1990-1994 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R: The Forgotten Hot Hatch
When one thinks of forbidden fruit hot hatches—those compact screamers that for whatever reason were never imported to North America—the mind often wanders to the early Volkswagen Golf R32, the EK9 Honda Civic Type R and the Renault Clio V6, high performance icons that for many defined the epitome of FOMO on this side of the ocean.
Less celebrated is another pint-sized wonder that for many car fans only came to light thanks to its inclusion in the first few editions of the Gran Turismo video game series. The Nissan Pulsar GTI-R (also called the Sunny) was in many ways a half-strength Skyline, available at a price far more affordable than its Godzilla-evoking sibling.
The GTI-R version of the long-selling Pulsar made its first appearance in the Japanese market for the 1990 model year. Available exclusively as a hatchback, and outfitted with a big hood scoop and an attention-grabbing spoiler at the rear that extended the roofline by several inches, it was intended by Nissan to homologate the car for participation in FIA Group A rally. As such, it had all of the hallmarks of a competition-inspired gravel muncher: a short wheelbase, standard all-wheel drive and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
The SR20DET engine was perhaps the only part of the Pulsar package familiar to Americans, as it was cousin to the naturally-aspirated SR20DE found under the hoods of the Infiniti G20, Nissan Sentra and the similarly-named but dramatically different Nissan Pulsar NX. The DET would rise to fame through its use in the drifting world, however, where it would increasingly find itself swapped into the engine bay of the Nissan 240SX coupe.
Applied to the Pulsar GTI-R, the SR20DET was good for 227hp and 210 lb-ft of torque on the street, figures that could easily be boosted by turning up the wick on the turbo past the stock 10.6 lbs. A five-speed manual gearbox was included with each example of the car, and it also featured locking differentials at the front, center and rear. Thanks to its ATTESA AWD and a Miata-like curb weight of roughly 2,400 lbs, the Pulsar had enough grip to snap past 60 mph from a standing start in a very respectable five seconds, which is incredible when compared to the similar figures put down by the Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette of the era.
Quickest of the Quick
Considering that the Nissan Pulsar GTI-R was putting up numbers comparable to sports car exotica, you probably won't be surprised to find out that it outright obliterated any similarly-sized contender available in the United States at that time. The MK3 GTI was good for just under 150hp in four-cylinder trim, while even the later VR6 edition was still under 200hp. The Civic Si of the same period was even less mighty, producing 125hp from its 1.6L four-cylinder mill and taking 7.5 seconds to hit 60 mph.
In Japan, of course, it was a different story, with OEMs lining up to do battle against each other on the streets with a range of pocket-sized turbocharged warriors that for various reasons never made it to America. This, combined with the desire to go for the jugular in world rally competition, explains why the Pulsar was pushed into Japanese showrooms.
Unfortunately for Nissan, the Pulsar GTI-R wasn't nearly as competitive on the Group A rally stage as it was on the boulevard. In fact, in two years of racing the Pulsar never finished better than third in any one event, despite having legendary pilots like Tommi Makkinen and Stig Blomqvist at the helm. The factory team abandoned its efforts after the 1992 season. Interestingly, during that same slice of racing, production versions of the Pulsar won three events in Group N, and took both the N Championship (1991) and runner-up (1992).
The Discount GT(I)-R
Due to its age and the 25-year import rule, the Nissan Pulsar GTI-R is starting to show up more and more often state-side, thanks in part to its affordable sub-$15k pricing on the secondhand market.
With a built-in fanbase for the SR20DET, combined with its relatively simple design and affordable maintenance, the GTI-R is an intriguing alternative choice for a '90s-era hot rod that virtually guarantees you won't run into yourself at the next meet. It's also a great way to own a classic Nissan with the letters "GT" and "R" in the name without having to re-morgtage your house to pay the drift tax. Just think of that little "I" as your gateway to both turbocharged all-wheel drive rally fun and substantial savings.