From £23,5658

Nissan refreshes its best-seller. Does this new-generation version regain the class lead?

The subject of this week’s road test has been dubbed the Cashcow by some in industry circles. That’s because the Nissan Qashqai crossover almost single-handedly saved Nissan in Europe when the first generation was launched in 2006.

It really popularised the idea that you can have something that looks like an off-roader without it actually needing all the heavy, inefficient hardware to make it capable in the mud – and people responded in numbers.

All cars get LED headlights. Aerodynamic ducts are real, and they’re big enough to make a Honda Civic Type R blush.

Although practically every other manufacturer followed suit and produced a competitor, Nissan’s original continues to top the UK crossover-class sales. With 52,532 registrations in 2019, it was the fifth-best-selling car in the UK, beating its Ford Kuga rival by more than 10,000. It even managed to maintain its position in the extraordinary year that was 2020.

As well as being a success story for Nissan, the Qashqai is also a shining beacon for UK car manufacturing, having been produced in Sunderland from the start. As car maker after car maker closes its UK manufacturing base – Honda made its last Honda Civic in Swindon only a few weeks ago – it is heartening that the new, third-generation Qashqai continues to be made here.

The second-generation Qashqai had been around since 2013 so it’s remarkable that although it lagged somewhat behind the best of the competition, it remained on the pace in sales terms. It makes sense, therefore, for Nissan to tread carefully with the new one. Indeed, its strategy of making its pure- electric SUV, the Ariya, a completely separate model leaves room for the EV to be a bit bolder, while the Qashqai remains a crowd pleaser.

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Nissan Qashqai design & styling

This car’s design certainly ticks a great many of the boxes expected of a compact SUV in 2021. Sharp LED light signature? Check. Contrasting ‘floating’ roof? Check. Option of massive, bi-colour wheels? Check. Slightly larger in every direction? Check.

In fact, the new Qashqai is quite a bit larger than its predecessor, at 35mm longer (20mm of that in the wheelbase), 25mm taller and a rather significant 32mm wider. It clearly retains the family link with the old one, though, particularly at the rear.

Although the Qashqai’s purpose is not to shock, the new one does receive plenty of distinguishing design features, among them the vertical air ducts in the front bumper, a floating roof design, those new LED headlights and no fewer than 16 exterior colour combinations from which to choose.

Change is a little more radical under the bonnet, where all of the old model’s diesel engines have been put out to pasture, leaving a completely electrified line-up. The 1.3-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol unit that was introduced with the previous generation’s last facelift is carried over and is again available with either 136bhp or 156bhp, but it gains mild-hybrid assistance. Both versions come as standard with a six-speed manual gearbox, with a CVT being optional on the higher-power version. The 156bhp engine can also be had with all-wheel drive.

The mild-hybrid system is only a 12V set-up rather than a 48V one, and it can contribute only just over 4lb ft of torque for the car when accelerating, so its value lies more in smoothing out stop/start and powering accessories when the engine is off than in supplying any meaningful torque fill.

Standing in for the absent diesel options is an e-Power full hybrid that will soon join the range. As more and more manufacturers start to offer full hybrids to fill that vacant space, a rich variety of powertrain configurations is emerging. Toyota’s long-standing hybrid system is a CVT-alike concept, whereas some others use dual-clutch gearboxes, Renault uses a clutchless gearbox and Honda uses no gearbox at all.

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Nissan’s, like Honda’s, uses only the 1.5-litre engine to charge a battery, while the wheels are exclusively driven by the 184bhp electric motor, which should bring some EV driving sensations to a car that is still dependably petrol-powered.

The Qashqai rides on an updated version of the Renault-Nissan Alliance’s CMF-C platform and most versions get a torsion beam axle for rear suspension, but all-wheel drive models (as well as those on 20in alloys) have a multi-link rear axle instead. Nissan says the updates to the platform have allowed it to further suppress road noise and improve suspension geometry for a more composed ride. More use of aluminium keeps weight manageable despite the larger body.

