Nissan's return to the European mainstream isa competent family hatchback - but it shares a market with cars that go far beyond that

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After a pretty lousy performance at the turn of the century, a hugely successful few years have followed for Nissan.

The hugely popular Nissan Qashqai and Nissan Juke have doubled the firm’s UK market share since 2007, but a greater trick has been to transform Nissan’s reputation from a peddler of some of Europe’s most staid and boring volume models to the creator of some of its most bold and interesting ones.

The 1978 Datsun Cherry used the Pulsar name in some countries

The firm now has ambitions to break in among Britain’s most successful brands.

But in order to seize the seven per cent share of the UK market on which it has designs and to force its way in among Ford, Vauxhall, Volkswagen, Audi and BMW in sales terms, Nissan must return to the part of the market it left when it killed off the Almera. It must go back to making plain, predictable and ordinary family hatchbacks.

So has it judged its crucial re-entry right with this, the new Pulsar? Designed and engineered for Europe, this is Nissan’s idea of the perfect showroom foil for a mid-size crossover: rational, conventional and pragmatic.

But is that the stuff of which great family hatches are made? Let's find out.

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Nissan Pulsar LED headlights
Pulsas in n-tec specification feature LED headlights with an LED signature strip

The Pulsar name isn’t widely known in the UK, but it’s got a long history. Introduced in 1978 as a replacement for the Datsun Cherry, the first version (codenamed N10) came to Europe as a Cherry but was sold in south-east Asia, Australasia and South Africa as the Pulsar.

The car we knew as the Almera was originally a version of the Japanese-market N15 Pulsar, launched in 1995. Nissan GB discontinued the Almera in 2006, but Nissan continued to sell a conventional five-door — the Tiida — in Europe.

The scuttle is low, the pillars are sensible and the mirrors are a good size. Visibility all round is very good, as a result

Given that no one in Britain or Europe knows what to expect of it, you might be inclined to praise Nissan’s adoption of a route one approach to the design of the Pulsar. We’re not. To us, this car is evidence of slightly constrained thinking and limited ambition that perhaps even borders on protectionism.

You have to look past the car’s deeply conservative shape and styling, for example, and past its conspicuous lack of any identifiable character, to its practicality and obliging functionality in order to find its first real selling point.

This is a lot of car for the money. It’s got huge passenger space, and yet it’s barely an inch longer than a Ford Focus. But in the premium-brand age, even volume options need a bit of visual allure in order to present a desirable proposition.

Furthermore, to explain away such blandness by defining your new car as opposition to the pair of vastly more interesting crossover siblings on the other side of the same showroom isn’t a convincing rationale. The Nissan Qashqai would surely have had nothing to fear from a much more handsome and imaginative hatchback than this.

Pragmatism and convention define what’s underneath the Pulsar, too. The engine choices are also restricted to a 113bhp 1.2-litre turbo or a 187bhp 1.6 petrol unit, or a 108bhp 1.5-litre turbodiesel.

The powerful DIG-T 190 models gain a revised chassis, a sharper drive, 17- and 18in alloy wheels and sportier tweaks to the exterior – but the richer end of the diesel spectrum is unrepresented.

The car is based on the Common Module Family all-steel platform used by the Qashqai and Nissan X-Trail, suspended by front MacPherson struts and a rear torsion beam. The 1.5-litre diesel weighed 1350kg on our scales; that’s quite light for such a large five-door.

Four trim levels are offered; Visia, Acenta, N-Connecta and Tekna. Standard kit is comprehensive and includes tyre pressure monitoring, a 5-inch TFT screen, Bluetooth connectivity, USB connectivity, air conditioning, electric windows, cruise control and electric mirrors. 

The Pulsar is also the fourth recent introduction in the wider Nissan family, after the Qashqai, X-Trail and the Infiniti Q50, to feature a chassis technology called Active Trace Control.

