LARGE SUVs have all but destroyed the family sedan over the past decade. Now small SUVs are threatening to do the same to hatchbacks.
Sales of small SUVs priced below $40,000 are up nearly 30 per cent this year. Sales of small cars — mainly hatchbacks but also sedans — at the same pricepoint are in slow decline.
Sure, small cars are still the biggest single class on the market but it’s highly probable that those sales curves soon enough will accelerate and intersect, with the compact SUV becoming the dominant player.
There are now 29 to choose from, compared with 27 small cars, and most have arrived only in the past five years.
Time and the numbers are on the small SUV’s side but if you’re looking for a quick, agile, sporty drive, you’re in the wrong place. That’s not a criticism — buyers in this class obviously have other priorities — but it is a fact.
I could pick almost any small SUV as an example, including the one we’re testing today, Nissan’s Qashqai.
Just why Nissan chose to name its small SUV after a group of nomadic tribes from Iran is anybody’s guess. The Qashqai use donkeys to get around. Presumably that’s not the connection Nissan was trying to make.
All models run a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol engine, with a humble 106kW of power and 200Nm of torque, put to the road via six-speed manual or continuously variable transmissions.
As the Qashqai has no off-road pretensions, the entire range is front-wheel drive.
Pricing opens at $26,490 for the base ST manual and runs to $37,990 for the bells and whistles Ti CVT; we’re testing the mid-spec ST-L CVT, at $32,990.
In addition to ST’s keyless entry and starting, fast glass on all windows (with opening and closing via the remote as well) and parking sensors, the ST-L adds 18-inch alloys, heated folding side mirrors, roof rails, seven-inch touchscreen, navigation, digital radio and heated, power adjustable front seats with cloth/leather facings.
You’re short-changed on equipment at this price, with no auto headlights, rain-sensing wipers or dual zone aircon. Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone connectivity and stand-alone voice control are also absent, so all infotainment functions must be manually selected and operated.
The quality of fit, finish and materials is excellent and sound from the standard audio is pretty good too.
You’re cocooned in a stylish, sporty, twin cockpit layout, though seated quite high. In the ST-L, the driver’s seat is firm and supportive and the driving position is adjustable for all physiques. Rear legroom is sufficient for most adults and it’s easy to get in and out. No vents are provided.
Nissan claims that bumps are smoothed out by the selective application of braking and engine torque to the relevant wheels, a technology it calls “Intelligent Ride Control.” That’s not the reality.
The suspension is too stiff, the front end in particular jolts the body on bumps and potholes and the ride in town is often harsh.
Compliance improves with speed but the Qashqai’s suspension tune is too punishing for its people-moving role — pointlessly so, given its limited abilities.
Autonomous emergency braking and lane departure warning are standard. The ST-L adds surround cameras, including 360 degree overhead view and rear object detection. Blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and lane keeping should also be included at the price but are available only on more expensive variants.
Nissan has been doing CVTs for a long time and it shows in the way the transmission hooks up crisply and efficiently on a light throttle. Responsiveness from rest and low speeds is surprisingly brisk, making Qashqai a good thing in the daily traffic grind.
There’s no auto stop-start, so fuel consumption, though typically 10-11L/100km, can reach 12.5L in traffic.
When you want big grunt and go, well, it ain’t there, though the transmission tries hard to find it by switching to faux conventional auto mode, with stepped shifts. In cruise mode at 100km/h, the Qashqai is quiet and frugal, returning 6-6.5L/100km, on regular unleaded.
It may feel sorts kinds sporty, notably in the suspension’s firmness, but the Qashqai doesn’t inspire confidence at speed. Roadholding on choppy surfaces, especially at the front, feels tenuous at times.
The steering has two adjustable settings: numb and completely dead. Nissan claims “Active Return Control” adds to steering precision, and “Intelligent Trace Control” provides “more confidence and dynamic feel without interfering with the driving experience”. Are we really supposed to take this seriously?
I don’t want to drive a box. Designed primarily for the European market, this is one of the sharpest-looking SUVs around, inside and out.
European style with Japanese brand quality and reliability. I like the big inside, compact outside space efficiency too.
SUBARU XV 2.0i-L PREMIUM FROM $32,140
Similar performance from a 115kW 2.0-litre/CVT, with superior all-wheel drive dynamics, a much more compliant ride and better driver assist safety gear — adaptive cruise and lane keep assist are standard. Small boot though.
VW TIGUAN 110TSi TRENDLINE FROM $34,490
Half a size bigger, with stronger performance from 110kW 1.4-litre turbo/six-speed dual-clutch/front-wheel drive and better ride-handling compromise. It adds AEB with pedestrian detection, smartphone mirroring.
Stylish and spacious but a strangely dysfunctional combination of modest performance, mediocre dynamics and punishing ride, with a standard equipment list that’s skinny at the price.
NISSAN QASHQAI ST-L
PRICE $32,990 (par)
WARRANTY/SERVICING 3 years (short), 12 months/10,000km, $1672 for 3 years (expensive)
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 106kW/200Nm (below average)
SAFETY 5 stars, 6 airbags, AEB, lane departure warning, surround cameras with rear object detection (average)
THIRST 6.9L/100km (average)
SPARE Space-saver (not ideal)
BOOT 430L (big)
More about Qashqai