Nissan Qashqai engine line-up and trim-levels

For the latest generation, Nissan has ditched all diesels in favour of a mix of mild-hybrid and full-hybrid powertrains, all using four-cylinder petrol engines. Pricing for the full hybrid has yet to be announced.

There are six trim levels, with the cheapest of those, Visia, available on the lower-powered engine only. It includes a 7in infotainment system, front and rear LED lights, adaptive cruise control and rear parking sensors as standard.

The step-up Acenta Premium gains 17in alloy wheels, 8in infotainment with built-in satnav and wired smartphone mirroring, rear-view camera and dual-zone air conditioning.

N-Connecta models ride on 18in alloys, and includes privacy glass and front parking sensors as standard. The infotainment system also grows to 9in and gains wireless Apple CarPlay.

Teka models get Pro-Pilot navigation and a 10.8in digital instrument cluster as standard, along with adaptive LED headlights, a hands-free power tailgate, and wireless smartphone charging. It also sits on 19in alloys.

The most luxurious trim, Tekna+, is reserved for the more powerful engine. It sits on 20in alloy wheels, has quilted leather front seats with massage function, and gets an uprated Bose sound system, among other extras.

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14 Nissan Qashqai 2021 RT cabin

The area where the old Qashqai particularly showed its age was in its interior, and the latest generation has made some big steps in this respect, but it has not taken on digital technology for the sake of it. With a swoopier dashboard, some horizontal trim strips and a big touchscreen in the middle, it looks right up to date. Our high-spec Tekna test car added some blue imitation leather panels for a welcome splash of extra colour.

All the materials you are likely to touch regularly in the car have a pleasant soft-touch finish, and the plentiful buttons and switchgear have a nice heft to them. The interior mouldings feel solidly screwed together, too.

Blocky heater unit is a model of easy usability. Infotainment screen above is also good on that score, but graphics already look a bit antiquated.

This car is extremely easy to jump in and get to grips with, because all of the important functions are operated by a physical button or knob. There is a separate panel for the HVAC controls, and even driver assistance features like the steering assist and head-up display can be turned on or off with a button. It’s all remarkably common sense, with not a touch- sensitive panel in sight other than the big infotainment screen.

Continuing the common sense theme, the Qashqai allows occupants to charge their devices in any way they need, with multiple 12V sockets, two USB-A and two USB-C ports, and a wireless charging pad on most trim levels. Here, as elsewhere, convenience is king, and the Qashqai offers plenty.

Accessing the rear cabin is easy thanks to doors that open to 90deg. Once there, leg room is about average for the class, with plenty of head room even with the panoramic sunroof (which is a fixed panel and doesn’t actually open). It means tall adults fit without issue but they would be only averagely comfortable on longer journeys. The back seats don’t do anything fancy like recline or slide, and they fold in a 40/60 split, rather than a more flexible 40/20/40 format.

Flexibility tricks have been reserved for the boot, which is quite cleverly conceived. It has removable floor panels that can be raised or lowered, or set upright to create a divider that stops groceries from sliding around. The panels can also be flipped over to reveal a wipe-clean surface to put muddy or dirty items on to. When they’re all in place, they create a flat load area with some useful extra space below.

Nissan Qashqai infotainment and sat-nav

Visia trim is so basic that it doesn’t even get a touchscreen, but Acenta Premium has a 7.0in screen, and on N-Connecta that becomes a 9.0in screen accompanied by a 12.3in digital driver display. Both versions of the touchscreen have Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. On the larger version, CarPlay is wireless.

Our Tekna car had the bigger system. It’s responsive enough and, thanks to plenty of shortcut buttons (both physical ones below the screen and virtual ones on the bottom), it is fairly easy to navigate. The way the screen is mounted on the dashboard means you also have a small ledge to rest your hand on, so it stays steady when tapping the screen on the move.

It’s a pity the graphics already look dated, the centre screen more so than the driver display. When CarPlay is wireless and there is a wireless charging pad to boot, it’s difficult to come up with a reason to use the built-in navigation and audio systems, especially since the smartphone mirroring is integrated so well.