The system is a development of the electronic stability control system (known as VDC in a Nissan) and is ostensibly a torque-vectoring understeer mitigator, but to explain it simply as an electronic alternative to a limited-slip differential would be both inaccurate and misleading.

Normal ESP systems have now been developed to quite a high standard, but they remain primarily devoted to taming sudden oversteer. They intervene with the brakes when the car’s actual yaw rate (its rate of change of direction) suddenly accelerates beyond the one implied by the steering angle.

Active Trace Control can account for a lower-than-desired rate of yaw by applying the brakes gently to both inside wheels in order to mitigate it.

With the VDC system’s Anti-Slip Regulation wheelspin control quelling excessive mid-corner acceleration, ATC is intended to intervene imperceptibly, dealing with gentle initial understeer to make the car go where you point it when grip levels suddenly decrease. 


Nissan Pulsar dashboard
The driving position and front passenger space are both excellent

To see where your money is going, get into the Pulsar through the rear doors. This is a plus-size hatchback, where you marvel at the space between your knees and the seat ahead of you rather than measure its closeness.

It’s a similar (if not quite so revelatory) tale overhead, where the roofline has been kept away from all but the tallest occupants. The attraction of this is all pretty relative while on test – it’s not as if practically every rival isn’t capable of seating four adults - but filled with a full-size family, the appeal of every extra centimetre would be apparent.

The Nissan's pedals are well placed and there's plenty of steering column adjustment

It is easier to imagine any of the Pulsar’s competitors making you feel more cosseted up front in the driver’s seat. Functionally, there isn’t much wrong. The controls are all easily found, the steering wheel adjusts, the instrument cluster is legible, Nissan’s familiar multimedia system makes sense and even the start-stop button is easy to find.

So what’s the problem? Well, the conservative design brief delivered to the exterior styling department has proven contagious, because there’s a similar dearth of imagination at work in the cabin.

The dashboard’s hollow-feeling plastic construction would be forgivable if it weren’t arranged with such a perfunctory splat. The centre stack is raised, but only with the enthusiasm and shapelessness of a sunken blancmange. There’s a cubbyhole beneath, although it’s in so much perpetual shade that you’ll want to put a hand in it before you trust its inky depths with your phone. 

The result isn’t crude, but the obvious lack of sophistication means that the conventional welcome into the cabin of a modern hatchback – one that speaks to the cleverness and presentational quality now expected of every expensive purchase – is conspicuous for its absence. 

You won't be left wanting for equipment though, with even the entry-level Visia and Visia Limited Edition models featuring air conditioning, a 5-inch TFT media system, USB and Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control and electrically adjustable door mirrors. Step up to Acenta and the likes of forward emergency braking, dual-zone climate, keyless start and entry and automatic lights and wipers are added. 

Opt for an N-Connecta specification Pulsar and you'll be rewarded with creature comforts including a DAB radio, a reversing camera, LED headlights, a part-leather trim and a 5.8-inch sat-nav and entertainment system. Lastly, flagship Tekna models benefit from Nissan's smart surround-view camera system, heated leather seats, leather upholstery, LED headlighst and a myriad of safety upgrades including blind spot and lane departure warnings.

The Pulsar shares the Nissan Qashqai’s multimedia system, which is good because it’s generally one of the better units offered in a mainstream model. The screen is not vast compared with those of some rivals, but it responds to touch well enough and the dial to the right can be used to navigate around some functions.

Just as importantly, the menu system is set up logically, and its simple interface means you’re unlikely to reach a place where you’re lost for the right button to push. With that in the bag, most functions — including the connection and operation of a mobile phone — fall into line easily enough.


Nissan Pulsar rear quarter
Engine options consist of a 1.2-litre petrol or a 1.5-litre diesel

The Pulsar is offered with a simple choice of either a 1.2-litre turbocharged or 1.6-litre petrol engine or a 1.5-litre turbocharged diesel engine. 

