If you want to know why auto-industry insiders think small SUVs will soon run compact cars into the ground, you don’t have to look much further than Nissan’s lineup. The Japanese company helped kick off the small-crossover craze with its oddball Juke in 2011, but has recently committed to a more mainstream approach signaled by the Juke’s forthcoming replacement with the Kicks, and the arrival of the Qashqai you see here.
Nissan has sold the Qashqai in Europe and elsewhere for a number of years, and while the name is new to us, this little utility shares its underpinnings with the familiar Rogue, a vehicle that lives at the large end of the compact-crossover spectrum and has done very well for Nissan in North America.
The Qashqai’s basis on the nicely-sorted Rogue is a good starting point that makes it a smooth driver, though more road and wind noise gets into the cabin than we remember from our last Rogue test drive.
Doing the work is a 2.0-litre that makes 141 hp and 147 lb-ft of torque. With that motivation under the hood, performance is fine, but you’ll get more straight-line satisfaction from stronger competitors like the Fiat 500X (180 hp) and Mitsubishi’s RVR (optional with 168 hp).
And while the Volkswagen Golf wagon is not technically a crossover, its Alltrack AWD option positions it as a competitor to cars like the Qashqai, while offering both more power and interior space.
Basic front-drive Qashqai models come with a manual transmission, but the continuously variable automatic (CVT) is mandatory with AWD. It’s not an exciting way to put power to the road, but it does so while mimicking the stepped gear changes of a traditional automatic and avoiding the droning engine note that annoys us in many other CVT-equipped cars.
While I normally ignore eco-minded drive modes, in the Qashqai this feature softens jumpy throttle response and makes it easier to drive smoothly. All we wished is that the car would remember which setting was engaged when the car is turned off; the button is awkwardly placed down by the driver’s left knee, which proved a pain given that we used it every time we started the car.
Button placement aside, if the idea behind it is to make the Qashqai more fuel-efficient, our test was inconclusive, because cold weather bumped fuel consumption to an average of nearly 11.0 L/100 km in mostly highway driving — much higher than Nissan’s estimates of 9.1/7.5 with the optional all-wheel drive system. That said, the AWD worked well during a week spent in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, including the aftermath of a 20-cm snowfall.
Nissan says a FWD model with the CVT is nominally more efficient than my AWD tester, but given my experience with other vehicles offered with both types of drivetrains, a front-drive model could turn out to save more fuel in real-world driving than those estimates suggest.
Despite its small footprint, the Qashqai is plenty roomy (bulky winter clothing notwithstanding). Two of us were cozy but not cramped in the front seats, and the rear bench offers perfectly useful head- and legroom for adults, including lots of toe room under the front seats. Predictably, cargo space is limited, but the trunk floor can be adjusted downward a couple of inches to add a few valuable litres of volume.
Our test vehicle was the mid-range SV trim with AWD, a $26,798 vehicle that includes niceties like heated front seats and steering wheel and dual-zone automatic climate control. If you want a touchscreen-based infotainment system, you have to spring for the $29,498 SL trim, which also gets navigation and leather seating.
As good as I remembered the Rogue being when I last drove one in 2013, I wondered if the mechanically similar Qashqai would feel dated next to other automakers’ more modern crossover designs. Not at all: This is a nicely done little utility that I think buyers will find just as easy to live with as the Rogue. All I’d suggest is that if fuel economy is a priority for you, think hard about how much you need four-wheel traction.