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Supercar Steal

Pulsar GTi-R speed for masses...

By Michael Knowling

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This article was first published in 2002.

So you want to go fast for under $20k, huh? Do you want to go really, really fast for less than $20k? Well now - thanks to recent changes to import regulations - you can do just that in you're very own 'Baby Godzilla' Nissan Pulsar GTi-R (aka Sunny).

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This little weapon - spawned in 1990 to do battle on the world rally circuit - absolutely redefines the term 'pocket rocket'. Forget about hot Corollas and Starlets, because with 162kW and AWD, the GTi-R makes them all look like a sour joke. Whether you're into straight-line drags, cornering like a mad man, playing Tommi in the dirt - or any combination of the above - the GTi-R will accommodate. And, as a bonus, it's everyday practical and relatively economical on fuel.

No build-up can do this car justice - it is every bit as good, if not better than anything else on the market below $20 grand.

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Under its bonnet, the GTi-R ticks with technology that puts its Evo, STi and MazdaSport rivals to shame. The transversely-mounted all-alloy 2-litre SR20DET features quad throttle bodies, a top-mount air-to-air intercooler (measuring 350mm x 295 x 60mm), a large T28 turbocharger and all the smart design of the Nissan SR-series of engines. We're talking double overhead cams with 4-valves-per-cylinder (sodium filled on the exhaust side), piston oil jets and an efficient combustion chamber design giving an 8.3:1 static compression ratio. The effective compression, however, is substantially higher when the turbo's producing its power kick. The only thing missing from the GTi-R engine's spec list is the variable inlet cam timing as found the locally delivered S14/15 200SX.

For the number hungry, the GTi-R falls between the output of a local WRX and a STi or Evo. Running on 100-octane unleaded - the Japanese good stuff - the GTi-R is rated with 162kW at 6400 rpm and 284Nm at 4800 rpm.

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Peak figures are only part of the story, though. The GTi-R has far superior throttle response than its rivals (thanks to its race-inspired quad throttles) and backs it with good bottom-end torque. In the lower gears, boost starts to knock on the door from less than 2000 rpm (according to the factory pressure gauge) and by 4700 rpm she's climbed to maximum pressure.

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Note that our test car wound the needle of its factory boost pressure gauge to the end of its scale, at a substantial 700mmHg (which equates to 93 kPa or 13.5 psi). On the other hand, we've seen claims that maximum boost is 550mmHg (73 kPa/10.5 psi), so we're not entirely sure what the standard boost pressure 'should' be.

Half of what makes the N14-series GTi-R so special is its ATESSA constant four-wheel-drive driveline. Using a viscous centre coupling, torque is apportioned front-to-rear depending on the difference in axle rotational speed at each end - a system similar to a WRX, for example. The front diff is the usual open-centre type, while the back one is of the viscous LSD variety. And, of course, all GTi-Rs come with a 5-speed manual - there's no auto version available.

Electronic Torque Split Systems?

We're led to believe that an electronic active torque-split all-wheel-drive system - similar to the Skyline GT-R's - was used on a small number of GTi-Rs. These are, reputedly, the specially-built rally cars, which also come void of a rear window wiper, air conditioning, power windows and mirrors and a stereo system. A dead-set giveaway to whether a GTi-R is fitted with the electronic torque-split AWD system is it will have a torque-split gauge in the centre of the dash.

We are yet to see one of these vehicles, but keep an eye out.

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Weighing just over 1200 kilograms, GTi-R can launch bloody hard. Without the low-down torque hole of an early Rex (or later STi), it's much easier to scramble off the line. High 6-second second 0 - 100s are child's play, with the official Nissan time quoted at 6.3-seconds - some sources, however, claim high 5s... The quarter mile sprint takes the hot Pulsar about 14-seconds dead and it will run to a top-speed of 223 km/h. With figures like these, the GTi-R is snapping embarrassingly close to the heels of some much more expensive performance cars. The GTi-R's modest fuel consumption comes as a bonus - expect around 11 litres per 100km in normal driving conditions.

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And now onto handling...

The GTi-R has a rep for stable but less than ideal handling - and that's how it is. Like most viscous couple'd AWD cars that are a bit nose-heavy, the GTi-R struggles to achieve turn-in. Once it is lined up, you've then got to be smart with the throttle otherwise the thing will plough understeer heavily. Perhaps due to the low-grade tyres fitted to our test vehicle, there was also a bit of lateral squirming that went on.

In normal driving, the GTi-R's MacPherson front struts and parallel link rear struts work nicely and, surprisingly, the spring rates are quite soft. Note that this perception may be due to the fact that the dampers on our test car were quite shagged...

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Like Nissan Skylines, Silvias and 180s of the same era, the GTi-R has excellent steering. It's direct, linear and - for the most part - well weighted. It is, perhaps, a tad on the light side. Looking at the photos, you've probably realised that the standard GTi-R rolling stock is particularly unimpressive - just 14 x 6 alloys wearing 195/55 rubbers. I guess Nissan were assuming they'd be replaced for competition rally use and, in the everyday market, those people into GTi-Rs would want to whack on their own set of rims anyhow. Certainly, many of the imported GTi-Rs are already equipped with aftermarket wheels.

Brakes? Ah, yes we'd better not forget them on a car of this substantial pace. The GTi-R shows its age when you look at its brakes - they're certainly nothing special. Just 260mm ventilated fronts and 230mm solid rears with ABS-controlled twin and single pot calipers. They do the job okay on the standard car, but if you're looking to enhance power, you'd better make a brake upgrade a high priority.

