For a car with such a stellar name, the Nissan Pulsar usually isn’t the shiniest object in the vicinity. At least, that’s been true of my (admittedly limited) past Pulsar observations: basically a slightly eclipsed Sunny, with a slightly more somber disposition. Nothing planet-shattering, in other words. But there is a brighter spot in the Pulsar constellation: the fiery GTI-R.
Back In the late ‘80s, the World Rally Championship (WRC) was a huge deal. The sport had a massive audience in both Japan and Europe, and most carmakers would have given anything to be on the podium, as the PR dividends were potentially immense. Audi, Ford, Lancia, Toyota and Honda were certainly raking in the glory in those days. Nissan wanted in – and they decided that the N14 Pulsar hatchback would be just the ticket.
In order to enter the Pulsar into the WRC, Nissan had to produce a homologated street version, which became the GTI-R. They shoehorned the same SR20DET engine (1998cc turbocharged 4-cyl.) in the little Pulsar that was used in the contemporary U12 Bluebird SSS and S13 Silvia, but whereas is was limited to about 208hp in the bigger cars, the Pulsar’s variant was pushed to 230hp and mated to an AWD drivetrain. This enabled the street version of the Nissan WRC entry to accelerate like a motorbike (0-100kph in 5.5 seconds) and cruise like an airplane (max speed: 232kph/144mph).
Two flavours of GTI-R were on offer: the “Alpha” luxury model, like our feature car, had A/C, ABS, power windows and the same seats one would find on other higher-end N14 Pulsars (not seen on this car due to aftermarket Recaros, which in this case are somewhat justified), or the hard-core “Beta” WRC homologation model that did away with any creature comforts as standard and made do with base trim, making the car 30kg lighter.
The GTI-R was chiefly made for the JDM, but a contingent was also shipped over to Europe, where it was marketed as a Sunny. EU-spec versions are all of the “alpha” variety, but the engine had to be toned down to 220hp due to differences in octane levels in European fuels. Still, it gave the Nissan range a shot of adrenaline like they hadn’t had since the Fairlady Z.
Sales were brisk, especially in Japan. However, that did not translate into Nissan becoming a WRC winner: the stringent Group A rules meant that the Pulsar was hamstrung tyre-wise and the car’s smaller and narrower nose, compared to its somewhat larger competitors, caused the intercooler and the radiator to run a bit too hot, despite the massive air intakes. The Pulsar underperformed on the track, leading Nissan to throw in the towel in 1992.
But they kept the GTI-R in the Japanese market range until the model was retired in January 1995, when the N15 Pulsar took over, minus the GTI-R variant. The nameplate is still used in certain parts of the globe, but it was retired from the JDM in 2000, where the N16 was sold as the Bluebird Sylphy, later replaced by the Tiida. Never was the Pulsar allowed to shine so brightly as it did in the early ‘90s with the GTI-R – for once, it actual was star material.
Curbside Capsules: Pulsar Showdown – GTI-R / Q / Grinny, by Don Andreina