IT TOOK a little while to put my finger on what the new Nissan Pulsar reminded me of. As I drove the 1.2-litre car into the hills behind Barcelona, where the Pulsar will be built, its rev counter made painful progress around the dial, and the tyres squealed in protest in the corners.
Then it came to me. The Pulsar is exactly the sort of bog-standard hatchback that gamers are given when they first start out in Gran Turismo.
No matter how hard its engine is revved, how violently the gears are snatched or how hot the tyres and brakes become from their workout on a winding mountain road, the safe and steady Pulsar plods along with a certain unbreakable perky spirit.
This is Nissan’s first hatchback – the most popular type of car in Britain, remember – since 2006 after Nissan decided not to replace the Almera, a car only memorable for the fun GTi version (which is now a bargain on eBay) and the TV adverts that promoted it between breaks in Coronation Street and which were a spoof of The Professionals.
If the Pulsar is any good, it should feature on the shopping lists of hundreds of thousands of British car buyers, alongside the Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf and Driving’s third favourite hatch, the Mazda 3.
All are seriously good cars. The Golf offers an air of quality and all-round ability that’s untouchable, while the Focus and 3 are exceptionally good to drive and equally good value. So what does the Pulsar offer that they don’t?
Nissan talks about the car’s refinement, comfort and interior space, but these are all qualities found in the competition. Where is the innovation and can-do attitude that saw the car maker score success with cars such as the Qashqai and Juke?
According to Nissan, one of the best reasons for buying a Pulsar is its competitive price. Starting at £15,995, it will be cheaper than an equivalent model from Ford, Mazda or VW when it goes on sale next month. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem like a good start in an age where the majority of cars are bought on PCP-type finance packages. Undercutting the competition by a few hundred pounds may not strike many drivers as a particularly compelling reason to plump for the Pulsar.
The five-door-only range will feature just two engines. The first is a rather likeable 1.2-litre direct injection four-cylinder turbocharged petrol. After we compared it with the 1.5-litre four-cylinder diesel, it turned out to be the pick of the range.
Like the concierge from the film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, it remains smooth and unruffled no matter how wickedly the driver treats it. From 2,000rpm it pulls relatively enthusiastically, while drivers with a light right foot should see fuel economy of around 56mpg. There’s less nasty stuff coming out of the exhaust than the diesel model, too. The latter will return as much as 78mpg but the trouble is, it makes much more noise and gives the car a nose-heavy feel through bends.
Surprisingly, the Pulsar puts in a good showing on a winding road. Heck, it’s almost enjoyable with a relatively flat stance through bends, good levels of grip and low levels of noise on motorway runs.
The road holding bodes well for the rumoured 250bhp Nismo version, likely to appear after a 190bhp 1.6-litre turbo model that Nissan has confirmed will go on sale early next year. But there are things Nissan needs to tend to: the steering has a peculiar habit of not spinning itself back to the straight-ahead position after the car has exited a bend, and the ride can be jarring over broken surfaces.
Where the Pulsar unquestionably gets one over rivals – Skoda Octavia excepted – is in the cabin, which Nissan claims offers more space than any competitor.
Can a car really sell on the amount of rear legroom it offers? Nissan hopes so. And sure enough, there is room to stretch the legs right out behind the driver. How long before it becomes the default choice of provincial taxi drivers looking to downsize?
Nissan’s catchline is Innovation That Excites, but nothing about the Pulsar’s interior design or technology is likely to set pulses racing. Well, not unless you consider a rear-view camera that can give itself a wash and blow-dry, a must-have.
It would have been nice to see a bit more money being spent on what people can see and touch inside the Pulsar, rather than, as it has been, on gadgets and gizmos such as the Safety Shield surround-view system and Google’s Send-to-Car journey planning software. Far from being a bright light that lures you in, the plain cabin looks like a black hole.
Nissan’s reason for ceasing Almera production was that it believed drivers of affordable family cars wanted something different for their money. The following year it launched the Qashqai, and its hunch was proved right. The Qashqai was a smash hit. Drivers really did want something distinct; something that made them stand out from the crowd.
That bullish approach isn’t much in evidence in the Pulsar. Close your eyes and you could, almost, be back in the unremarkable Almera. By playing it safe, Nissan has missed the opportunity to outshine Ford, Mazda and Volkswagen.
The newest member of the conservative party
Nissan Pulsar 1.2 DIG-T Visia
- Engine: 1196cc, four-cylinder turbo petrol
- Power: 113bhp @ 4500rpm
- Torque: 140 lb ft @ 2000rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
- Acceleration: 0-62mph in 10.7sec
- Top speed: 118mph
- Fuel: 56.5mpg
- CO2: 117g/km
- Vehicle tax band: C
- Price: from £15,995
- Release date: October
Nissan Pulsar rivals
Ford Focus 1.0 Ecoboost Edge, from £16,400
For Excellent driving experience, facelift improves its style and introduces latest tech
Against Lacks the classy interior and refined nature of the VW Golf
Volkswagen Golf 1.2 TSI (105) S, from £18,640
For The smartest to look at and sit in, good to drive
Against More expensive to buy