As a child, I distinctly recall leafing through a brochure of the 1995 Nissan Pulsar. I loved the way they looked, even after being on the market since 1991. I loved the sheer variety of trim levels and its clean, well-proportioned styling inside and out. I was later dismayed at how bland its upcoming replacement looked. Now that I’m older, I still haven’t driven a 1991-95 Pulsar but upon learning more about the car, I have even more of an appreciation for them.
As I covered in my article on the Nissan Pintara, the N14-series Pulsar was the final Nissan to be manufactured in their Clayton, Victoria factory. Nissan’s Australian operations had been struggling for some time due to a history of poor assembly quality, mediocre cars (Pintara, rear-wheel-drive Bluebird) and heavily incentivized vehicle sales. Towards the end, Nissan was starting to make a concerted effort in improving their Aussie-built vehicle range. In fact, $AUD362 million dollars was invested in improving the Australian factory for the launch of the new Pulsar. But Nissan’s Aussie operations had been bleeding cash and Clayton would be shuttered in 1992.
Accordingly, the 1991-95 Pulsar story can be split into two chapters: the first two years of Australian production from 1991-92; and the imported Series II from 1993-95. There was not much difference between the two series other than some minor trim details. Quality was also improved upon the switch to the imported model, although Nissan Australia had noticeably lifted their game for their final new model and the gap wasn’t as wide as it could have been. Still, better fit and finish saw the Pulsar rocket to the top of a 1993 Wheels magazine quality survey. Both the locally manufactured and imported versions proved to be very reliable as well as strong sellers. Because of this, I’ve managed to photograph every trim level in a short space of time as they are easily one of the most common compacts of that era on the roads.
The range launched in 1991 in two body styles: a smart five-door liftback and a more conservative four-door sedan. There were two twin-cam four-cylinder engines available: one manufactured locally and one imported. The former was a sweet, iron-block 1.6 (108hp and 108 ft-lbs) with a form of variable cam timing on the inlet camshaft; it offered a compelling mix of fuel economy and low-end flexibility. The latter was a punchy all-alloy 2.0 that still offered great fuel economy, but also class-leading performance with 140hp and 132 ft-lbs at 6400rpm and 4800rpm, respectively. Either engine could be had with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
The N14 Pulsar wasn’t entirely new, though. Underneath, it retained the vertical strut rear suspension of its 1986-90 N13 predecessor. The wheelbase was also identical. Up front, the Pulsar employed a strut suspension like much of its competition.
The interior was a marked improvement over the angular, indifferently-assembled cabin of its predecessor. A center stack oriented towards the driver, good quality plastics and contemporary, flowing lines made the cabin a nice place to be. The high-spec Ti even had velour seats with an almost loose-pillow effect.
The base GLi sedan and hatch were available only with the 1.6, and came standard with central locking and a cassette player. The Q hatch (1.6 or 2.0) added power mirrors and steering, sportier trim and four-wheel disc brakes. The Ti 2.0 sedan and hatch had premium sound and cruise control, while the performance oriented SSS 2.0 had 14-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, sports steering wheel and sports suspension with stiffer front springs and a larger rear sway bar. The SSS also featured the Nissan Integrated Security System as standard; it comprised an immobiliser, remote central locking and an alarm.
Pricing was competitive, too. In 1991, the base GLi opened at approximately $AUD17k and undercut even the cheapest Hyundai Lantra, a car that was well screwed together but dynamically off the pace. The range topped out at around $23k for the sporty SSS, just tapping at the door of base models of the big Aussie sixes but undercutting sporty variants of the Civic and 323.
Critical praise was glowing. The Pulsar and Honda (Acura) NSX were the first dual winners of the 1991 Wheels Car of the Year competition, arguably Australia’s most prestigious automotive award. The judges remarked the Pulsar offered a better ride/handling compromise than any other compact, with a firm yet compliant and well-controlled ride and balanced and enjoyable handling. The 2.0 engine was at the top of the class, performance-wise, but the 1.6 was still praised for its overall competitiveness. One judge even remarked that the Pulsar transcended its segment and was getting closer to mid-size cars in terms of all-round ability.
The new-for-1991 Honda Civic was also an entrant in COTY, but its lack of refinement and, in base trim, performance meant it failed to advance to the final round. The Pulsar (and NSX) ended up besting the BMW 3-Series, Mazda 929, Nissan Skyline GT-R and Mitsubishi Magna/Verada (Diamante).
Some were unimpressed by the Pulsar’s styling, but it really wasn’t any more inoffensive than its main rivals. The chief criticism of the Pulsar, and one that would feature in every review and comparison test, was its lack of rear-seat room. Despite that, the Pulsar would go on to beat rivals in multiple comparison tests.
A Ti 2.0 bested the Civic, 323 and Lantra in a 1992 Wheels comparison test, with the authors especially praising the gutsy engine (0-60mph in approximately 9 seconds) and proclaiming its performance to be “out in front by the proverbial country kilometre” and its “sizzling superiority… never challenged”. The aging 323 stood up well, but the other two battled for last place. The Pulsar’s suspensions were deemed to be well-matched and had plenty of travel, providing good road-holding and a comfortable ride. The 323, though, was rated the sportier drive despite being less powerful. Zoom-zoom, indeed.
You needn’t have ponied up for the 2.0 models if you wanted a competitive small car, however. Although the 1.6 was sometimes overwhelmed by the Pulsar’s curb weight (2300lbs), it had plenty of low-end flexibility and a slick-shifting manual transmission. A 1.6 Q took home the gold in a 1993 comparison test against the Ford Laser, Mitsubishi Lancer and Toyota Corolla, besting its rivals in fuel economy, ride, handling, although the Laser and its Mazda underpinnings put up a solid fight in the handling stakes. Once again, though, the authors pointed out that the Pulsar’s rear seat was no place for full-grown adults.
The switch to the imported model saw only minor trim differences and shuffling of options, such as the SSS losing its trick security system. The GLi became the LX, and the 2.0 engine was removed from the popular, mid-range Q’s options list. All models swapped the grille’s honeycomb inserts for a simpler bar design.
Although it still stacked up well against its rivals until the end, the Pulsar’s packaging flaws had begun to date it by 1994. That year, Motor pitched the enjoyable SSS against the laughably overpriced Toyota Corolla Sprinter and the impressive new Mazda 323 Astina, the latter armed with a silky 2.0 V6. Although almost identical in horsepower and torque figures, the Astina boasted better top-end performance.
More importantly, despite its swoopy styling, it had more rear legroom than the Pulsar. Time was marching on and the Pulsar was facing rivals with more spacious interiors, important safety features like airbags, and less NVH.
1996 would see the arrival of the new N15 series Pulsar. As mentioned earlier, it wasn’t as pretty as the N14 and echoed a trend in Japan towards chunkier, blander cars like the new Honda Civic, Accord and Legend (Acura RL), although the American market missed out on the even more egregious examples like the rebodied Mazda 929/Sentia. Where the N15 suffered aesthetically, it made up for in packaging. Most of the mechanicals were carried over from the N14, except for a new multi-link rear suspension which, coupled with a stretch in dimensions, resulted in a better packaged Pulsar and addressed the N14’s only prominent flaw. The end result was an improved Pulsar that still stacked up well against its rivals in Australia’s most competitive segment: a testament to the excellent platform of the N14 Pulsar.