What’s this? A hatchback? An off-roader? A mini-MPV?
None of the above. It’s a Nissan Qashqai, it replaces the Almera hatchback (if you can remember what that was) and, according to its maker, ‘it completely redefines driving in the modern, urban world’. In fact, it doesn’t, as you can probably guess, but it is the result of some bold thinking by Nissan. With traditional hatchbacks and saloons in decline and niche cars like SUVs and MPVs on the rise, it has decided to abandon the mainstream, Focus-sized hatch market altogether and offer the Qashqai instead.
But what is it, exactly?
It’s meant to offer all of the stuff people like about SUVs in a hatch-sized package, with none of the compromises you don’t need to make if you never go off-road. So it’s between 10cm and 15cm longer and taller than most hatches, but lower and shorter than a small SUV by similar amounts. You get enough ground clearance to mount kerbs, but not Everest. You also get high-profile tyres so you can sideswipe the same kerbs without tears. You get the option of four-wheel-drive for wet, grassy car parks and occasional snowy roads. But you don’t get the manoeuvrability, efficiency and social acceptability issues of an unnecessarily large and bluff vehicle. Or that’s the idea, anyway…
Doesn’t sound like driving is being ‘completely redefined…’
No. Oh, and apparently it’s ‘urbanproof’ too, whatever that means. Anyway, prices run from £13,499 to £23,249. There are four engines, 1.6 and 2.0-litre petrols with 113bhp and 139bhp, and 1.5- and 2.0-litre dCi diesels with 105bhp and 147bhp. The 1.6 gets a five-speed manual and the others get six cogs, with the options of four-wheel-drive on either 2.0-litre, and a CVT on the bigger petrol or an auto on the bigger diesel. The four-wheel-drive can be locked at 100 percent front, 50/50 split or left to shuttle the torque as required.
So it’s like a Range Rover inside, right?
Nope. More like the slightly taller hatch it actually is. But your view of the road is noticeably better than in a standard hatch and there’s an SUV-like profusion of useful stowage. Build quality is up to the usual standards of Nissan’s near-miraculous Sunderland plant, with mostly soft-touch plastics and only the occasional hard, shiny surface. Special mention for the full-length panoramic sunroof, the intuitive sat-nav with reversing camera (even if the graphics are iffy) and the very stylish smooth-grain black leather trim with pale stitching. Opt for all of these and you’ll wind up with a very nice Qashqai but very little qash, but you might allow yourself one treat. Chief disappointments are space-related; there’s no more room in the back than in a normal hatch, though you’ll be comfortable, and the boot is smaller above the parcel shelf than in most conventional rivals. A big boot is important to the pram-pushing, bike-riding, SUV-buying set.
But does it drive like a hatch, or a tractor?
First impressions are good; the tall tyres soak up road roughness and help produce a fairly refined ride, meaning the suspension can be left reasonably firm to give a resistance to roll and understeer through bends that’s definitely more Focus than Massey Ferguson. The fully electric power steering has plenty of weight but an imprecise, elastic feel in the front-drive, 2.0-litre petrol we tried. The four wheel-drive diesel steered more cleanly and accurately when in 4wd mode, but the effect of putting all 236lb ft through the front wheels was noticeable when locked in 2wd. This is the first car from Renault-Nissan’s new C platform; it bodes well for the ride and handling of the others, if not the steering specifically.
And the engines?
We tried both 2.0-litre engines with the six-speed ’box. Both were surprisingly unrefined, transmitting plenty of noise and vibration to an otherwise calm cockpit. The diesel is definitely the one to have though; the petrol is unremarkable but the dCi delivers gobs of torque on demand and is more economical.
Driving in the modern, urban world has not been completely redefined, but nobody (other than a deluded Nissan copywriter) thought it had. But we have been presented with a capable car with a bunch of desirable attributes which haven’t been offered in one package before. It’s a clever move from Nissan, and one which we think punters will reward. But they do have a standard boring hatchback up their sleeves which could be brought to the UK in short order if we’re wrong…