27 Nissan Qashqai 2021 RT engine

On a car that is intended to appeal to a wide audience, the only area where the new Qashqai really frustrates is with its powertrain. For this road test, we have tried the manual 156bhp 1.3 with front-wheel drive. On paper, that makes it at least a little stronger than some of its rivals, which all offer just under 150bhp, but in reality the Qashqai doesn’t quite feel it.

The engine does its best work in the mid-range, but we would like a little more low-end grunt. It needs 2000rpm to really get going, so swift progress requires a bit more effort than you feel inclined to invest in driving a compact family SUV. This comes as a bit of a surprise, given that both petrol engines are mild hybrids, where the starter motor can help out at low revs. At least the 12V system offers smooth operation of the stop/start system.

Adaptive cruise control can easily frustrate as it doesn’t anticipate like a good driver would, but the Nissan’s is well calibrated and cleverly handles changing speed limits. I still wish for a way to switch it to regular cruise control, though.

We couldn’t quite match Nissan’s 9.5sec 0-62mph claim during our testing but we didn’t miss it by much. The 1.3-litre four-cylinder remains smooth and, most of the time, it’s admirably quiet. That said, when it speaks up, it sounds a little dieselly.

When a car’s gearbox is a joy to use, such defects can perhaps be ignored, but Nissan has a habit of making its clutch pedals feel a bit spongy, with a high bite point – just as it has here. To make matters worse, engine revs drop very slowly when the clutch is disengaged, which makes it more difficult than it need be to change gear quickly and smoothly. The action of the gearchange could be better defined, too. It’s light, with a mildly notchy but longish throw.

Consequently, the Qashqai feels like a car that might be better suited to an automatic gearbox, which could camouflage some of the flat spots in the power delivery. It’s a shame, then, that wider test experience suggests that the car’s CVT alternative isn’t without fault, either – so whichever way you order the car, it might not end up with a particularly agreeable powertrain.

28 Nissan Qashqai 2021 RT cornering front

Even in a segment where an engaging driving experience is hard to find, the Qashqai has never been the most dynamic car to drive – and the new one doesn’t change that. Nissan has done a good job prioritising ride comfort, though.

A car in this class is unlikely to benefit from the most sophisticated suspension, but potholes tend not to be too intrusive in the Qashqai and the body is kept under control pretty well on longer-wave undulations.

The steering weights up in fast corners, but not in a natural, predictable way. Under continuous hard cornering, the system does settle on one weight, but it varies with speed. More consistency would be better.

At town speeds, there can sometimes be a little jiggle in the car’s ride when the dampers occasionally fail to deal with small imperfections in one go, but overall this is a very comfortable car.

Handling is tuned for safety, rather than any kind of engagement. Despite having a meaty 235 section, the Continental EcoContact tyres aren’t the grippiest, but they are perfectly adequate for this type of car, and our handling course showed that the ESP system is good at unobtrusively managing the car’s on-limit behaviour. The brakes also hauled the car to a standstill from 60mph in a respectable 2.7sec.

The one dynamic flaw is the steering. It’s very light at smaller steering angles and weights up more suddenly as you dive into tighter corners with a bit more speed and lock. That sounds like a good thing – but in reality, it feels artificial and inconsistent, and generally discourages any enthusiasm at the wheel because you can’t be completely confident in placing the car.

The upside of the light steering is that manoeuvring the Qashqai is nice and easy and, with a turning circle of 11.1m, it’s not too much of an oiltanker to park, even if being a larger car than before doesn’t help. That fancy floating D-pillar does create a bit of an over-shoulder blindspot, but forward visibility is good. The tall driving position and long, flat bonnet mean that it’s also easy to see the edges and place the car in town.

Assisted driving notes

Even the most basic Qashqais have a comprehensive suite of active safety features. They can all be turned off through the menu screens in the instrument cluster using the buttons on the steering wheel. It’s a rather cumbersome process, but we found no real need to turn any of them off, other than the occasional unwarranted intervention from the lane departure warning system on twistier country roads.

