Ten years ago, the Nissan Qashqai went on sale. A decade on, not even the most optimistic prophet at the Japanese brand could honestly state that they had expected the dramatic way in which this car changed the car market – in the UK, across Europe, even globally.
The concept was simple – Nissan designers noticed how buyers liked SUVs for their dominant road presence, but not so much for their generally coarser road manners, and the complexity and cost of their all-wheel-drive powertrains.
From family car to SUV
In fact, the Nissan Qashqai was born out of a difficult period in the company’s design office, which had started off penning a replacement for the Almera family car. With Renault and Nissan newly merged, boss Carlos Ghosn insisted that the poor-selling Almera should be replaced by something much better. A 25-strong design team conceived the idea of a larger car, somewhat like SEAT’s Altea, but after nine months of work concluded they were going in the wrong direction.
Meanwhile Nissan had been talking to its customers, concluding that while SUVs were becoming more popular, many motorists considered them too large for using as around-town everyday cars, while poor fuel efficiency and lacklustre interior quality were also turn-offs.
According to Peter Brown, vehicle evaluation manager then and today at the Nissan Technical Centre Europe (NTCE), based in Cranfield, Berkshire, from this conclusion was born the idea of the first ‘crossover’.
“We managed to persuade the business that we could break down some of these barriers by taking the best bits of a family hatchback and adding the elements of SUVs that are most attractive to customers,” Peter said.
The resultant car would “combine the advantages of a compact SUV with the agility and comfort of a hatchback”. It was named the Qashqai – after inhabitants of a mountainous area of southwest Iran and translating to ‘horse with white forehead.’
Three into one
The Nissan Qashqai ended up replacing three cars – the Almera and its larger sister the Primera, and the Terrano II SUV. And while observers naturally compared the imposing newcomer to the Terrano, it was a very different concept. The Terrano was of traditional SUV construction with its body bolted to a ladder frame, the Qashqai was of monocoque construction, like all new family cars.
Nissan emphasised this fact when the Qashqai was unveiled as a concept at the 2004 Geneva motor show. The Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf hatchbacks were described as the Qashqai’s prime rivals, not any SUVs.
Reaction to the car was guarded. One media commentator dubbed it “the Stannah Stair Lift of concept cars”, and also dismissed the name as ridiculous. Nissan was convinced, however, and less than three years later launched the production Qashqai.
A decade on, that optimism has been dramatically rewarded. Today Nissan proudly claims to have invented a whole new sector with the crossover, a description now familiar to motorists. Said sector is today the fastest growing in the entire industry – in 2010 crossover/SUVs accounted for less than 1% of the UK market, today it’s close to 9%, and the story is the same across Europe.
Just about every manufacturer today considers it vital to have not just one, but a range of crossovers in its line-up. Nissan claims 21 direct rivals have been launched against the Qashqai in the last decade, while new models are appearing all the time; Vauxhall and Skoda among those revealing new contenders in 2017.
Meanwhile the crossover sector has itself fragmented into sub-sectors based mainly on size, while expanding into the premium and even the luxury arenas – in 2006, who would have imagined buying an SUV-like Bentley, or Maserati, or even Jaguar?
Through it all, the Nissan Qashqai has remained out front. In the last decade, more than 3.3 million Qashqais have been sold in 99 countries across the world, 2.3 million of these in Europe. And almost all of them have come out of Nissan’s UK plant in Sunderland.
A very British car
In fact the Qashqai is more British than virtually all other cars rolling off the lines in UK plants. It was the first Nissan to be styled by the brand’s European Design Centre in Paddington, London, while in charge of getting the engineering right was the Nissan Technical Centre Europe (NTCE), based in Cranfield, Berkshire.
To celebrate the decade the Qashqai has been with us, The Car Expert spent a week driving two versions of the car – one of the very first, a 1.6 petrol model on sale in 2008, and the current model in 1.5 dCi diesel form. This is an example of the second-generation Qashqai, launched in 2014 and with a facelifted version expected on sale in July.
Slipping into the 2008 model first, it’s difficult to believe that when we attended the launch events a decade ago, the motoring journalist pack had to think long and hard about how to describe this newcomer. It seemed not one thing or another, with SUV height and looks, an MPV interior, and claimed family hatch economy.
Today, even a 2008 Qashqai feels one of the most normal of all cars to drive, simply because we drive so many crossovers these days. Reacquainting ourselves with the old model is a reminder that the Qashqai did not do anything stand-out well, but it did everything to a level that was thoroughly practical and easy to live with – it really did offer that SUV feel without SUV drawbacks.
The interior for example – back in 2007 this gained a few headlines because it was far better than anything we had previously seen from Nissan. Today it immediately looks dated when perhaps unkindly compared to that of the current Qashqai. The new car benefits from all the advances made in technology, digital displays and such like, but there remains an appeal to the simplicity of the original version.
The Nissan Qashqai grows up
Where the current Nissan Qashqai wins hands down is in interior space. Rear-seat passengers were the least well-served in the original, particularly in terms of headroom, but the new architecture adopted for the second-generation model added 47mm to the length and a whole lot more room inside.
On the road? Well, it’s not really a fair test because our 2008 original is petrol powered, while the current version is a diesel, reflecting the CO2 emissions-induced growth of diesel popularity over the last decade.
It’s a clear demonstration of the march of technology that the diesel not only feels smoother and quieter than its petrol predecessor, but it moves the Qashqai along rather more rapidly. The current car reaches 62mph more than two seconds quicker than the 2008 version, despite the engine having 18 fewer horses and having to cope with more than 120kg of extra weight! That’s progress…
The first Qashqai introduced handling to the SUV market, showing that you could drive such a car without resorting to fear each time a corner loomed ahead. The current one maintains the trend.
It’s more dynamically sorted than its predecessor, but still erring towards comfort rather than grin-producing road holding – which of course is what it was always meant to do. The extra weight helps it feel more planted on the roads.
Yet… the 2008 Nissan Qashqai impressed us. Strip off all the modern tech from the current model, and it’s not that massively different from its pioneering predecessor. The most pertinent conclusion to come out of our week’s testing is just how right Nissan got it ten years ago.