Matthew Jones10 January 2014

First drive: the new Nissan Qashqai

Nissan’s difficult second album is a resounding success. Still rather dull, mind

What's this, then?

The second-gen Nissan Qashqai. One of the most searched-for cars ever on TopGear.com, you know.

Ah yes, the SUV crossover thing that reinvented SUV crossover things.

Indeed. This is a hugely important car for the company. The old model sold nearly 2,000,000 in total, and 49,654 Qashqais found homes in Britain last year alone.

So is it good?

Yes. It really, really is. The outgoing model was a wallowy old hector that, while offering Freelander-like space and SUVness, made its cheap price known. It was a little tinny, a little noisy, and a bit nasty inside. The new model is none of these things. It's 15mm lower than the car it replaces, but there's more room inside, the finish is better, the equipment's better, it's more efficient (the 1.5-litre diesel gets a claimed 74.3mpg), and it's quieter - it's a proper grown-up crossover, and you can tell Nissan's gone to great pains to nail every little detail.

Details, eh? Like what?

Just small stuff, but things that would make a real difference day-to-day. The central storage box has a little channel, so you can plug in your USB device in without having to force the lid shut, and the cupholder cavity that's a bit deeper, so drinks bottles don't get in the way when you're changing gear.

Cupholders, eh? My root's hardly fizzing here, Top Gear. Tell me something exciting. There must be a Nismo version or something?

Sorry, no. The launch menu includes a basic 113bhp 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol that'll do 50.4mpg and emit 129g/km of CO2, a 108bhp 1.5-litre dCi turbodiesel returning 74.3mpg that emits 99 carbons, and a 128bhp 1.6-litre dCi turbodiesel returning 64.2mpg that emits 115 carbons. The closest you get to anything hot is the 50.4mpg 1.6-litre petrol, which is a very de-tuned version of the Juke Nismo engine.

Ah. So which is the best of that lot? That Nismo Lite 1.6?

No, actually. Its performance is hardly sluice-easing, but the 1.5-litre diesel's the one to have (0-62mph in 12.4sec, 112mph top speed). Since it's been tinkered by Nissan's tech bods, it's a properly quiet, and refined little engine - something hitherto absent from the Qashqai range. 192lb ft is just about perfect for getting 1365kg of SUV around, it'll return a real-world 55mpg, and it only kicks out 99g/km. Which is bloody impressive. But for the love of all that's holy, don't bother with the CVT. Nissan claims it's ironed out the rubber band elasticity of the old transmission, and it is noticeably better. But the simulated ratio changes are still slow, and disproportionately, fantastically annoying.

OK, so 1.5 diesel manual it is. What's it like to drive?

Obviously, this isn't going to be Stig's first pick of Nissan's range, but the suspension setup's an increasingly rare proposition, even in this market - it's been tuned for comfort, not sport. The ride is superb, helped in no small part by the fitment of double-piston dampers across the range (two damping rates for high and low frequency bumps), and the steering's got just enough weight and feel to keep you involved. Just... The payoff is a little pitch and wallow.

So it's real-world good. Should I buy one, then?

If your real world involves offspring, large oddment transportation and you really don't want a normal Golf-sized hatch, yes. Nissan was the first carmaker to truly cash in on the crossover SUV market by, y'know, actually building a half decent crossover SUV. And compared to stuff like the Kia Sportage, and Hyundai iX35, the new model really feels like the manufacturer's leading the charge here. Even the VW Tiguan is a bit lumpen and awkward by comparison.

I'm sensing a but...

Yep, there's always a but. Nissan's really pulled its finger out improving the Qashqai's interior tactility and refinement, equipment levels, and comfort. Then immediately put it back in when it comes to... soul. Which sounds a bit ridiculous, because this isn't a car designed to stir the loins. But the Kia Sportage, for example, is a far braver, borderline-interesting thing. The Qashqai's careful-now styling and conservative interior is a missed opportunity to mix up the segment this company owns the rights to. Which we were kind of expecting considering how daring and confident Nissan's been lately. It's a wheeled glass of water. It does the job. But it's rather dull.

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