Nissan's four-pot petrol produces 114bhp and 140lb ft, and is claimed to average 56.5mpg and emit 117g/km of CO2. It's a quiet, adequately powerful and willing engine - once extended over 2000rpm, that is. It's a pleasant affair and its refined nature suits the Pulsar.

We're tire of peering around steering wheels to find starter buttons. The Pulsar's is front and centre on the console, as it should be

Despite its modest displacement performance is more than adequate, with the 0-60mph sprint being dispatched in 10.5sec and a reputed top speed of 118mph. There's a decent amount of torque on offer in gear too, curtailing the need for an overly excessive number of gearchanges.

On the diesel front, had the company had its choice of any powerplant currently in production anywhere, Nissan could hardly have fitted one more in tune with the Pulsar’s persona than the familiar ‘K9K’ 1.5-litre turbodiesel engine.

This four-cylinder 108bhp unit has been a mainstay of its offerings for the best part of a decade and goes about its business with a blameless, parsimonious functionality that borders on the nondescript.

The last time we saw it in a road test, the motor was quietly ticking boxes in the new Nissan Qashqai. Back then, we applauded the lack of noise at 50mph, and even with the Pulsar seemingly less well cocooned than its crossover cousin, it goes one decibel better at 61dB. That’s a full 6dB less than the Hyundai i30 we tested a couple of years ago. So it’s fairly hushed, then. 

It’s also fairly giving for an engine of its claimed efficiency. Nissan quotes 11.5sec to 62mph for the six-speed manual version, but we managed 10.9sec to 60mph in the wet without any fuss. Lop a millisecond off and it repeats that performance from 30-70mph, putting it about half a second down the road compared with the i30.

The same low-rev grumpiness we noted in the Qashqai hasn’t been alleviated by a 65kg reduction in measured kerb weight, however, but you’d have to be making rather unsportsmanlike requests of it to ever be deterred. 

On the motorway, 70mph will have the Pulsar spinning at 1900rpm or so, making all 192lb ft available should you need it and generally saving you from fuel-swindling downshifts. 

Such abstinence is good (and not hard, as we’ll see in a moment) because, as it has proven elsewhere, the 1.5 dCi makes for a decently frugal engine. The 78.5mpg advertised by Nissan can be rejected as specious lab work, but the 57.3mpg recorded on our touring leg was later eased beyond 60mpg without difficulty.

Nissan has also endowed the Pulsar with its latest Euro 6-compliant DIG-T 190 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol unit. The motor develops 187bhp and 177lb ft of torque and the firm claims the Pulsar in this form can sprint from 0-62mph in 7.7sec, return 49.5mpg on a combined cycle and emit 134g/km of CO2.


Nissan Pulsar rear cornering
The Pulsar is composed and reasonably well balanced but lacks bite

Thus far, the Pulsar’s CMF platform has produced one very pleasant car to drive in the Nissan Qashqai and a quite unremarkable one in the Nissan X-Trail. The Pulsar, sadly, is closer to the latter. Just as the design favours practicality, so the handling concerns itself with very little beyond ease of use. 

In this respect, the car is highly respectable. Its proportions place it among the larger prospects in the class, but with light steering, fine visibility, a moderate kerb weight and a relatively keen engine, the Pulsar drives with the kind of laid-back user-friendliness that we typically associate with the segment below.

Where a limited-slip differential would only act across one axle, Nissan's ATC can act across two

Moreover, it augments this undemanding character with a rather doughy ride quality, one subjectively made all the softer by the sponginess of the seat filler in our test car. Comfort and a large dose of amiability are agreeable elements in a family hatch, and the largely imperturbable nature of the progress makes the Pulsar an utterly benign thing in which to spend time. 

The problem is that the car has the dynamic depth of a sheet of paper. Woe betide any driver who becomes tired of a cordial amble, because it forms a fathomless rut out of which the Pulsar simply isn’t equipped to climb.

