Forget wadi-bashing and stick to the streets
Genre-busting and segment defining: two expressions you'll hear bandied about when the Nissan Qashqai is mentioned. The Japanese company certainly seems to have found something of a cash generator in its Qashqai, the family machine consistently a top seller in the many markets it's offered in.
Nissan calls it a crossover, which isn't entirely unfitting, given that its off-road stance and practicality mixes with hatchback driving manners. Don't think for a moment though that the Qashqai is a proper off-roader, as, despite a loftier stance than the hatchback norm and SUV-lite looks, it's not going to get you too far into the wilds. However, if you want something a bit more interesting than a Sunny or a Tiida then the Qashqai is just the thing.
Not least as it looks great. Crisp lines mix with SUV cues to create a relatively normal car that manages to attract a good deal of attention. The front end in particular gives the Qashqai presence. The rakish headlamps and bold chrome surrounded Nissan badge work well with the contoured bonnet and its raised creases.
That exterior desirability isn't followed up with a cabin that's overly endowed with styling flair. The steering wheel is familiar Nissan stock, some of the materials aren't very tactile, and the air vents are an all or nothing affair, being either fully open or closed. New equipment for the 2012 model year sees an optional parking system that Nissan calls Around View Monitor. It adds cameras giving an all-round view to avoid parking dings. Clever stuff, but the screen by which it's operated is both too low in the dash and rather small to view properly.
That said, the cabin does work well. The seats are comfortable all round, the rears give decent head- and legroom and the Qashqai+2 gains a third row of seats should your family requirements be more than most. The +2 arguably loses some of the regular Qashqai's sporty looks but loses little on the road to its less practical relative except fractions of a second in the 0-100kph sprint.
Not that you'll want to be thrashing the Qashqai's 2.0L 140hp engine. That's not because of the engine itself, but the gearbox that's attached to it. Nissan likes CVTs, the benefits of a continuously variable transmission being the ability to have the engine operating at its peak performance and economy zones. That does make for an experience where the engine seems to be revving hard, the sensation not dissimilar to a slipping clutch. One Nissan insider admitted that the CVT "works best on a part throttle", and suggested that the upper reaches of the rev-counter's needle are best left unexplored.
That's fine until there's a spot in the traffic and you need immediate response, and the CVT seemingly takes an age to respond. Best then to take control via the paddle-shifters, which step the transmission and give virtual ratios to work a bit more conventionally. That rather negates the benefits of an automatic transmission, though.
Compromised transmission aside, the Qashqai offers a drive that's more hatchback than SUV. The steering is accurate and quick enough to respond to input and the suspension also does a competent job at resisting body roll and smothering bumps, though it can get a bit unsettled over larger undulations where things are a bit bouncy. The brakes feel strong and the driving position is good.
The Qashqai's all-round ability, good looks and functionality combine to offer something genuinely different from the family car norm. It's not necessarily segment busting any more, and in need of a conventional automatic transmission, but it's appealing nonetheless. In a marketplace mired in the ordinary, that's enough to make the Nissan Qashqai stand out from the rest.
Published: November 23, 2011 04:00 AM