Can Nissan define its typical Qashqai customer, or does it prefer not to?
‘Safety in numbers’ might well be the tagline for the bulk of mainstream carmakers in a largely thoughtless world, states Iain Robertson, but Nissan may have captured the zeitgeist fortuitously with its British-built ‘SUV’.
Popularity is a portentous precursor to the successful introduction of a Mark Two model. The first generation Qashqai, with its Arabic-sounding oddity of a name (actually after a southern Iranian tribe) that presents as much pronounced automotive awkwardness as Ssangyong, or Xedos, mustered over two million worldwide registrations of its Sunderland, British-built and designed pseudo-off-roader.
The UK government-subsidised Nissan factory could scarcely conceal its delight and disbelief. After all, it had been home to both Primera and Almera models, both of which had enjoyed strong sales in a more conventional sector of the new car scene. Qashqai was a radical departure. It was also something of a square peg in a round hole, as quaintly quirky as Mr Micawber, one of Charles Dicken’s most blindly optimistic characters.
Neither as big as its X-Trail sister, nor as purposeful, the Qashqai eschewed the expected insistence of a 4×4 transmission, although only the very top-of-the-shop version boasted the technology. Every other model was stoically front-wheel-driven. Nissan realised that the ‘off-roader’ sector was not actually interested in rallying cries, just as long as the ‘look’ was right and it was. Over 100,000 examples found homes across Europe within a year of its 2006 introduction. Qashqai was on its way.
Of course, Nissan muddied its own waters by launching the Juke, another tilt at the class, if half a step down. The darling of the Middle England ‘look at me’ set, predominated by health clubs, ‘pedal-pumpers’, yummy-mummies and bleached blonde locks, the subjectively grotesque mini-SUV would steal a substantial slice of Qashqai’s market dominance. Yet, early last year, a new version of Qashqai hit the road. Whether it would survive in the fastest developing sector of the new car scene remained to be reported but it lost the conservative good looks of its predecessor and appeared to adopt the more organic but sadly confused (with the Ford Kuga, Toyota RAV4 and virtually every other class rival) profile of the medium sector SUV.
The model tested here fits with purported demands for smaller engines, greater frugality and enhanced driveability. However, it is every bit as superficial as the other combatants in the class. After all, its manners are directed at the main road and not the outback, despite the ride height. If serving the desires of car buyers, who only want to look ‘outdoorsy’, youthful and vital, is fulfilling its role, then I guess it serves purpose.
Powered by a 1.2-litre, four cylinder, turbocharged petrol engine that develops a modest 112bhp in a family car that weighs around 1.3 tonnes, it needs its ‘class-leading’ aerodynamics, desperately. Petrol is the preferred choice these days, while diesel is back under the spotlight. Although a posted 115mph maximum speed is proposed, even on rare continental jaunts no more than 100mph is in comfortable prospect. It is lively enough at low engine speeds, despatching the 0-60mph sprint in around 10.6 seconds. However, packed with five adults and personal belongings, you would opt for the 1.6-litre punchier alternative, to avoid the ‘wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pud’ insult.
Part of its problem lies in leggy gearing of around 30mph/1,000rpm in top (sixth). While great for refined, on the level progress, a 70mph cruise demanding a mere 2,350rpm, even the merest whiff of an incline will shave 20mph off a sustained speed and, while the manual gearshift quality is lovely, it is a pain to be forced to drop to fourth gear just to maintain momentum. It is a factor that is reflected in a most disappointing 28.9mpg on one trip I carried out (34.7mpg overall, when driven very carefully), which falls someway shy of the government guide figure of 48.7mpg Official Combined. Its CO2 rating of 133g/km also equates to a £130 annual VED charge.