Where the best of Nissan’s rivals have ensured their hatchbacks are capable of becoming at least moderately animated when the mood seizes their customers, the Pulsar is as flaccid as a feather pillow in a sandbag wall.

In part this is to do with the listlessness of the control surfaces and the compassionate chassis’ inability to push back against spirited input, but in truth it’s because Nissan reached a point in development where it simply decided it was good enough. For us, it isn’t.

For the most part, the Pulsar nears its limits in time-honoured front-drive, front-engined hatchback fashion. The available grip, particularly in the wet, is respectable enough, and when it’s exhausted the Nissan lets go progressively from the front.

Only in the extreme circumstances reproduced by MIRA’s permanently waterlogged wet track does the Pulsar reveal any throttle-adjustable tendencies, and then, unexpectedly, it’s possible to find yourself in an irretrievable spin if you’re not quick to temper the rear end.

In this respect, things are not made any easier by the temperamental stability control, which has a habit of sometimes suddenly deciding to act even when it has supposedly been turned off.

Frankly, given the reluctance of the chassis to impart much in the way of useful information at the best of times, we’d leave it all switched on and live with the gentle spasming of the Active Trace Control that precedes a broadside of brake disc-warming traction control intervention.


NIssan Pulsar
Nissan's V-Motion grille marks the Pulsar out as a Nissan, but it's debatable whether you'd be able to name the car if this was covered up

Nissan has positioned the Pulsar to go head to head with the value players in the C-segment field. Corrected for standard equipment, it typically costs £1500 less than an equivalent Volkswagen Golf, Nissan says, and has the likes of the Seat Leon, Hyundai i30 and Citroën C4 in its crosshairs.

The £20k-plus price of the upper-middle-spec N-Connecta test car we drove originally didn’t scream about value for money, but the car’s kit level was quite good, with 17in alloys, privacy glass, crash mitigation, keyless ignition, a reversing camera and touchscreen sat-nav and multimedia all standard.

The residual values aren't great, but then a Pulsar is an unknown quantity as far as the used market is concerned

Shame you have to splurge on Tekna trim to get Nissan’s Around View cameras, blind spot monitors, lane departure warning and moving object detection systems and that a relatively small number of those sold will therefore benefit from them.

If those safety systems don’t convince you to splash out at the pricey end of the spectrum, the Pulsar’s residual values won’t be likely to. But there’s better news on the emissions and economy front, with the diesel Pulsar qualifying for the lowest rung of company car tax and returning a creditable 57.3mpg on our touring economy test.

Don't overlook the petrol version though, as it's still claimed capable of averaging 56.5mpg and emits 117g/km of CO2, entailing low road and company car tax costs.

When it comes to specifying a Pulsar, Acenta trim offers all the kit you'll need, assuming you're happy to use your Smartphone's navigation system. It's £38 for floor mats and £90 for a reversible boot liner; get those thrown in for nowt if you can. Pay for 17in alloys and metallic paint to give it a bit of visual flair.

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3 star Nissan Pulsar
Competent and inoffensive but wholly lacking in personality and verve

It’s feasible that you might dismiss the Pulsar as a reluctant reverse step for Nissan, a sheepish but necessary shuffle in the direction of its past sins, where the cars were frigid in imagination and forgettable in the metal.

Truthfully, it’s better than that. Equally, though, there are no surprises here, championing as it does a steadfast completion of A to B that neither aggravates nor inspires. ‘Not for the likes of us’ is the way we term such cars. 

It needs dynamism applied, liberally, everywhere

So who is it for? Well, it’s roomy, competitively priced, economical, easy to drive and okay to look at. The problem is that those virtues are merely a baseline for most of its rivals. Where they have striven for an extra layer of polish, Nissan has settled.

By doing nothing disagreeable, the Pulsar is worthy a middling three stars and passing consideration among a mass of options.

But a top five recommendation is preserved for cars invested with at least a modicum of inventiveness.

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Nissan Pulsar 2014-2018 First drives