Is Nissan's Qashqai one of those cars that gets better the less you spend upfront? Jonathan Crouch takes a look at the entry-level version.
Ten Second Review
Can you really put a 1.2-litre petrol engine in a vehicle as big as a Nissan Qashqai and expect it to be any good? Well, yes, you can. The latest Qashqai has established its bona fides and the turbocharged 1.2-litre engine can manage a respectable 115PS, which will be more than enough for many customers. The £17,500 opening price isn't going to hurt either.
What do you think of when we mention a 1.2-litre engine? Chances are that you'll form a mental picture of an underpowered city car; something joyless and cramped that will instantly have you pigeonholed as the worst sort of penny-pincher. If, on the other hand, we were to mention a new Nissan Qashqai, the image would be altogether happier. That would be about having a sleek-looking crossover parked outside your house, filled with clever tech that would probably make you a rather cool mum or dad. Believe it or not, these two sections of the Venn diagram do intersect in the shape of the Qashqai 1.2 DIG-T model.
Car manufacturers have become a whole lot better at engine downsizing in recent years, understanding how to utilise turbochargers not only to add power but also to attain decent fuel economy and emissions figures. If you thought this Qashqai 1.2 DIG-T was merely in the range to give Nissan a low price to trumpet in their promotions, think again. It's here on merit.
As you might well expect at this price point, you don't get all-wheel drive but then neither do most Qashqai customers. Around 85 per cent of all Qashqais will be sold running a front-wheel drive chassis and it makes sense. It's more efficient, more cost-effective, easier to package and most target customers don't need all-wheel drive anyway. The 115PS engine has a bit to it and thus equipped, this Qashqai is actually faster than the old 1.6-litre version. It'll skip to 62mph in 11.3 seconds and run onto a top speed of 115mph, so it's unlikely you'll feel embarrassed in the outside lane. Peak torque is made between 2,000 and 4,000rpm thanks to the turbocharger, so it's not as if you need to rev it like crazy to make respectable progress. That always used to be the recipe if you fitted a small engine in a big car but things have changed for the better.
Okay, so this is never going to be a vehicle where you overtake just for the fun of it, but motorway cruising is relaxed and refined and handling is assured thanks to the standard Chassis Control system. This uses Active Trace Control to improve stability through bends by braking the inside wheel while Active Ride Control also stabilises the car this time over bumps that could cause the car's body to pitch slightly forward and backwards. The ingenious double-piston dampers already put the Qashqai a step ahead of its key rivals in terms of ride quality. There's also a dual mode steering system which changes the weighting of the electrically-assisted rack when you select the Sport setting.
Design and Build
Sleeker and more expensive-looking than its immediate predecessor, this Qashqai's styling is certain to be a major attraction for previously floating voters. The tape measure indicates that it's 49mm longer and 20mm wider than the old car as well as 15mm lower. Nissan claims it's more like a four-door coupe as a result and while that might sound like typical marketing hyperbole, one look at that roofline profile suggests they may be onto something there. The reason why the Qashqai has suddenly got a lot sexier is that it no longer needs to seat seven. There's no Qashqai +2 model planned, the latest X-Trail taking over that duty instead, so Nissan's designers have been freed up somewhat to allow the Qashqai to scrub up very sharply.
The interior has come on leaps and bounds. While the old Qashqai made a lot of friends with is equipment and technology provision, interior ambience was more Comet than Bang and Olufsen. With that in mind, the latest version ups the design values quite markedly. Nissan freely admits that the shared platform under the vehicle has saved them 30 per cent in build and development costs and that's been ploughed back into improving perceived quality. It's a lot better than before with some nice metallic finishes, stitched leather trims and creative use of lighting but it's not at the grade where it seems a cut-price Audi Q3. Practicality is as good as ever with more space in the back, and even more headroom thanks to a lower seat height in the back. Boot space has gone up to 430-litres as well. Load space flexibility has also been improved with a tailgate that now opens 150mm higher and includes a dual-floor system designed to provide a flexible and versatile load space. That's a win-win if ever there was one.
Market and Model
Prices for this 1.2-litre engine start at just over £17,500 and top out at just over £23,000 for the range-topping model. That's right, this engine is offered in all trim levels, from starter Visia grade and then progressing through Acenta, Acenta Premium and Tekna. That should give you a clue, if clues were indeed required, that this engine isn't just a cheap way of luring you into a showroom. Nissan sees it as integral to the Qashqai's success, predicting that better than 40 per cent of all new Qashqais will use this tiny four-cylinder unit.
Equipment levels have always been a Qashqai strong point and it's no different this time round. Even the Acenta gets cruise control, a stereo with USB and Bluetooth, heated body-coloured mirrors, air conditioning, stop/start and hill start assist. It also gets the usual safety features like ESP stability control, ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and front, side and curtain airbags. Only the 16-inch steel wheels look a little mean. You'll need to stretch to the Acenta to get 17-inch alloys, but the top Tekna trim gets some really interesting bits like the Safety Shield pack. This includes an Around View monitor, blind spot warning, moving object detection and Driver Support Assist. It also gets Intelligent Parking Assist, a heated windscreen, and Bi-LED headlights. Pick up a parking scrape in one of these and you'll have really excelled yourself.
Cost of Ownership
It's often the case that 'small engine in big car' results in some surprisingly terrible fuel economy figures but the Qashqai 1.2-litre's decent amount of torque means that you don't need to gun this powerplant hard to get going. This results in very respectable figures of 50.4mpg on the combined cycle with emissions of 129g/km.
As well as fitting stop/start systems, reducing engine frictional losses, optimising gear ratios and reducing weight where possible, Nissan has also devoted a great deal of attention to the Qashqai's aerodynamics. With a drag co-efficient of 0.32, it cleaves the air very well for a relatively high vehicle. From the elements on show such as the roof spoiler with winglets, to those hidden away like the flat floor design, there's some clever thinking at work here. Another innovation making its debut on the manual-boxed diesel Qashqais is an Active Grille Shutter system. This closes off airflow through the radiator when not needed. The grille shutter automatically shuts at speeds over 30km/h and only opens if sensors detect that the engine needs cooling.
The Nissan Qashqai has evolved and evolved smartly. It's also Nissan's firm belief, given its projections for the sales of this 1.2-litre version, that buyer behaviour will also evolve, ditching years of prejudice against small capacity petrol engines and embracing the 1.2-litre DIG-T engine. I'm not so sure that it'll happen quite that quickly. There will still be a significant section of buyers who feel that they need the additional lugging power of a diesel engine in their crossover vehicle and it will take a lot to convince them.
Still, hats off to Nissan. It's hard to fault the execution of the new Qashqai and if we were spending our own money, we'd probably buy the 1.2-litre car without a second thought. We've no doubt the market will eventually come round to it but for the time being at least, we think Nissan may be a bit too far ahead of the game to be entirely comfortable. Still, playing the long game has plenty to be said for it.