REVIEW DATE: 01 Feb 2008
Nissan's Qashqai is fast becoming the 4x4 it's OK to like. Except in 1.6-litre form, it isn't a 4x4. Steve Walker reports
It's useful for car buyers to pigeonhole cars, it helps us get a grasp of what sort of vehicle we're looking for. It's a way of narrowing down the mass of models that are lurking out there these days, making like for like comparisons and, hopefully, of reaching an effective decision. That's what makes Nissan's Qashqai a bit problematic. Most people are damned if they can work out what it is. Nissan flummoxed some of the industry's finest minds when they pulled the covers off this one and most are still none the wiser. Your best bet in trying to nail it down is to let the hammer fall somewhere between the compact 4x4s and the family hatchbacks. If that doesn't help, give up and just try to judge the Qashqai on its merits as we do here with the 1.6-litre version.
Our streets are rammed with 4x4 vehicles bought for reasons of fashion and practicality that will never turn a wheel on mud, grass or snow. Most are massively more capable than their owners would dare to imagine but their off-road ability comes at a cost. Many of the same qualities that make a vehicle strong in the rough compromise its performance on the road so 4x4s manufacturers are inevitably forced into a compromise. Or are they? Nissan took a refreshing approach with the Qashqai, and the entry-level 2WD versions in particular. By ditching any pretence of off-road ability, the Qashqai optimises its performance in the conditions where buyers actually use it.
The 1.6-litre unit is the entry-point into the Qashqai club. At the opposite end of the range there are models with four driven wheels but only the front pair get the power in the 1.6. The engine produces a respectable 115bhp and can propel the Qashqai through the 0-60mph sprint in 12s before topping out at 109mph. Performance is aided by the absence of a hefty 4x4 drivetrain. The four-wheel-drive 2.0-litre model has 140bhp but isn't that much quicker, it takes 10.5s to reach 60mph and can only muster a 111mph top speed. The Qashqai is still a substantial vehicle and the 1.6 doesn't move it along with any great pace but it's reasonably refined when you drive in a measured fashion and has more than enough grunt to get around town with.
"If you're going to be doing most of your driving in the urban traffic, the 1.6 has all the power you need"
The Qashqai may have dumped most of the traditional 4x4 design features but it retains the tall shape and high ride height, even if they are toned down a little. This inevitably leads some body roll when cornering but the angles of lean are less severe than in most compact 4x4s. Otherwise, the driving experience is pretty good. The speed sensitive steering has a nice heft to it on the open road and provokes crisp responses while the suspension serves up a comfortable ride with less of the annoying bounce you can experience with proper off-roaders. Riding a little loftier than a conventional family hatchback, the Qashqai takes speed humps in its stride and it's that much easier to get a good view out for parking or turning into traffic. At these low speeds the steering lightens up noticeably to taking the strain out of tight manoeuvres.
The Qashqai's styling has more in common with 4x4s than family hatchbacks. The classic off-roader design cues pop-up all over the exterior. Thick bumpers, dark plastic lining down the flanks and round wheelarches, a bold grille, big square headlamps and the chunky, upright stance, its all present and correct. The interior isn't as spacious as the boxy dimensions might lead you to believe. Space in the front two seats is fine but the rear bench is only really wide enough for two adults unless it's a really short journey. Headroom isn't great in the back if you're over six foot as the Qashqai's racy sloping roofline comes into play. The full length glass sunroof fitted on certain models is great for adding light to the cabin but cuts back further on rear headroom.
For larger families, there's the option of a Qashqai+2 seven-seater model. Here, the doors have been redesigned and the side windows are bigger, as is the rear tailgate window, making the back feel anything but claustrophobic. The middle row of seats splits 40/40/40 and the backrest reclines to no fewer than nine adjustment positions. The back row of seats is designed for kids or adults up to 1.6m (5'3"), the seats fold 50/50 and can be folded away simply by pulling a strap. When folded down there's a massive 500 litres of stowage space, and the rear hatch is both wider and has a lower loading sill than the standard Qashqai model.
The Qashqai is a very well built car and you quickly come to that conclusion after a few slams on the doors and a twiddle with the controls. The impression that you're in a 4x4 is rife as you sit in the upright driving position and look out across the dash. The clusters of buttons on the centre console are difficult to get to grips with at first and the layout isn't particularly easy on the eye but the instrument cluster is far more pleasing and intuitive. The steering wheel feels compact and wieldy in the hand with controls for the stereo and the cruise control (if you have it) mounted prominently on it. The boot runs to 410 litres and is wide with a high floor for lifting items out easily.
The 1.6-litre engine is available in all four Qashqai trim levels and constitutes the cheapest option in each. With the VISIA you'll get a trip computer, electric windows, a CD stereo, air-conditioning, speed sensitive power steering and 16" alloy wheels. The ACENTA trim level adds rain sensing wipers, a CD autochanger, cruise control, rear parking sensors, climate control and front fog lights in to the mix. Then comes the N-TEC which is the entry-point for the Nissan Connect control system. Finally, comes the range-topping TENKA has the panoramic sunroof, leather upholstery, Xenon headlamps and 18" wheels. Overall, equipment levels are strong and all Qashqai derivatives get passenger side and curtain airbags although ESP stability control is a cost option on the 1.6-litre model.
As a result of its positioning somewhere between the conventional family hatch and compact 4x4 market sectors, things could have gone one of two ways for the Qashqai. The car might have slipped from the memory as buyers failed to understand or care what it was all about, preferring to stick with what they know. Alternatively, it could have tapped into the zeitgeist and had the run of both sectors. Fortunately for Nissan, the later appears to be true. Despite looking like a bit of a gamble at first, the Qashqai has sold strongly on the back of its unusual mix of qualities.
The official combined fuel economy figure of 42.2mpg is a lot better than you'd expect from a petrol powered compact 4x4 giving the 2WD 1.6-litre Qashqai a further edge over the competition. It's also more economical than the 2.0-litre dCi diesel model that carts around the 4x4 transmission. Around town, this is likely to fall to something more like 33mpg but that's still not a disaster. CO2 emissions are measured at 159g/km and the 1.6 engine drops into insurance group 6.
There's little doubt that the Qashqai will find ready buyers when the time comes to sell as it has struck a chord with British customers looking for a socially responsible alternative to the usual 'Chelsea tractor.' The front wheel drive cars are actually in even hotter demand than the four-wheel drive models as a result and so 1.6-litre owners can expect hearty residuals.
The Qashqai is a bit of a misfit but in breaking with the conventional categories that manufacturers slot their vehicles into, Nissan has hit on a winning formula. The Qashqai takes the features that make most people buy compact 4x4s, including the chunky looks, the high driving position and the accessibility, but gets rid of the heavy-duty mechanicals that buyers never use. It makes perfect sense when you think about it and the 1.6-litre versions take things to their logical extreme by ditching four-wheel-drive completely. Rival marques will be kicking themselves that they never came up with it first.
The 1.6-litre engine is Qashqai's least exciting powerplant but it suits the vehicle's outlook rather well. By doing away with the stuff that we don't really need, Nissan has created a tight and functional product that contrasts strongly with the ostentation and excess that gets some 4x4s such a bad press. If you're going to be doing most of your driving in the urban traffic, the 1.6 has all the power you need and the Qashqai could quite easily be all the car you need as well.
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