Great to see the SSS badge back on a small Nissan, especially with such impressive stats attached: the new Pulsar SSS makes a mighty 140kW, which certainly sets it apart from the mainstream.
If you're looking for a point of reference, the ubiquitous Toyota Corolla makes 103kW.
So you might ask why it's here being compared to a humble Holden Cruze hatchback.
At best, it'll be a walkover for the Nissan. At worst, surely it's an insult to the sizzling heritage of the SSS name.
Allow me to explain. Put simply, the latest Pulsar SSS is not quite as screaming hot as it might appear on paper.
It's only available in New Zealand with a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) for a start, which does dilute driver access to all that power.
And while it has spoilers and swirly badges, the Pulsar is still a family hatch at heart: compact, tall and spacious. The new SSS aims at sportiness, but not at the expense of practicality.
This particular Holden Cruze, on the other hand, is a whole lot more driver-focused than you might think. The Australian-developed and built SRi model is really a hybrid of the Korean Cruze and European Astra - the latter donating a high-tech turbo engine and sophisticated rear suspension system. With 132kW, the SRi doesn't quite have the grunt of the SSS - but it's not far off and certainly swift by class standards. Torque is virtually the same for both cars: 240Nm in the Nissan versus 230Nm for the Holden.
So here we are: the Pulsar SSS and Cruze SRi meet in the middle. Both are powered-up versions of mainstream hatchbacks with 1.6-litre direct-injection turbo engines and aspirations towards that elusive thing called driver appeal. How do they compare?
The Pulsar is costly at $39,990, but it does come with luxury-car levels of standard equipment. In truth we really should have the flagship Cruze SRi-V here, as it costs $37,900 and matches the Nissan's leather upholstery, climate air conditioning, satellite navigation and keyless entry/start. However, the $34,900 SRi has exactly the same powertrain and Watts Link "performance suspension" as its more lavishly equipped sibling, so we're good to go.
Know who else is good to go? Anybody driving a Pulsar SSS. Full-throttle acceleration is a joyless experience in the Nissan, as the gearless transmission simply winds up to 6000rpm and stays there. But you cannot argue with the performance: the Pulsar SSS is deceptively fast in a straight line, powering away to 100km/h in eight seconds.
When I say "away", I mean away from the Cruze SRi. The Holden is less powerful and heavier, so it takes another 1.5 seconds to reach the open-road speed limit. That's a dead-cert downtrou in automotive acceleration terms.
Is speed everything? It certainly gives you bragging rights. But the Cruze feels sportier because the engine notes rise and fall as the six-speed automatic clicks though its ratios, and you feel like everything is working in sync.
The Cruze gearbox is not perfect. It seems determined to hit top gear as soon as possible (presumably in the interests of economy) so if you're driving enthusiastically, you tend to go way over the top with the throttle to try and combat the thrifty gearbox calibration. You can put the car into a sport mode, but that makes the transmission a little nervous unless you're really pressing on. You can hand-shift the lever, but there are no steering wheel paddles.
The Pulsar SSS also lacks paddles and needs them even more than the Cruze SRi. Fast it may be, but it's frustrating trying to modulate the behaviour of a CVT in what is supposed to be a sporting car.
As with the Cruze, you can hand-shift the gearbox through seven steps, but that doesn't really fool anybody: there's still CVT-slip in these pseudo-ratios.
Official fuel economy figures are line-ball: 7.8 litres for the SSS and 7.9 for the SRi. On our test loop, a 50/50 blend of open-road running and performance driving, the Pulsar returned 11.1 litres/100km - quite a bit better than the Cruze's 13.5 litres/100km.
Handling and ride goes the Holden's way. The Cruze SRi has softer suspension than the Pulsar SSS, but it hits that sweet spot between supple urban ride and fluid handling so much better. The Nissan feels nervous on bumpy urban roads and it's certainly tied down tight at speed, but that stiffness often makes it skip across corners that the Cruze simply flows through.
Both cars have electric power steering systems.
The Pulsar's is painfully light but very consistent, assuming you steer by sight rather than feel. The Cruze's wheel has a better blend of communication and commitment to a corner: it gives you much more of a connection to the car.
Strangely, it's the sporting extrovert that proves better for the passengers. The Pulsar is shorter overall than Cruze but is taller and rides on a longer wheelbase, which makes for a more airy and spacious cabin. There's nothing fancy about the dashboard, but you have to admire the Nissan for its quality and simplicity. The only real letdown is the tiny touch-screen, which does not do the sat-nav, audio and Bluetooth systems justice. It's also set too low in the console.
The Cruze has Holden's swish MyLink touch-screen set-up, which does all of the above (although only the SRi-V has sat-nav) as well as hooking up with smartphone applications like Pandora and Stitcher. It's a highly responsive interface and looks great, with crisp graphics and strong colours. Unfortunately, the rest of the cabin is not as classy.
The bottom line
If straight-line speed thrills, you can't go past the Nissan Pulsar SSS. But it's the Cruze SRi that has the more engaging powertrain, steering and handling package. It wins.