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Classic Car Review: 1990 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R
Vintage Video Game Hero
Like plenty of car enthusiasts of a certain age, I bought the original Sony PlayStation solely for the purpose of enjoying Gran Turismo. At the time, the game raised the bar for console-based driving simulations and, to a large degree, the success of the Gran Turismo franchise paved the way for the wide variety of console driving sims we enjoy today.
Gran Turismo was groundbreaking in many ways and it offered a peek at some cool Japanese cars. It’s where I learned more about those JDM exotics we’d never see on North American highways. One of the inexpensive, entry-level cars you could purchase within the sim was the unforgettable Nissan Pulsar GTI-R.
To sample it in Gran Turismo was to give me a taste of some completely forbidden automotive fruit. Plus, it was appealing to drive, virtually speaking, because its performance was accessible and handling approachable. In short, it was easy to drive fast.
Since the beginning, the Gran Turismo development team has been careful to model real cars with faithful virtual representations and what made the GTI-R so attractive were its real world stats.
Starting with a little, everyday Japanese hatchback, Nissan dropped in the legendary SR20DET, turbocharged, two-litre, four-cylinder engine, mated it to a five-speed manual gearbox, and added an all-wheel drive system to get the power to the ground.
When new, the SR20DET produced 227 horsepower and 210 pounds of torque, and while these numbers are commonplace today, a hot hatch with anything coming close to two hundred horsepower in the early nineties was mental. Plus, even in the vintage example I drove here, the engine pulls hard all the way through the rev range to its 7,500 RPM redline.
The relatively small turbo eliminates any practical lag, although you could force some if you’re not paying attention to your gear choice. Add in pavement-clawing all-wheel drive and this little Nissan was simply insane for the times. Comparatively, the hot hatches we could purchase here were nothing more than lightly warmed over Golfs and Civics.
Driving the Pulsar in that digital environment is a fond memory, so there was no way I’d turn down the chance to drive one of my Gran Turismo heroes in real life. The caretakers of this particular GTI-R, Alta Nissan of Woodbridge, Ontario, tossed me the keys and insisted that I enjoy myself.
After decades since this particular GTI-R rolled out of the factory, what exactly are we dealing with here? First things first, this Pulsar is largely stock and mostly free of aftermarket fiddling. Shocking for a JDM classic, I know, and Alta Nissan has simply fitted some appropriate, modern footwear – a set of lightweight wheels and sticky R-compound rubber.
In the trade known as automotive criticism, the word visceral is a widely abused cliché, as ubiquitous as a double double at Tim Hortons. Most modern cars have become comfortably numb, limiting their driver feedback, simply due to the current necessities of electric power steering and the mass that comes from safety-related construction.
There are few modern cars that could be called visceral, but if you want to feel completely engaged with a car, try driving something like this Pulsar GTI-R. Engineered roughly three decades ago, you feel every dynamic nuance of this hot hatch when you’re behind the wheel. The steering has real heft and the feedback you get from the tires seems like each contact patch is directly wired to your palms.
The five-speed transmission is great – and massively better than the manual box in the 2017 Sentra NISMO I tested prior to this Pulsar. Even laden with the turbo, intercooler, air con, a sunroof and the all-wheel drive system, this Nissan tips the scales at a lithe 1,200 kilos. Even though there’s a lot going mechanically, but this GTI-R offers up a wide swath of high-fidelity feedback to the pilot, and it all adds to the Nissan’s charm.
I loved my Volkswagen GTIs and loved driving EF Civic Sis of that era, but something like this Pulsar would have made me pack up and move to Japan.
The clutch does have some heft to it, as it does have to handle over two hundred pounds-feet of torque, and the feel out of the clutch pedal lets you know precisely how it’s engaged. Gearing is unnaturally perfect, engineered and seamlessly suited to its enthusiastic character. At every moment, the GTI-R feels eager and thoroughly responsive. It’s such a contrast to modern cars that it makes everything produced since the turn of the century feel numb by comparison.
The Pulsar’s seats are supportive and comfortable, but the placement of the seat relative to the wheel, pedals, and shifter is a bit off, and I could never find the ideal seating position. To be fair, I’m not shaped like a typical Japanese male from the 1990s, either. Thankfully, the tiny size of the Pulsar combined with its relatively large windows makes visibility tops, even for modern standards.
At the time, the Pulsar GTI-R was said to accelerate from zero to sixty in five seconds flat and top out at a respectable 200 kilometres per hour, despite the speedo only going to one-ninety. In contrast, my Mark II Volkswagen GTI would top two hundred with sixty percent of the Nissan’s power, which suggests that maximum velocity was dictated by gearing.
It should come as no surprise that the GTI-R was developed as a homologation car for Group A rally competition, an analogue to today’s WRC. Most of these Pulsars were produced in similar trim to this car, with power windows, air conditioning and a sunroof. There was also a very trick NISMO version available for purchase in extremely limited numbers. You’d stand a better chance of finding a needle in a haystack than finding a Pulsar GTI-R NISMO for sale.
Experiencing this vintage Nissan leads me to think that it would have been astounding to have piloted this GTI-R at the time it was produced. I loved my Volkswagen GTIs and loved driving EF Civic Sis of that era, but something like this Pulsar would have made me pack up and move to Japan.
The real question is, does it satisfy my expectations from Gran Turismo? Well, the GTI-R sure is quick, it’s got plenty of grip, and seems pretty easy to hustle, just like the virtual one. However, it’s the quality of its feedback that makes me think I’d gladly sacrifice the power and speed of modern cars for more of that great road feel.
Indeed, the old adage of never meeting your heroes doesn’t apply here, but unless I get some laps with it on the Autumn Ring Mini, I can’t be entirely certain.
1990 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R
BODY STYLE: Three-door hatchback
DRIVE METHOD: Front engine, all-wheel-drive, five-speed manual transmission
ENGINE: 2.0-litre, turbocharged, in-line four cylinder (227 hp, 210 lb/ft of torque)
CARGO CAPACITY: modest; remember, it’s a tiny car
FUEL ECONOMY: (Premium) Approximately 15 l/100km in mixed driving
WEB SITE: altanissan.com
DISCLOSURE: The test of this vintage Nissan Pulsar GTI-R was graciously provided by the excellent folks at Alta Nissan of Woodbridge, Ontario, who keep this hot hatch running like a top.
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