Skoda Octavia vs Nissan Pulsar

Buyers of these cars are looking for a spacious cabin, lots of standard kit and low company car tax bills. Do the new Pulsar and Octavia deliver?...

07 February 2015
Skoda Octavia vs Nissan Pulsar

The contenders

Nissan Pulsar 1.5 dCi N-tec 

The Pulsar makes great sense as a company car, and N-tec trim comes well equipped.

Skoda Octavia 1.6 TDI Greenline III SE Business

The greenest Octavia you can buy gets lots of goodies in SE Business trim.

Nissan has been out of the family car running for several years, and although its new Pulsar narrowly lost out to key petrol rivals in last month's big group test, this diesel version has all the ingredients to be an excellent company car.

Low emissions, decent performance and masses of interior space are backed up by
a generous standard equipment list that includes sat-nav and climate control.

However, it has to get past one major obstacle in the form of the class-leading Skoda Octavia. In Greenline III SE Business trim it’s stunning value and even more efficient than the Pulsar.

What are they like to drive?

Just a few years ago, the idea of a standard family hatchback with a claimed fuel economy pushing 80mpg would have conjured up images of dustbin-lid style plastic wheel trims, a spartan interior and underpowered, rattly diesel engines.

Fast forward to 2014, though, and the new Nissan Pulsar manages that with no special tweaks or eco tyres. It looks (and drives) like a regular model, despite its CO2 output of 94g/km.

True, its 1.5-litre diesel engine has quite a narrow powerband, so you need to keep the motor spinning between 1800 and 3000rpm to ensure brisk progress. However, the six-speed manual gearbox has a light, smooth action, so this is no hardship. Stray too far up the rev range, and the engine becomes noisy and strained, but at lower revs it’s pretty quiet.

By contrast, the 1.6-litre engine in the Skoda requires no careful balancing acts. It feels stronger and more flexible at low revs, with peak torque arriving at just 1500rpm. So, despite its longer gearing (unique to Greenline versions) the Octavia was quicker in all of our in-gear test flexibility tests, and recorded a faster 0-60mph time. In fact, it’s only at very low speeds that the Skoda’s long gear ratios become an issue, because they force you to swap between first and second gear, or slip the clutch to avoid the engine labouring.

However, the Greenline is more compromised in other respects. For instance, it has lower suspension than other models in the Octavia range, and it’s also fitted with low-rolling-resistance tyres to help improve its fuel economy. The lowered suspension spoils the low-speed ride, so on scruffier roads you’ll be much more aware of cracks and imperfections in the Greenline than in the Pulsar. 

The Skoda’s eco tyres also caused issues, because in the wet conditions we conducted our tests in, the Skoda took longer to brake from 70mph, and ran out of grip much sooner in corners than its rival. Its front tyres washed wide of our chosen line through a corner even at moderate speeds.

Meanwhile, the Pulsar has good body control, and safe, predictable handling, but is let down by its steering, which has a strong self-centring action that feels quite unnatural. Still, on the motorway it just edges the Skoda for refinement, as it does a better job of suppressing wind and road noise. There’s also far less suspension noise at low speeds in the Nissan.

What are they like inside?

While the Pulsar edges the Skoda in the driving stakes (largely because it’s not hindered by its efficiency tweaks) the tables are turned once you step inside.

The Octavia really sets the class standard for comfort. It takes just seconds to find the right position behind the wheel, the thickly bolstered seats hold you firmly in place, while adjustable lumbar support comes as standard. True, the Skoda isn’t as generously equipped as the Nissan, but it still gets all the essentials, with sat-nav, rear parking sensors, climate control, voice control and DAB digital radio.

There are some nice touches too, with deep, flock-lined door bins, smarter materials throughout, and nicely damped switches that feel really solid.

If you go for the lavishly equipped Pulsar N-tec version you get gadgets such as a 5.8-inch touchscreen, a reversing camera, keyless entry and start, and sat-nav. It certainly feels high-tech, and the 5.0-inch colour screen that sits between the dials puts the monochrome display in the Octavia to shame.

Yet none of these goodies can distract you from the hard plastics that cover most of the dashboard, or the thin, unsupportive seats that are uncomfortable and don’t have (and aren’t available with) adjustable lumbar support.

That’s a shame, because there’s plenty of space and adjustment to allow drivers of all shapes and sizes to find the right driving position, even though the pedals are offset a little too far to the right. The upright driving position gives decent all-round visibility, though.

The Octavia is also difficult to fault when it comes to roominess and practicality. The sheer space in the boot means the Skoda can happily double as a family holdall as well as a daily commuter. It will easily swallow a weekend’s worth of stuff with the seats folded down flat – bikes and buggies included.

While the Pulsar comes admirably close, helped by its wide boot opening, its load bay is not that clever. Its biggest failing is that the rear seats leave a big step when folded down.

It does eclipse the Octavia when it comes to the amount of space in the rear seats, though. A flat floor means there’s more room for three across the rear bench, and the amount of legroom on offer would shame some luxury limos, let alone family hatchbacks.

What will they cost?

Number crunching and company car ownership usually go hand-in-hand, and no matter which way you look at the figures, the Skoda is the cheaper.

For fleet buyers, for example, the Octavia costs less to lease every year, and also has slightly cheaper company car tax rates thanks to its lower overall list price – even though its lower CO2 emissions don’t actually qualify it for a cheaper Benefit-in-Kind (BIK) tax bills.

A lower list price, bigger discounts and stronger resale values all help make the Skoda the cheaper option for anyone considering either of these cars as a private buy, too. Factor all the costs you’re likely to face during the first three years and the Octavia works  out the cheaper option by around £4000. 

Servicing costs work in the Skoda’s favour too, with cheaper fixed-price maintenance, while replacing consumables such as the tyres will also be a lot less painful for your wallet in the Octavia than the Pulsar. 

Perhaps the deciding factor for anyone covering a high number of miles annually will be the fuel economy, and it’s the Skoda that excels. Our real-world True MPG tests found the Octavia was more than 7mpg more economical, with more than 60mpg attainable in normal driving.

However, the Nissan is in a lower insurance group thanks to safety features such as blind spot-monitoring and automatic city braking.

Verdict

In some respects the Pulsar feels less compromised by its low-emissions mantra. It grips and rides better than the Skoda, and is also more refined. It also comes very well equipped although the Octavia, in SE Business trim, is also packed with luxuries.

In fact, the Skoda is such a brilliant all-rounder that its familiar mix of practicality, keen value, a high-quality interior and low running costs make it the worthy winner.

1st Skoda Octavia 1.6 TDI Greenline III SE Business

For Stronger performance; smart cabin; low running costs; big boot

Against Unsettled ride; lanky gearing; suspension noise

Verdict Hugely compelling company car that’s great value

2nd Nissan Pulsar 1.5 dCi N-tec 

For Well equipped; masses of rear legroom; hushed cruiser

Against Cheaper-feeling cabin; unsupportive seats; higher running costs

Verdict Pipped by Octavia but  still a good company car option