markets over a decade ago) as an ‘also-ran’. That would be cruel. However, peer a little deeper and some fascinating little details emerge. In fact, so many of them that there are actually too many to mention in this report. However, to state that the new Pulsar is more than the sum of its parts would be verging on truism and I really like truisms, almost as much as I do irony.
Nissan could always deliver a well-balanced motorcar, of that there is no doubt. However, factor in a clever dose of current chassis vectoring technology, which utilises the anti-lock braking system to rein-in any over-enthusiastic, perhaps even driver-inflicted, errors, such as whistling around a bend too excitedly, or failing to notice that the camber does not run with the steered route, and a safeguard arises that is neither over-insistent, nor anything less than rare in this class of car. Try as I might, I could not upset the compact hatchback.
Nissan has never been a champion of the space-race, despite its best intentions (even promises). However, the Pulsar delivers more interior room than ever and significantly more than some of its key rivals. The back seat (a customary ploy) is among the roomiest in the class. Yet, the space compromise is not forced in the front of the cabin, as there was plenty of room in the mid-range test car for all two-metres of me. I was very surprised, not least because the boot is well-shaped and accommodating too.
Nissan has never made much bones about the quality of its car interiors. To be fair, I think that it is our fault, motoring scribes, because we used to criticise Nissan’s insistence on using Japanese stitched, or cheaply moulded, scrolling and chintzy preponderances all over the insides of its models. Nissan dropped the chintz but never upgraded the plastics. However, the new Pulsar is a delight of tactility, with a good mix of soft-touch and hard moulded trim-panels, with copious applications of ‘piano black’, where it counts.
Nissan used to produce the best sat-nav system in the business, complete with its ‘Bird-View’ early 3-D graphics. It has been superseded by virtually all factory-fit and most after-market devices these days. However, the Smartphone mirroring device used by the Pulsar returns the brand to the forefront again. While other car companies are equipping their latest models with similar technology, none is simpler and more effective than that of the Pulsar.
Nissan offers just two engines at present. The petrol is a turbocharged, 115bhp 1.2-litre unit that delivers strong performance (50+mpg, 117g/km CO2, 0-60mph in 10.4 seconds, 115mph); the diesel is the familiar turbocharged, 110bhp 1.5-litre unit (70+mpg, 94g/km CO2, 0-60mph in 11.2 seconds, 112mph). I drove both and revelled in the way they performed. A 187bhp 1.6-litre petrol joins the range in early-2015. All variants benefit from a slick 6-speed manual gearbox (an automated device follows imminently).
Nissan has installed enough tried and trusted technology across its range (the usual line-up of Visia, Acenta, N-Tec and Tekna) to lift its status above its core rivals. Collision mitigation introduces ‘self-braking’. The 360-degree camera system is outstanding and even features a dust and drip clearing system to assure consistent high performance. There are blind-spot recognition, moving object detection and lane departure warning systems employed. The overall impression is of great ingenuity, not least because you are hard-pushed to locate the technology…but it is there (model dependent).
Nissan has spent seven-ish years refining its mainstream proposition and the latest Pulsar proves that all the effort has been worthwhile. While I am certain that the numbers will not reach into the stratosphere, once sales are kickstarted, I do believe that a host of over-50s will find themselves perfectly contented at the controls of a new Pulsar. They might not comprehend it but the badge still has merit.
Conclusion: Nissan is a brand that has been through a grinder. It has some immensely successful models and some falteringly so. However, attending to this sector of the new car market, with a product that, once you peer a little deeper, actually exceeds expectations, has come as no surprise to me. I rate the new Barcelona-built Nissan Pulsar very highly. It is immensely competent. It is pacy, spacey, keenly priced, packed with practical technology and is satisfyingly eager. All Nissan needs are a few more believers.