Bringing back a historic name is fraught with danger. Our memories tend to be dulled over time and we just remember what we want to. If the strongest emotions we experienced with a car were good, we’ll remember the car as being good. This is why people often want to buy something truly terrible like a VW Kombi to relive their youthful road trips.
But, if we got back in one of those older cars with an objective brain we would realise that cars have moved on, and in the same way you wouldn’t go back to having an outdoor toilet, or using acacia leaves as a contraceptive, you probably shouldn’t idolise the name of a vehicle that, at best, was tepid in its heyday.
Even if you conceived your children in a 1991 Pulsar SSS the reality is that it has not stood the test of time. It is really a very tedious Pulsar with a boomerang spoiler and slightly bigger wheels. You might have thought it was exciting back in the day, but if you go back far enough in history, so was showing some ankle.
Nissan put the SR20DE engine in it which dribbled out an anaemic 105kW. They could have given it some balls like the scary GTi-R, or even treated us to the SR16VE N1 which was the highest output naturally aspirated engine of its day until Honda’s F20C engine debuted in the S2000.
But they didn’t and this isn’t supposed to be too much of a history lesson because we’ve got a brand spankers 2013 Nissan Pulsar SSS to evaluate. At first glance, it’s a Pulsar with a body kit…keeping in line with the original, then. It does succeed in elevating the conservative Pulsar slightly. Very slightly.
Drop yourself into the seats and where you might expect some kind of bucket arrangement, you’ve got fairly flat seat squabs. These will be good for people with ample girth, but they’re not very sporty. They are quite comfortable, though, and there’s a sense of spaciousness rather than being gripped like you are in the Focus ST.
The overall cabin ambience is improved over the lower model Pulsars. There’s still some hard plastic areas and the steering wheel doesn’t feel special.
The main issue with the Pulsar SSS is the engine-gearbox combination. ‘Sporty’ and ‘CVT’ fit together as awkwardly as ‘Jerry Brownlee’ and ‘six pack abs’. The 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine feels strong and keen – it’s good for 140kW and 240Nm – but the way the CVT comes on power makes it challenging to drive smoothly because seemingly slight movements in the accelerator can cause disproportionate amounts of acceleration. Plus, it drones away and completely discourages you from putting your foot down. Therefore you might as well have the base model Pulsar ST which also has a CVT, but at least the groaning engine note is matched by its less-than-stunning power.
You can turn up the stereo to drown it out, but the stereo isn’t that flash either. You do get a good touchscreen interface and it will stream audio via Bluetooth from your phone, as well as play conventional audio formats. The phone integration works fine, too, and you can answer calls using a button on the steering wheel.
The driving experience is odd. On the straight and narrow there’s a sports suspension feel. It’s a big jiggly and tight. You’d expect that when you get into the twisty bits that this would translate to a hot hatch experience that deepens your smile lines. It doesn’t. There’s a vagueness in the cornering and it seems to lean to much.
It fixes the driving position problem with the Pulsar ST hatchback we reviewed here, i.e. the lack of dead pedal, and in general forward visibility is good.
The SSS’s saving grace is its price. At over $12,000 less than the Focus ST and $9000 less than the Mazda3 MPS, you can get something that takes an earnest stab at being a hot hatch, plus has a bevy of luxury features such as leather seats, dual zone climate control, keyless entry, reversing camera, automatic Xenon headlights and satellite navigation available via the touchscreen. The SSS is also much better value than the Pulsar ST-S which features the same engine, but without those luxury items or the body kit.
Overall, the Pulsar SSS misses the mark for me. Unless you have particularly tall children to transport in the rear seats your best bet is to check out the Volkswagen Golf TSI (103kW) or the Ford Fiesta ST which are comparably priced. I’m left wondering about what could have been achieved if it was just a few thousand dollars more.
- Cheap thrills
- Enormous rear legroom
- Feels cheap
Words and photos: Darren Cottingham