The car’s ProPilot intelligent cruise control works quite well. It’s smooth when slowing down and tends to do so far enough in advance of traffic slowing ahead, although it can get confused by cars in an adjacent lane. A welcome feature is that it will recognise changing speed limits but wait for the driver to confirm before changing the vehicle’s set speed. You can change gear without disabling the cruise control, too. On higher trims, it will steer for you to keep the car in lane if desired, and it does so pretty competently without encouraging you to mentally switch off.

Comfort and isolation

Over our week with the Qashqai, we were impressed with the seats. They don’t look like anything too special, but over long motorway journeys they proved supportive, thanks to a wide range of adjustment as standard, including lumbar support and variable pitch for the seat base. A relatively long cushion means they are well suited to taller drivers. On top-of-the-range Tekna+ cars, they even offer a massage function. There isn’t a lot of lateral support, but then the rest of the driving experience doesn’t encourage high-g cornering anyway.

Combine the seat comfort with the soft but relatively composed ride and you have the makings of a very comfortable long- and short-distance car. It’s a shame, then, that it is let down by the noise levels. The engine is not the issue, as it is quiet unless worked particularly hard. Instead, road roar is to blame.

This is borne out by the 39dBA measurement at idle, which is better than most competitors. However, as the speeds rise, the Qashqai gets louder than average, and it is a good few decibels worse at 70mph than its rivals. It shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but it might just be worth coughing up for the upgraded Bose sound system, as the standard one isn’t the best, either.

1 Nissan Qashqai 2021 RT hero front

Our high-spec Tekna model is relatively expensive compared with many rivals, but mid-level trims are competitive enough.

N-Connecta trim gets you all the essentials, such as parking sensors and the nicer infotainment system with smartphone mirroring; Tekna adds all the indulgences you might want, such as heated seats and a head-up display; and Tekna+ goes mad with massage seats and 20in wheels (but watch out with those, because wider reviews suggest they have a noticeable, adverse effect on ride comfort).

Tekna trim starts out quite expensive and loses its value marginally quicker than the Mazda CX-5 and Ford Kuga do.

Even the very bottom Visia trim gets a comprehensive suite of safety features. Although Euro NCAP hasn’t tested the new Qashqai yet, Nissan usually does well in safety tests, and with most of the active safety kit fitted as standard, as well as a full roster of airbags, including a middle airbag, it is unlikely to present any issue.

Buyers might want to bear in mind that Nissan cars in general, and Qashqais in particular, have sometimes fared quite poorly in UK reliability surveys, even if they are affected mostly by minor issues.

With the manual gearbox, the 156bhp Qashqai has a claimed economy of 44mpg. During our time with the car, low 40s proved to be quite a realistic and achievable figure during mixed use.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Nissan Qashqai

30 Nissan Qashqai 2021 RT static

The old Qashqai was still selling very strongly even as it neared the end of its life, so there was no need for Nissan to make a drastic U-turn with the new one.

Indeed, the latest version builds on the strengths of its predecessors with practicality, modern styling and inoffensive driving dynamics. It steps things up a notch with an interior that is of high quality and comfortable, and keeps things simple as regards the usability of its cabin technology. A suite of mature, well-calibrated assisted driving features finishes the package.

Spec advice? Avoid both the Visia and Tekna+ trims because Visia doesn’t even have a touchscreen and the Tekna+ forces you onto 20in wheels. Given the choice between a funny manual gearbox or a wheezy CVT, pick the manual.

Ultimately, though, it ends up short of class-leading status mostly because of its lacklustre petrol engine and a disappointing manual gearbox. Being in the middle of the pack on price, it’s not cheap enough to excuse that flaw, either.

However, most of the Qashqai’s rivals that we have tested recently have been full-hybrid versions, and once the Qashqai e-Power arrives, it might very well claw back some points with a smoother, fuss-free, more powerful powertrain that suits the car’s general demeanour better than this mild-hybrid manual set-up.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Nissan Qashqai

Nissan Qashqai First drives