With the prices of the most popular models entering unattainable status for a lot of younger JNCers, we felt it necessary to highlight some painfully overlooked — often for no good reason at all — yet still affordable (for now) nostalgics. Consider the following: The Nissan Pulsar NX.
The 1980s were a great time, Video games were the new thing, Prince was dropping hit after hit and everybody made sports cars. Nissan even took it a step further, issuing a sports car for every price point. For the buyer looking for the best there as the 300ZX, one step down there was the 200SX, and for the economy minded buyer there was the Nissan Pulsar NX. So even if you wanted economy, you could still turn heads and attempt to successfully go on a date.
The first Pulsar offered in the US was the N11 a small hatchback that didn’t look sport at all and was sold for one year only before it was quietly replaced with the N12 (above). The N12 was the first sports-oriented Pulsar, and was received as a good opening attempt. Reviewers described it as “reminiscent of the Triumph TR7” and “surprisingly practical,” but it never developed a stellar reputation, which was quite common with entry-level sports cars of the 80s.
The following N13 generation, which was designed under the management of Jerry Hirshberg at the Nissan Design International office in La Jolla, California. It was essentially a Nissan Sentra in a sports car suit. The underpinnings were pretty competitive for the era either, too. The lowest engine option you could get was a 90-horsepower GA16i, but if you splurged, you could get a powerful 131-horse CA18DE. That was quite good for the time — remember, a Corvette of this era struggled to put out 250 horses, so that was pretty great especially given the 2300-pound curb weight.
On top of that, the Pulsar also had a four-wheel independent suspension, unlike competitors such as the VW Scirocco. Mechanically the N13 is very close to the B12 Sentra. So, why did these never catch on during the tuner craze?
Perhaps, it’s lack of popularity with tuners came from the general public’s ignorance of the model. Much of the important early days of the import tuner craze was trial and error, along with modifying proven platforms. While the CRX was proven to accept Integra and Prelude engines and capable of sub-11-second quarter mile times, at face value the N13 wouldn’t seem like much unless you really tear into the car, and those who wanted bang for the buck had the 240SX anyway. But, there are engine swaps available, most commonly a CA18 turbo.
That being said, there were some really radical design elements on the car: flip-up headlights, gradient tail light covers, and T-tops, all of which were all prerequisites of 80s sports car design. However, the KN13 Pulsar had something even better — the hyper-rare EXA Canopy top option.
With the EXA Canopy, the Pulsar was one of the first modular cars. Its rear car-like notchback trunk section could be completely removed and replaced with an entirely different, boxier rear that more than doubled rear cargo volume. With the Pulsar, you could have your choice of coupe, wagon-like hatchback, or even a quasi-pickup if the rear cover was left off entirely.
Naturally, with 80s cars, such functionality comes really quirky design elements. The EXA Canopy was designed to be grey no matter what color the rest of the car was. This was done for a couple of reasons. First, it would display the modular aspect of the vehicle, much like the topper of the first-generation 4Runner. Conveniently enough, using only one color would also lower the production cost of the unit. Funnily enough, in Japan where garage space is limited, Nissan dealers would let owners rent out EXA Canopy tops to use when extra space was needed.
Today the N13 Pulsar is, aside from its small but dedicated cult following, still almost completely unknown. The Nissan EXA international Facebook group is about the size of the Minnesota-only Honda/Acura group, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t quality builds happening. The Pulsar originally owned by the design director of the car, Doug Wilson, is in fact being restored by another previous employee of NDI and the build thread can be found in the JNC Forum here.
If you can find an N13 for sale, they rarely go for over $4000, even with the EXA Canopy, so the Pulsar NX is a great choice for a first-time JNC buyer. Not only are you getting a great value for a collector car, you also get one of the best rear ends of the 1980s. We have seen the previous generation N12 Pulsar and a single N13 with the EXA Canopy at JCCS in previous years, so hopefully with later 80s cars gaining wider acceptance, the much more refined N13 can finally have it’s day in the spotlight.
Jerry Hirschberg went on to write a book called The Creative Priority: Putting Innovation to Work in Your Business, which is largely about design but does have some interesting insight into the creation of the Pulsar NX and was integral to the creation of this article. Find the book here.
In case you missed it check out our last Consider the Following post on the CA Honda Accord.
I just imported a Nissan Exa for someone. I completely missed it. Didn’t even notice what it was.
Neat cars not really understood..
This is a KN13 not a n13
I had a friend in the 80s who, in a fit of NX jealousy, removed the hatch from his Geo Storm (Isuzu clone). It was interesting, but not very practical except for the infinite back seat head room it bestowed.
interesting historic design exercise but actual dynamics of production car forgettable
Here in Austin, a few months ago I saw the first one of these that I’ve seen in at least 20 years. Somebody brought it to a C&C. They also brought a Nissan PAO, the first I’ve seen. Another person in town has an N14 Pulsar GTI-R – very nice. There is definitively a loot of interest here in unusual Datsuns and Nissans.
Numerous pics on my Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/driventhusiast/nissan-datsun/
awesome fun cars. Own one myself you forgot to mention the softbak option tho 🙂 other than that awesome article and thanks for the shout out!!
Many dealers painted the EXA in boby color.
I don’t think the N12 ever had much “sport” in its blood. Though I do remember walking into a Nissan dealership (Canada) in the 80s and seeing an NX Turbo. It was the first and last time I saw one in the flesh.
Just a note, the N13 (or technically KN13 in this case) is related to the B12 Sunny/Sentra, the N14 Pulsar and B13 Sentra/Sunny/NX/200SX are related, and the N15/B14. Then finally B15/N16.
