Every time I see a Nissan Qashqai - which is often, because it’s been such a roaring success - I’m reminded of my own fallibility. Seven years ago, Nissan launched it using the hook that it combined the looks of a 4x4 with the drivability and running costs of a car. I predicted it would stiff out. Surely no one would want anything that looked like a 4x4, for this was the height of the ‘Chelsea tractor’ backlash. Especially when it didn’t have the off-road utility of a 4x4. I figured it’d meet with the same sort of failure as its predecessors in the car-based faux-crossover field, the Honda HR-V and Matra-Simca Rancho. And it had a stupid name.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Mind you, Nissan’s own predictions were pretty wonky, for it sold three times as many as they themselves expected. And in the process sort of reinvented the whole company. “The Qashqai was an experiment born out of necessity,” Nissan vice president Andy Palmer tells TopGear, “We weren’t going anywhere in Europe. We were obsessed with following the other Japanese. The Qashqai led to a revolution in the company. It gave us the bravery to stand apart.” He says that without it they wouldn’t have done the IDx and BladeGlider and Juke. “We want to be left-field, even if occasionally we get it wrong.”
Now it’s time for the second-generation Qashqai. The engineers claim, in that same spirit of bravery, that the new car is the Qashqai redefined. In truth, it’s just the Qashqai refined. This is no surprise. The first one might have had no competitors, but this one has dozens. Even at the end of its life, the old Qq was winning this busy battle, so there’s less scope to be brave this time because there’s more to lose. Anyway, whether or not it’s philosophically new, it certainly does physically use very many new components and structures, as it sits on a new Renault-Nissan Alliance modular platform.
You’ll spot the new styling, not because it’s violently different from the old, but because there are so many of the old ones out there to compare it against. It’s a neatly executed job, following the tropes of class fashion: jewelled headlights, bolder chrome grille, a big arch over the front wheels feeding into a Z-crease along the side and a sharply defined rear shoulder. Inside, they’ve pensioned off the hard plastic dash, too, adding a new stratum to the pleasure of looking at and working with this interior. The front seats are excellent, too.
It’s lighter by about 40kg despite having grown and acquired more equipment. The extra size makes it more of a family car, as they’ve remedied the deficient rear seat space. The boot’s better too, and most versions get a clever system of boards to divide it up and stop your eggs getting thrown about on the way home from the shops.
Not that you’re expected to be going fast. The engine range is all about quietness and economy, not speed. In the end, there will be two petrols and two diesels, but they top out at 130bhp (diesel) and 150 (petrol), the levels where the Kuga and Tiguan begin. If I’m not mistaken, its 99g/km CO2 is class-leading, but you do need patience with the 110bhp 1.5dCi engine. You’ll be dropping two gears for main-road hills, and when overtaking, you can feel yourself growing old - and nervous.
Better try the 1.6dCi, where there’s 130bhp. It’s not night-and-day different, but this one won’t leave you embarrassed. The 1.6 can also be had with a CVT auto called Xtronic, which generally operates in a stepped mode. It manages to avoid the outboard-motor sound-effects of other CVTs while retaining the smoothness. It is good enough that it didn’t annoy me in the least, and I dislike automatics in general and loathe CVTs in particular.
Inasmuch as it’s possible to have fun in an underpowered quasi-off-roader, the Qashqai obliges. It steers well and corners neatly, thanks to a set of pre-ESP parameters that cut in before you’re into the exaggerated skid phase and generally tidy up, making it feel fleet-footed rather than gooey.
There’s also a neat new brake function so when you hit, say, a big pothole it will dab one or two brakes to help cancel out the pitch. You can’t turn it off for a comparison, but certainly the car feels well-damped in those situations. While the ride is more turbulent than in the best hatches (Golf, maybe Civic), it is good for a tallish crossover. And this even though - for FWD versions like the ones I drove - Nissan has switched to a torsion-beam rear axle rather than multi-link. The reasons are lightness, underbody aero and cheapness. There’s also been a worthwhile cut in road noise.
Climb up the spec tree, and the technology gets mighty impressive. In fact, right from the bottom, there’s a cheap £450 option of front collision avoidance, lane-departure warning, speed-limit-sign recognition and park sensors both ends. At the top trim level, Tekna, you get that lot plus blind-spot warning, around-view cameras, self-parking, Google send-to-car in the satnav and LED headlamps.
Strangely, even though everyone seems to be launching competitors, the Qashqai still has its own niche. It’s cheaper and crucially more economical than the likes of the Kuga, Tiguan and CR-V, but more substantial and desirable than Asian stuff like the Hyundai ix35 and Mitsubishi ASX.
This time around then, even someone with as idiotically challenged powers of prediction as mine can see that it’s bound to succeed.