Here’s a Japanese hot hatch you probably haven’t heard of, but we think the Nissan Pulsar VZ-R deserves some attention.
Can you name two Japanese hot hatches from the 1990s, homologated for racing and fitted with a screaming 1.6-litre engine? Most will instantly think of Honda’s EK9 Civic Type R, but there is another few have ever heard of outside of Japan. Nissan’s Pulsar VZ-R N1.
The N15 version of the Pulsar, on which the VZ-R N1 is based, is as unassuming as a car can possibly look. It is not an attractive car, but neither is it ugly enough to pass comment. It is only exceptional in its banality. It was marketed as the Almera in the UK and Europe. The previous generation Pulsar (N14) range was topped by the extreme looking GTI-R; a turbocharged, four-wheel drive, Group A rally homologation special, which had a deep front bumper, aggressive rear wing and an enormous vented bonnet bulge.
You'd expect the next performance Pulsar to look similarly extreme – but the VZ-R N1 made do with a restyled grille and modest, by comparison, rear wing. It’s fitting, as the VZ-R N1 wasn't as extreme as the GTI-R – on the surface at least. It was also built to homologate the Pulsar for racing, but this time was front-wheel drive and naturally aspirated – aiming squarely for the EK9. It even shared the same basic chassis and suspension layout as the ordinary Pulsar: macpherson struts at the front and torsion beam at the rear.
The VZ-R N1, and all other ‘90s Japanese hot hatches for that matter, tend to get over shadowed by the EK9 Civic Type-R. The Civic's seam welded shell, red Recaro seats and titanium gear knob were among the highlights, but the 1595cc 182bhp screaming VTEC engine really stole the headlines. With 114bhp per litre, it held the title of the highest specific power output of any production car. No exotic super cars here, just a humble hot hatch.
But it only held the title for a few months, as Nissan stole it with the VZ-R’s heavily tuned SR16VE engine. Equipped with Nissan's variable valve timing system, called NEO-VVL (Nissan Ecologically Orientated Variable Valve Timing and Lift if you were interested), eight fuel injectors, an 11.6:1 compression ratio and an 8600rpm rev limit, it added up to 197bhp and 123.4 bhp per litre. Impressive, even today.
The VZ-R was built to compete with the EK9 on the road as well as the track, however despite both cars having near identical weight, the more powerful Pulsar only beats the EK9's 0-60 by 0.1secs. The Civic’s limited slip differential helps with traction, seemingly diminishing the Pulsar’s 15bhp power advantage.
After it was found to be less than an ideal match for EK9 on track, it was given a refresh and the Version II was released. This brought in some orange bucket seats and a Momo steering wheel, a tactic to tempt people away from the flashier Type R. A Fujitsubo Jazma exhaust was added but power and torque (133 lb·ft) output remained the same.
This simply wasn’t where the time was spent, as the Version II was about better balance. The only measurable difference was some new 15-inch Enkei alloys now sporting a 205/50/R15 tyre rather than a 195/55/R15, but adjustments made to the chassis changed the VZ-R N1 into a genuine Type R killer.
As with any Japanese car, the only way to really know which is better is with a Best Motoring (or Best Motoring style) race. The first round, where the EK9 takes on the VZ-R N1 Version I, the Pulsar is only in contention after some serious cheating. Round 2, against the Version II, it’s a different story with the Pulsar playing with the Civic until the end. Admittedly, Keiichi Tsuchiya is driving the Version II but who am I to question the scientific credibility of a Best Motoring race?
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Only 500 VZ-R N1s were made; 200 of the Version I and 300 of the Version II. All were officially sold in Japan, and few have made it to the UK. If you can track one down for sale in Japan, you might be able to pick one up for around £6000, plus the inevitable import charges and associated costs.
Words: Will Beaumont