Meet the Qashqai, the SUV for people who want a car that's funkier than a C-segment hatch but fear a dinner party backlash from getting a traditional boxy SUV. The Qashqai is slightly different, as the weird name – taken from a nomadic Iranian tribe – suggests. It's part-SUV, part-family hatch. The off-road styling cues, elevated driving position, high(ish) roof, optional four-wheel drive and higher price tag are all trad SUV. But the actual underpinnings, compact size and mostly front-wheel drive range are all characteristic of a traditional hatchback like the Golf. Unveiled today (Wednesday 6), the Qashqai goes on UK sale in March 2007. Expect prices from around £14,500. It's closest rival is a spacious hatch like a Golf Plus 4Motion, but the Qashqai looks a lot cooler. Not a hard task, though.
Think of the Qashqai as Murano-lite. Nissan uses car marketeers favourite c-word (crossover) to describe the design. So the upper body – including that sloping roofline, spoiler and sleek glasshouse, finishing with an upwards rear flourish lifted from the Murano – is meant to resemble a sporty passenger car's. The lower section – with a black plastic underbelly, pumped up wheelarches accommodating big wheels and the raised ride height – convey the strength and ability of a tough 4x4. The Qashqai is the first production car to emerge from Nissan's London design studio, which opened in 2003. It doesn't have the striking looks of its Murano big brother, and its face looks like a bloated Kia Picanto's. The rear end is neat, but overall the Qashqai doesn't meet the high standards set by the Micra, Murano, Cube, Pathfinder and even the Note. A conservative-looking Nissan? Just like the old days. Nissan argues that the styling team couldn't risk a polarising design, if the Qashqai is to meet its 100,000 sales target and rake in disillusioned Golf buyers.
Under the skin
The Qashqai's length – midway between a family hatch and compact SUV – give a big clue to its underpinnings. The crossover is based on the Renault-Nissan alliance's new C-platform. It supports the Lafesta in Japan and the North American Sentra, but this is the first European application of the front- and all-wheel drive platform, which has multi-link independent suspension. However, the Qashqai has more ground clearance and naturally a higher seating position, and it's this improved visibility and sense of security that attract many to SUVs. Four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines are mounted across the nose. The base 1.6 petrol and 1.5 dCi diesel models are front-wheel drive only. The 2.0 petrol and diesel can be front drive, or for a £1200 premium, you can specify Nissan's 'all-mode 4x4' system. This has three modes: front-drive, four-wheel drive or automatic, where torque is shifted between axles automatically depending on conditions. Europe-wide, some 30 percent of punters will opt for 4wd. Four transmissions will be offered. The entry-level 1.6 has a five-speed manual, the rest get six speeds. A new six-speed auto is optional with the 2.0dCi, while a continuously variable transmission can be coupled to the 2.0-litre petrol. The range will be pretty broad, encompassing appealing drivetrains such as a 2.0-litre dCi with the six-speed auto and four-wheel drive.
The engine room
|1.6-litre four; 114bhp/118lb ft
||1.5-litre common-rail four; 104bhp/177lb ft|
|2.0-litre four; 138bhp/148lb ft
||2.0-litre common-rail four; 148bhp/236lb ft|
The inside story
Nissan emphasises the Qashqai's compact size, and the crossover is naturally more snug than a regular SUV. It feels airy, though, thanks to an optional, large glass roof. Rear headroom is a bit tight, but legroom is fine for a C-segment vehicle. The leather seats are fabulously comfy and supportive, the plastics soft and everything is nice to the touch. This feels like a quality car. The dashboard design takes inspiration from the 350Z and Murano's. The dials are set back under a motorcycle-style hood, while the sat-nav screen is mounted nice and high for easy clocking.
A car too far...?
Nissan confidently predicts 100,000 annual Qashqai sales in Europe, and that's before exports to Japan (where it will be called the slightly less bonkers Dualis), the Middle East and elsewhere. Assembly will take place at Nissan's Sunderland plant in the UK, creating 200 new jobs and safeguarding some 3000 others. Some 80 percent of buyers will be new to Nissan, and making an exodus from hatches, saloons or Freelander-sized SUVs. So has Nissan taken leave of its senses with the Qashqai? Not at all: it's probably the right car at the right time. It has that touch of SUV machismo which is a guilty pleasure for so many customers, but without the butch baggage that'll attract the disapproval of the anti-SUV bigots. Thanks to its unusual marketing story and slightly bigger size, Nissan will be able to charge a premium over a regular hatch, boosting its margins. And because it's a little different, the Qashqai has the potential to become a hot vehicle. If it meets its targets, Nissan will end up looking very smart indeed and with a heap of new customers. And if buyers reject it and stick to traditional 4x4s, an all-new X-Trail is due next year anyway.