Nissan Pulsar Hatch 2013: Launch Review

words - Adam Davis
Pulsar hatch returns to Oz, but does it have that winning formula?

Nissan Pulsar Hatch

Local Launch?
Melbourne, Australia

What we liked:
?>> Wonderful turbocharged engine in ST-S and SSS?
>> Comfortable, simply laid-out cabin
?>> Cossetting ride in all grades

Not so much:?
>> CVT lacks smoothness, manual mode in non-turbo models
?>> Missing dynamic polish, especially in turbo models?
>> SSS needs more visual clout, inside and out

>>?Welcome back, Pulsar hatch?
For the last seven years Nissan has found success in the small car market elusive. Moving from the established Pulsar name -- one with strong history in this country -- to the global Tiida plate was always going to be a risk, and so it proved with a string of poor sales results.

Now under the guidance of Nissan Motor Company (Australia) Managing Director and CEO William Peffer Jr., the company has picked itself, dusted itself off and jumped back into the segment with the re-born Pulsar range, commencing with the release of Pulsar sedan in February this year.

“Nissan is excited to complete the comeback of the Pulsar today with the launch of the Pulsar hatch,” said Peffer to the assembled journalists at the Melbourne launch.

“The Australian market has embraced the Pulsar sedan since its launch in February. Now we can offer an even more compelling case with the four grades of Pulsar hatch, including two turbocharged variants,” he continued.

“Pulsar is a name that still resonates deeply with Australian consumers,” explained Peter Fadeyev, Nissan General Manager of Corporate Communications.

“We expect the hatch to account for around 65 per cent of Pulsar sales going forward,” he concluded.

With Pulsar sedan already creeping into the VFACTS top ten monthly sellers list, Nissan has a real opportunity to convert the model’s resonance into a sizable chunk of market share.

>>?Even sharper value than Sedan sibling
?With a starting price of $18,990 (plus on-road costs) the entry-level Pulsar ST is sharply focused on value, undercutting its sedan sibling by an even $1000. All models are assembled in Thailand.

The aggressive pricing of the Pulsar ST hatch naturally raises curiosity around its level of standard equipment, but we are happy to report that the latest Nissan is a compelling value proposition.

Pulsar ST is fitted with the same 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine found in the Pulsar sedan, with gear-changing via a six-speed manual transmission. CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), incidentally, is a $2250 option -- about right for a self-shifter in this market segment.

Where some rival’s base models sport steel wheels, 16-inch alloys are standard fit in Pulsar ST hatch, and you also receive a full-size (though steel) spare.

The interior offers central locking with keyless entry, cloth trim, air-conditioning, cruise control, and power windows -- all to be expected these days. Audio is taken care of via a four-speaker system with MP3/AUX (but no iPod or USB) capability and steering-wheel mounted remote operation. Bluetooth telephony is included; however, it does lack the capability to stream audio.

Stepping up to the mechanically-identical Pulsar hatch ST-L ($22,490 plus on-roads) adds subtle exterior touches, like front fog lights and a rear roof spoiler. The interior benefits from the installation of a 4.3-inch QVGA colour display for the upgraded six-speaker audio system. Here, iPod and USB capabilities join the MP3/AUX functionalities. ST-L’s seats are trimmed in a ‘Premium’ soft cloth and the steering wheel gains a leather-accented finish. ST-L also gains a rear centre seat which can fold into an armrest to make the rear-seat journey more pleasant when the middle chair isn’t required.

For another $2000, the $24,990 (plus on-roads) ST-S immediately presents great value on a dollar per kilowatt basis, being the entry point of the turbocharged motor. It retains the equipment specification of the naturally-aspirated ST-L, but adds 17-inch alloys and metallic interior highlights to the mix. Interestingly, a manual ST-S is only $250 more than a CVT-equipped ST-L. You can also option CVT with the turbocharged engine. Equipped with a manual mode and turbo-specific gearing, it adds $2500 to the base price of ST-S and SSS.

The flagship SSS starts at $29,240 -- $4250 more than manual ST-S -- but comes feature-packed. A 5.8-inch colour touchscreen offers satellite navigation and rear-view camera as well as control for the audio system. Bluetooth audio streaming, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start (via ‘Intelligent Key’) and leather accented seat fabric finish off the interior. Externally there are auto-levelling xenon headlights with integrated washers. A subtle body-kit includes side and rear-skirts, front and rear spoilers and a discreet SSS badge on the rump, but blink twice and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s an ST-S.

>>Acceleration two ways-- staid or stern
The naturally-aspirated ST and ST-L variants are mechanically identical to the Pulsar sedan. This means a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine generating 96kW of power at 6000rpm and 174Nm of torque at a high 4800rpm. The aspirated hatchback returns claimed fuel consumption figures of 7.2L/100km in manual form, with CVT dropping this down to 6.7L/100km. As tested on the launch route from the Melbourne CBD to the Yarra Valley, a CVT-equipped ST-L returned 7.7L/100km, a manual ST-L 8.5.

Of course, the real interest surrounds the turbocharged engine package. Displacing 1.6 litres and featuring direct injection, this impressive unit outputs 140kW at 5600rpm and 240Nm at 2000rpm. Nissan engineers claim the torque figure gleaned via direct injection is 20 per cent higher than a conventional multi-point injection system could deliver.