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One of the most common responses you get when showing someone over the GTi-R is that "it looks like a shopping trolley". This might be insulting to some, but the upshot is it has shopping trolley practicality - the doors open nice and wide, there's easy access and typical 3-door hatchback storage. The rear seat offers space for two and, when necessary, the rear backrests can be folded for extra cargo hold. Visibility is good, too, though the C-pillar is quite thick.

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The GTi-R 's genesis was as a rally machine, but that doesn't mean it does without luxuries. It comes reasonably well equipped with power front windows (the rears are pop-outs), power retractable mirrors, central locking, analog climate control, a leather-wrapped wheel and gearknob and moderately supportive seats. Instrumentation includes a 180 km/h speedo, 7500 redlined tacho, fuel level, coolant temperature, oil pressure, temperature and boost pressure.

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Oh, and something divine must surely have come over the Nissan engineers when they decided to include an umbrella in a dedicated holster in the rear of the driver's doorframe...

Don't get us wrong - the GTi-R is no plush-mobile. The doors sound tinny when you shut them, there are squeaks and rattles from the rear hatch area and the whole show is put together to the same standard as - not surprisingly - an early '90s Pulsar.

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Externally, the 3-door GTi-R is a bit of a pig - literally. It's got a weird, scrunched-up nose, a stubby body and a funny curly tail (in this case, a spoiler). It's not a very pretty car to most eyes, but - for us enthusiasts - we tend to look straight past this and recognise what lies beneath.

At the front, the usual N14 Pulsar panels feature a new aggressive bar and a bonnet with more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. The engine lid incorporates a huge forward-facing scoop to feed air to the intercooler and two heat extraction vents - a lightweight bonnet it is not. Side skirts run down the lower sills and, out back, the tailgate is fitted with the equivalent of a Porsche whale tale - a huge spoiler that extends off the roofline. This helps the GTi-R achieve an aerodynamic Cd of 0.39 (hardly impressive by today's standards).

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Thanks to the import gods, the N14 Pulsar GTi-R is now being complianced in Australia by more than just one company. Today, you can walk into a number of import dealers and pick up a GTi-R for less than 20 grand - this 1990 128,000km test car, for example, is stickered at just AUD$18,750. It also comes with 3-months registration and a 3-year 'extended bronze warranty' through Adelaide Japanese Imports.

Despite being now available through more than one outlet, the GTi-R will remain a relatively scarce vehicle - the GTi-R production run spanned between only 1990 and 1994. The reason for this limited stint comes back to what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt at WRC; Nissan decided to withdraw the GTi-R from competition after only about a year.

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Today's second-hand buyers should be reasonably cautious. The GTi-R is starting to get a bit long in the tooth and inevitably they'll be getting high in (usually hard-driven!) kilometres. Look for all the usual performance car stuff - a slipping clutch, a noisy or worn synchro in the gearbox, turbo or engine smoke and, overall, make sure the engine runs smoothly and noise-free. It also pays to check the suspension and brakes, which are often due for immediate replacement.

And, lastly, check for signs of competition motorsport use - you don't want to buy a dog that's spent hours flying through a forest on full boost and was later repaired after a rollover...

And how 'bout modification potential, you ask?

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In Australia, there aren't as many go-fasts bits as you'll find for a WRX but there's still the potential to make a near-unbeatable streeter. To start off with, we'd recommend whacking on a 3-inch turbo-back exhaust and a high-flow cold air intake - this should up the ante to around 180kW or more kilowatts. Before increasing boost pressure, the next steps should be aimed at avoiding detonation - we noticed our stockie (though hard-boosting) test car would detonate on occasion. The GTi-R's top-mount intercooler suffers considerable heat soak in stop-start driving conditions, so a front-mount replacement would be a good idea. In addition, we'd look into making engine management system changes to ensure the engine won't rattle on our up-to 98 RON pump fuel. With these areas seen to, we'd then happily wind the turbo up to around 14-15 psi and enjoy somewhere around 210kW of reliable power.

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In terms of suspension development, the GTi-R's understeery handling can largely be improved by stiffening the rear anti-roll and 'livening' the rear wheel alignment. For even better results we'd recommend a quality set of shocks, and - if you want to go further - maybe even a 'Works' kit from Whiteline. Check "Suspension Intervention" for one approach to GTi-R suspension set-up.

As for brakes, we'd start off with the usual easy stuff. Whack in a quality set of aftermarket brake pads, run good fluid, add a master cylinder brace and braided lines and hope that it makes the desired improvement. Beyond this, you're up for a lot of money to sort out a custom brake installation (something like a big set of Harrops).

Within the realms of normality, though, the Nissan Pulsar GTi-R offers an indecent amount all-round performance for the money. Get hooning!

Why you would:

  • No other sub-20k second-hand production car will match its overall performance - the WRX's engine is nowhere near as flexible
  • Practical as a hatchback
  • Plenty of performance modification potential

Why you wouldn't:

  • Handling too understeery, but easily improved with suspension and alignment mods
  • Brakes should be upgraded to accompany engine mods
  • Make sure you buy a good one, otherwise maintenance costs will be high

The Nissan Pulsar GTi-R was supplied for this test by Adelaide Japanese Imports.

Contact:

Adelaide Japanese Imports
+61 8 8369 1156

http://www.adelaidejap.com.au

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