As swoopy as its exterior styling, the interior of this n-tec+ trimmed model, while conventional thankfully, is of significantly higher merchantable quality than the first-gen Qashqai. ‘Soft-touch’, slush-moulded plastics are everywhere and the fabric upholstered and bolstered seats are firmly comfortable, featuring a decent range of adjustability and good space available. The grey and black trim is subtle and enhanced by red mood lighting strips in the centre console. Conventional controls, perfect clarity and ease of operation are standout points. While I am not a fan of electronic parking brakes, at least that of the Qashqai is accessible (just ahead of the gearlever) and releases instantly, as soon as the driver accelerates away from standstill.
The boot is superb. A pair of solid but carpeted floor boards lift to reveal copious secure storage below the normal bumper height and its 430-litres of space can be expanded to 1,585-litres, when the rear seats are folded, which is both practical and accommodating. Nissan is now a master of non-key access and stop:start engineering and the system works efficaciously in the Qashqai.
Something that Nissan pioneered many years ago was its own sat-nav system, which it called ‘Birdview’. It was superb and led the entire in-built sector. The current system also works very logically and easily, which makes me wonder why some form of across-industry standardisation does not take place in this important safety and convenience area of car engineering. The same touch screen, surrounded by minor control buttons, also allows an around-car camera view, with an ancillary lateral view that is fantastic for close parking and reversing manoeuvres.
Overall, the Nissan Qashqai is a genuine delight to drive and to live with. Yet, it is blindingly obvious that, even with its most recent design changes, it remains a doyen of the aforementioned class of customers, even though not in the same quantities as the original (thanks to the insane popularity of Juke). However, discerning the Qashqai consumer type, while easy to be very general, is actually quite difficult, as the latest model is somewhat more appealing to blokes than before.
During the 1990s and early-2000s, Nissan could have been accused of pioneering the SUV market, as it was a brand that offered more SUV alternatives, across all classes, than any other. Therefore, it was inevitable that Qashqai, in some respects, would be an unmitigated success story. However, this ill-founded seeking of escape from the urban sprawl has now transmogrified into a jocular and comic-book representation for what even Nissan once stood.
In some ways, having become a virtual ‘default option’, the Qashqai is a prime example of a carmaker in its prime. Yet, the model peddles a lie. Powered by an motor that also fills the engine bay of the baby Micra, it cannot be expected to deliver zesty performance with any consistency…and it does not do so. Quite a lot of owners will be more than dismayed at the potential of high fuel costs, thanks to poor overall consumption, resulting from a not-so-useful power-to-weight ratio.
However, those cost factors also involve replacement tyres and the 18-inch whammers fitted to this Nissan’s gorgeous, ‘diamond-cut’ alloy wheels will not be cheap to replace, every 12-15,000 miles, which is also, conveniently, the standard service interval. I also remain thoroughly unconvinced by the styling, which apes current thinking about pseudo off-roaders. As is typical, there are a lot of lumpy and sticky-out bits that are sure to be caught up somewhere in shopping car parks and multi-storeys, resulting in fiddly and expensive minor repairs come disposal time.
Finally, despite the car’s practicality, it is a whopping £22,660 on the road, which is a hefty price tag for a 1.2-litre hiked-up hatchback. Yes, it is stuffed with ‘technology’, of sorts, but you can forget any Ranulph Fiennes’ adventury, because this Qashqai will not get you close to base camp, let alone over the flower-beds at Sainsburys. The bottom-line is that drivers, who might have been perfectly contented with a regular hatchback and, perhaps, should still drive one, from the point of view of self-preservation, let alone operational overheads, have been egged into acquiring a pseudo-4×4 that presents truly no marked advantages. In other words, the Qashqai is a mindless motorcar for cattle-like customers. Sad but true.
Conclusion: As a family car, the Qashqai has merit. It is roomy, comfortable and well-built. It is also ‘Blitish’, a factor much to its credit, albeit part-funded by the UK taxpayer. However, it is almost the consummate ‘pretender’, being incapable of doing what it looks like it ought to be capable of doing. It would not be my choice of new car, even though I comprehend the logic of its existence and Nissan might be best not to push the envelope much further.