Claimed fuel use in the turbo variants is 7.7L/100km for the manual, 7.8 for the CVT, and this is curious, for you’d expect CVT to deliver efficiency gains similar to those found in the atmospheric version. The answer lies in the performance calibration for the CVT, its extra weight and shorter final drive ratio.

We were only able to test real-world consumption in a SSS manual, which returned an even 11.0L/100km over a challenging road loop.

As with the sedan, the Pulsar hatch receives localised suspension settings, with the usual increases in spring rate and firmer damping being applied to the turbocharged models. Interestingly, the braking package delivered with both drivelines is unchanged, despite the obvious performance differentiation.

>>Modernised styling and a logically laid-out cabin
From the outside, the Pulsar is visually different enough to separate it from the stigma of its Tiida predecessor. Pulsar’s styling is modernised without being too edgy or aggressive. This is fine for the entry-spec models, but the turbocharged models could get away with signifying their presence a little more, particularly in SSS form.

The conservative theme continues inside, although this actually works in the car’s favour. The cockpit is simply finished, logically laid-out and easy to navigate. In all variants, the seats are comfortable and there is good all-round visibility from a quite high driving position. Of particular note is that the A-pillars -- often a bugbear to visibility when cornering -- are placed in such a way that you retain a decent field of vision.

Rear seat occupants have plenty of leg and shoulder room, although headroom can be an issue for those over six feet tall. Up-front, perhaps the only real issue is the narrowness of both driver and passenger foot-wells; there’s no room for a driver’s left foot-rest, and the centre console can rub against the driver’s leg.

Boot space is another strong suit, and the addition of a 60:40 split-fold rear seat aids versatility further.

>> Six airbags and a suite of safety acronyms
?Given the Pulsar Sedan recently received a five-star ANCAP safety rating, there is little to suggest that Pulsar hatch will not repeat this result when it comes to be tested.

Six airbags are on deck, both driver and front passenger receiving front and side protection with front to rear curtain airbags also included. Vehicle Dynamic Control (stability control) is standard across the board, as is traction control, anti-lock braking with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution.

Seatbelt height adjustment is included, and three child seat anchor points are also installed.

>>?D(r)iving into a small hatch hotbed
?The Small hatch segment is amongst the fiercest car markets in Australia, and Pulsar has its work cut-out to match the established players. Pulsar ST manual undercuts its nearest competitor, Toyota’s Corolla Ascent, by an even $1000. It also bests the segment-leading Mazda 3 in Neo grade by $1340.

Other key rivals include the segment benchmark Volkswagen Golf 90TSI (from $21,490), Hyundai i30 (from $20,990) and Ford Focus (from $20,290), with the all-new Kia Cerato hatch due to come on-stream shortly.

At their price points, and given their performance, the turbocharged Pulsars have additional foes to contemplate. In terms of size and performance, Holden’s Cruze SRi-V (from $26,490) is perhaps SSS’s most natural rival. Though smaller and less powerful, the aspirated Suzuki Swift Sport (from $23,990) is popular amongst hot hatch fans, while Skoda’s twin-charged Fabia RS (from $27,990) has the engine to battle head-on with Nissan’s latest.

>>Class-competitive ride in all grades, but dynamics fall behind leaders
It’s no surprise that the naturally-aspirated ST-L hatch felt broadly similar to its sedan equivalent, offering a high-quality ride and refined power delivery in manual form. It did gain on the sedan in the corners, however, feeling smaller on the road and keener to respond to your inputs.

The atmo engine’s power could best be described as ‘adequate’ for its intended purpose, being not overly endowed with torque but not really lacking when compared to its primary competition.

Where the Pulsar fell down was in its steering. The electric, speed-sensitive system was vague off-centre and devoid of feel, with wide weighting variations. Combine this with the soft chassis’ reluctance to turn (particularly through ‘switch-back’ directional changes) and pronounced roll through corners and you had a hatch that was definitely more at home running around town in stop-start traffic.

The six-speed manual was nice enough to use, with a smoothly engineered gearshift/clutch pedal relationship which allowed you to get the most out of the engine.

Switching to the X-TRONIC CVT highlighted the prowess of the manual car, for this second-generation ‘auto’ system strained progress, the engine labouring (and sounding strained through the cabin) as acceleration built. The Nissan CVT’s adjustment to road speed still lags behind, especially when compared to the similar unit found in the rival Subaru Impreza. The lack of any manual operation in the non-turbo grades was also an issue.

As noted in our First Drive, moving into the Pulsar SSS revealed what is suggested on paper. The DIG-Turbo is a fantastic power unit, effortlessly responsive with a kick in delivery from 2500rpm and linear power through to the red-line. The shorter gearing of the SSS also assisted in keeping the engine boosting to maximum effect. Unfortunately, the same steering criticisms of the ST-L are evident in the SSS, perhaps even more so given the latter’s sporting pretentions and its far stronger power delivery, which asked a lot of the narrow 205/50/R17 tyres.

On slightly firmer suspension, and with stronger damping (particularly on rebound) the SSS retained a class-leading ride quality, but on the flip-side it rolled excessively through corners, asking the outside-front wheel to do more work as the inside gave up grip. There’s definitely room for a NISMO version…

All told, Pulsar hatch has its appeal, with the ST in delivering on its value promise and the turbocharged variants offering impressive punch. It’s a largely inoffensive car and from initial impressions is a better steer than the sedan. Time, and sales figures, will tell just how close Nissan has come to a winning Small hatch formula.

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Published : Wednesday, 12 June 2013
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