Changing a product while it resides at the head of its sector can be a potentially lethal process, explains Iain P W Robertson, who ponders over the potential pitfalls that have placed the Nissan Qashqai on the top of the heap.

nissan-qashqai1Coca-Cola took a major risk, when the soft drinks company altered its age-old recipe in 1985. Commonly regarded as one of the biggest marketing failures in the world, its brand sales plummeted as consumers, who had been fans of the beverage since its inception over a century earlier, reacted to a taste that they did not like. Maintaining a brand image is utterly vital in the fast moving consumer goods sector (FMCG) and is one of the core reasons, apart from some minor packaging changes, for the equally famous Mars Bar to retain its lead in the count-lines sector.

In 2007, I did not give Nissan a snowball’s chance in hell of escalating the popularity table, after I drove the first generation Qashqai model, in Spain, and re-christened it ‘cash cow’, mostly in an ironic way, because I believed that it would drag down Nissan’s already faltering repute. nissan-qashqai2Remember, this was the company that was dispensing with two popular model lines, Almera and Primera, to replace them with Qashqai, a pseudo, junior-league SUV, with just one model possessing a 4WD system. It was derisory in my book.

When the company announced that it would be built at its successful Sunderland plant, I believed that all logic had deserted it. Yet, I was completely wrong. Okay, my opinion of the first generation models might have been justifiable, because the mid-life refresher exercise had the effect of smartening up the model range and increasing its desirability somewhat. I shall admit to even becoming something of a ‘fan’. How much of my changed view lay at the doors of ‘force majeure’ I am uncertain, although I knew lots of people who had acquired examples, inevitably blokes buying cars for their wives, for which the Qashqai became almost a default option, but also a growing number of companies putting them on their fleets.

nissan-qashqai3While Qashqai has become the nation’s most popular ‘SUV’, outselling its numerous rivals quite comfortably to become a consistent Top Ten sales performer and registering enough sales of the ‘old’ model in January this year to remain in eighth place, I was astonished to hear that there are more than 250,000 examples on our roads in constant use (2m worldwide). This aspect alone is worthy of exploration. For the majority of new models in a manufacturer’s line-up, the sales graph assumes bell-like proportions. It starts at a low level, builds to a peak and then slumps, heralding a need to change to a new version, at which point the process commences all over again.

nissan-qashqai4For Nissan, the Qashqai ‘bell’ has never appeared. In fact, 2013 was the model’s biggest sales year of its history, following a pattern of record years since its introduction. Therefore, could the introduction of a brand new version also become a Coke story? In many quarters, the eminently sensible word is, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’!

Flying in the face of potential controversy, the new Nissan Qashqai is almost 100% new. Naturally, there are some technical carry-overs, but not so that even the most intense observer would notice. Nissan says that it has been listening to its customers and, after driving the new model, I believe it. In every area where it needed to develop – dimensions, fuel economy, comfort, trim detailing, vehicle dynamics, up-to-the-minute technology and (sadly) cost, which is up by around four per cent, albeit with greater value attached and even better residuals – everything has gone up. nissan-qashqai6In areas that needed to diminish – CO2 exhaust emissions, service and repair costs – everything has reduced. It is the perfect, automotive quid pro quo.

Ensuring a good price point is vital and it starts at a moderate £17,595, rising to £23,145 across four trim levels, with a choice of 1.2-litre petrol, or 1.5/1.6-litre diesel engines. Do not worry about the smaller capacity unit, boosted by a turbocharger, it develops a respectable 115bhp and provides strong pull from low engine speeds. I have driven the 1.5-litre turbo-diesel version and, while not exactly bristling with verve, it delivers a smooth and consistent pull from idle to around 3,700rpm, at which revs in sixth gear you would be exceeding 100mph by a considerable margin.

nissan-qashqai7The fresh design gives the car Nissan’s current family appearance and, while the previous version suffered from poor access and accommodation, were you much over the size of Ms Minogue, the new model responds to that need most succinctly. Nissan has never been a world-leader in packaging terms, which is odd, when you consider that some of its products are produced in Northern Europe, where the peoples are markedly larger than their oriental counterparts. If anything, despite the vast improvements, this is the one area in which some extra concentration of effort might have been beneficial. It is good, just not that good.

Yet, my praise for the new Qashqai is not hollow. Its self-parking technology, hill-starting function, autonomous braking facility, reactive damping (on the suspension) and even its around-car monitoring cameras and LED lighting, all dependent on which model is specified, of course, have shifted it onto a higher plane. nissan-qashqai8While much of it is aimed at a future that will involve the hateful elements of ‘autonomous motoring’, with which I have zero agreement, I can see the potential safety benefits to drivers that might not care about driving dynamics and those of the new Qashqai are truly excellent, supported by much-improved refinement overall. This raises an additional issue about some of Qashqai’s typical customers.

I would contend that the biggest reason for the model’s popularity lies in the fact that it is a motoring ‘non-entity’. Buyers adopt a ‘default position’, when acquiring a Qashqai. Its reputation for dependability virtually precedes it. Blokes acquire them for wives, who do not want to visit a garage to buy a car, while company car users have little choice. However, they also have few complaints to make either. You do not have to think very hard with a Qashqai and the new version reduces those processes even more.

Conclusion: When a carmaker informs you they are ‘listening’ to their customers, it is often little more than hot air. Nissan has said it and delivered to promise. I am in no doubt that the new Qashqai will retain the model’s place at the head of the sales charts and, with more than 250,000 UK owners since its original launch in 2007, it suggests that quite a few more might feel inclined to join the throng.