The Fast & The Forbidden: 1990-’94 Nissan Pulsar GTi-R [w/ Video]
When Nissan reintroduced the Skyline GT-R in 1989 as a high-tech, high-powered all-wheel-drive twin-turbo brute of a coupe, it created a legend that lives on to the present day. The R32-based GT-R annihilated all challengers in Group A touring car racing, both at home in Japan and down south in Australia. So dominant in Oz was the most potent production Skyline made up to that point that the vegemite-scarfing and VB-chugging masses that congregated at such sacred temples of speed as Oran Park, Sandown, Lakeside and mighty Mount Panorama soon took to calling the Japanese invader “Godzilla.” At first, it was probably just a term of endearment for a talented newcomer; soon, though, it became an epithet, as Antipodean race fans tired of the homegrown Holdens and Fords (even if the latter’s British-developed Sierra Cosworths were themselves adopted automotive citizens of sorts) being shut out of victory lane.
It was into this world that Godzilla’s little brother was born. We say little brother because this new car also brought an ate-up-with-boost turbocharged engine and AWD to the party. However, unlike the Skyline GT-R, Nissan’s new baby was raised to tackle rally stages. And its name is the Pulsar GTi-R.
Starting with the humble N14 Pulsar 3-door hatchback, Nissan engineers gave the Pulsar GTi-R a new front fascia with additional openings for engine and brake cooling, lower side skirts, reshaped rear bumper, and a jaunty spoiler hanging off the back of the roof. Other than these bits (plus the GTi-R badge on the rear hatch and the scooped and vented hood), it looked pretty much like just another small two-box hatchback. It even had 14” wheels!
Of course, underneath, it was hardly your garden variety econobox. For power, the GTi-R relied on Nissan’s legendary SR20DET, a 2.0L DOHC turbocharged and intercooled inline-four. However, unlike other notable applications of the SR20DET (such as the Silvia and 180SX), the GTi-R’s engine was installed transversely, and the intercooler mounted atop the engine (and fed by that distinctive scoop/grille on the hood). Officially, it was rated at 227 horsepower and 210 lb.-ft of torque (The European version, the Sunny GTi-R, made only 217hp and 197 lb.-ft due to a different ECU map for lower octane fuel.), and the engine’s power reached all four wheels by way of a 5-speed manual transmission and a version of Nissan’s famed ATTESA (Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All-Terrain) all-wheel-drive system.
And although the Pulsar GTi-R was a fairly limited edition model, Nissan saw fit to offer it in two distinct flavors: The RA version and the RB version. The RA (identifiable by a “V” as the sixth character in the VIN) was the street-oriented trim level, with things like air-conditioning, power windows and ABS fitted as standard equipment. The RB (which had an “R” as the sixth character of the VIN), on the other hand, was the model used for FIA Group A rally homologation. It did away most of the RA’s creature comforts (though some were made optional), but added a few performance upgrades like a close ratio gearset for the transmission and a front limited-slip differential. This made the RB slightly lighter than the RA (2,624 lbs. versus 2,690 lbs.). Additionally, Nismo produced 21 turn-key rally cars based on the RB, complete with roll cages, heavy duty suspension, and LSDs for the front and rear, and the now-defunct Nissan Motorsports Europe (NME) built a handful of full-tilt-boogie Group A WRC GTi-Rs. These factory-backed 300-ish horsepower machines ran partial schedules in 1991 and ’92, but they were never really able to challenge the likes of Lancia and Toyota, despite being driven by the likes of past world champion Stig Blomqvist (who gave the car its best WRC result, third in the ’92 Swedish Rally) and future world champion Tommi Mäkinen.
While the exact number of GTi-Rs built appears to be unknown (The general consensus is between 12,000 and 15,000 Pulsar GTi-Rs and less than 1,000 Euro-spec Sunny GTi-Rs.), it is known that not a single GTi-R was sent to the United States. We’re not happy about this, but we certainly understand why Nissan decided to hold out on us: A federalized GTi-R probably would have retailed for over $20,000 (in early ‘90s dollars), which would have a very tough sell for the average American, who viewed (and to a large extent still view) small hatchbacks as cheap, basic transportation. The GTi-R’s appeal would have been even more limited when pitted against the affordable (read: well under $20k) sporty cars Nissan was sending us at that time, the B13 Sentra SE-R (which was front-drive and featured a naturally aspirated version of the GTi-R’s engine, the SR20DE) and the S13 240SX (which was rear-drive and available as a notchback coupe, hatchback or convertible).
Still, even if it wasn’t much of a force in competition in its day and, stock versus stock, would get comprehensively spanked by modern hot hatches like a Ford Focus ST or Mazdaspeed 3, we wouldn’t mind having access to one. If nothing else, it’d be a fun little runabout for when the weather turns ugly.