I’ll also add that the N11 was the Datsun 310 which ran from 1979-1982 in “two-door sedan” and “coupe” models (both hatchbacks, the former simple and Golf-like, the latter a bubbleback with headband-like pillar/roof trim, with the four-door hatchback joining the line for 1980. N12 was launched for ’83 as the Nissan Pulsar two- and four-door hatchbacks and NX coupe with only the latter surviving on the US market after ’83.
Came here to say this. I remember thinking the coupe version resembled an much cleaner and evolved F-10.
I really like the idea of these “Consider The Following” articles! It really gives underappreciated nostalgics more love and recognition. I’d love to see more of these on the site…If you guys plan on writing up another one, may I suggest the 4th-5th FWD model Celicas. 😉
More will come in time and those are definitely on the list!
Is this Bryan Thompson’s gorgeous Pulsar?
Reminds me of the convertible Sony “Walkman” car stereo I had in the 80’s in my 240Z where you could pull it out of your dash and take it with you. That’s “stereo” as in cassette… An idea that was a Jack of All Trades but a Master of None. Good theft deterrent though.
I actually like the Kammback top but always wondered why they didn’t color-match it with the rest of the car. The diagonal pillar echoes the Pathfinder of the same vintage.
That is true, they were designed with that in mind. An astute observation!
I always liked these, but they seem to be hard to find now in Australia. The Modular design was really quite cool. One of my brothers friends had one, but he claimed a great deal of hassle with it mechanically, probably not true for all of them though. Of course the successor to this was the equally forgotten and overlooked NX Coupe, with its odd circular design and SR20DE under the hood…
Hard to find in australia? Not look ing hard enough I’m in austraila and I own 2 of them
There is a reason they stopped making that thing.
They were truly awful cars.
What was awful about them?
I owned one of these in the mid 200X’s when I was at uni, and it was quite a good car. Unfortunately, the preceeding N12 version had very bad driving dynamics and terrible torque-steer, and the name tainted the KN13 version somewhat – even though it was a completely different car.
Mechanically they were very reliable, as they were based upon “everyday” cars, and I never had any issues with mine (until I accidentally forgot the include refilling the cooland one service!). They had a couple of quirks, but nothing major really.
The driving experience was pretty good too. They were never going to win any drag races, but they had enough poke to be fun, and nicely fitted in the neiche of those wanting a sporty car, not a sports car. I actually tested mine (CA18DE engine) against a non-turbo S13 Silvia a couple of times, and suprisingly the Exa was faster every time.
Dynamically they were better than your usual passenger cars, but never really quite had the precision of any of the Honda offerings, partially due to the heavier weight and worse weight distribution I assume.
They really are an underrated car.
I had an N13 as my first coupe I ever owned, the ca16de was a great engine bar the noisey lifters, really good handling, comparible to the fc3s rx7 – it ran on rails.
Pop the lights up, remove the roof and youve got a different car!
The plastic interior buttons were a bit creaky though, and had an annoying problem of dripping water off the roof in through the window on to the window controls…
Great car but had a few issues, really needed a turbo.
7 out of 10.
Liked the idea of these ever since encountering them in Gran Turismo – it was never a car sold in the UK so that was my introduction to them. The following generation of NX was interesting too. It’s a shame cars like this don’t really exist any more – interesting coupes and niche vehicles built on otherwise humble mechanicals. There just doesn’t seem to be a business case for it.
I actually drive a Nissan Pulsar SSS built in 1996.
It was the first one off the assembly line as it’s VIN no has many noughts followed by number 1.
It has been a beautiful car to drive. Worst part is the limited turning circle. Unfortunately spare parts are a problem now.
Liked them – esp. with the EXA top for the added cargo capacity. I’d like to have both tops, sort of like Jeep having the soft-and-hard tops; sportin’ around with the regular hatch, and 1/2 an hour later, ready to haul the whatever.
It would be nice to see something along those lines again. If it was based on a Sentra then, it could be done so again. Maybe off the Versa platform?
Maybe part of the reason coupes have fallen from favor is that they’re TOO “coupish,” with almost useless rear seats, and too expensive for what they are/were.
Economical/attractive/sporty/fun/AFFORDABLE is a good combination to attract the youth/young-at-heart market.
Agreed there Randy, and I think expense certainly has something to do with it. But ultimately I think it’s a shift in attitudes and a case of practicality overruling style. It’s not hard to find compact, inexpensive crossovers these days – it’s these that have killed the market for coupes. Not as stylish, nor as fun, but they serve basically the same purpose – more interesting and distinctive than the regular compacts and subcompacts they’re based upon. The Juke is effectively the modern-day NX.
I own one! Great first car I picked up for under 2 grand. It’s got some missing paint and sputters a bit in the cold, but I love the reliability of the 5-speed and the aesthetics of the car. (The inside is excellently 80s just like the outside). Hoping to repaint it soon as long as the engine continues to hold up as it has.
I thought EXA was just the non-US market name for these models (as I recall being the case when I lived in Australia), and had nothing to do with the rear top option.
The “square” rear hatch option was sold as the Sportbak in the US. I don’t think the EXA name was advertised in the US at all.
Hehe, dad had two of these. Great little cars but you’ve gotta really love them to deal with a fronmt wheel drive performance car at this age, especially targa tops which never age well.
I owned a 1980 Datsun 310GX that was a little light on hp – after I upgraded to a 200SX that had serious parts on it (in comparison that is).