Evolution of the Nissan Qashqai
What do we think of when we think of the Nissan Qashqai? The promising 2004 concept which introduced not only the name, but also the talents of Nissan’s London design studio? The worthy but visually underwhelming crossover which made its debut in Paris two and a half years later? The sales phenomenon which led to Nissan’s Sunderland factory producing more vehicles per annum than Italy’s entire automotive industry?
For this writer, the conclusion of the fieldwork element of a four week crash-course in Qashqai Studies is that it is Europe’s incognito car champion. Once I had set the radar on the self-effacing crossover, I suddenly found them everywhere, in all generations (they seem to last well) and trim levels. Before this, I would have more readily paid attention to items of street furniture.
With cars, as with people, solid virtues are a better path to enduring success than egregious self-promotion. I’ve previously commented that part of the success of a mid-size SUV is that almost everyone can justify owning one. The Qashqai is proof in the metal. What’s remarkable is that there is no base demographic – it crosses barriers of age, gender, income group, and family size and is equally prevalent in urban and rural localities. In the gentler days before badge-snobbery raged through most of Europe, the Qashqai might have merited the description ‘classless’. Even now, it has an ‘Every home should have one’ quality.
Let us briefly reflect on the market the Qashqai was entering in spring 2007. In its European heartland, SUV was an Americanism, something dropped boastfully into one-sided conversations about holidays in Florida. In Britain we still spoke of 4×4s; Freelanders, Fronteras, Antaras, Cherokees, Mavericks, X-Trails. Even the in their mildest iteration – Toyota RAV-4 and Honda CR-V – they hinted at weekends at the stable or by the slipway, and an idealised Escape to the Countryside lifestyle. All of that was soon to change.
The Qashqai wasn’t the first European crossover. Other contenders had been MPVs made over to suggest more rugged aspirations, or jacked-up plastic-overclad hatchbacks and estate cars. Nissan’s angle was different, a soft-edged, family friendly five-door, taller than a regular hatchback but lower than an MPV. The height inevitably gave it presence and even an element of authority, but the Qashqai didn’t look like an escapee from a building site or battlefield.
The concept car which appeared at the 2004 Geneva Salon gave a strong hint of fresh thinking at Nissan. All boxes were ticked at the back of the Concept Car Rulebook, with an accomplished design perhaps rather too close in its homage to the 1997 Audi AI2 show car which evolved into the A2. As a declaration of intent, the concept was a success, but two sentences in the accompanying media release gave a better earnest of what the future held:
“With the Qashqai, Nissan has been concentrating on customer segmentation to improve its understanding of the lifestyles and activities of its prospective customers. As a result, Nissan is better able to identify niches which will become market segments in years to come.”
The softer-edged September 2006 Paris Mondial debutant would have disappointed those hoping for a production version of the concept, but the shape scared nobody, and proclaimed the Qashqai’s practical virtues of a commanding driving position and a spacious and versatile interior. Under the surface was a Renault-Nissan Alliance platform shared with the French partner’s 2002 Megane and Scenic. In its Qashqai iteration it featured fully independent multi-link rear suspension for both 2WD and 4WD applications. The engine range at launch drew from no less than four of the Alliance families: 1.6 and 2.0 litre naturally aspirated petrol units, and a pair of turbo-diesels in 1.5 and 2.0 litre capacities.
Sales of the Qashqai J10 commenced in February 2007. Looking back at contemporary reports, the media commentariat seem to have been bemused by what was on offer, some suggesting that Nissan were deluding customers by offering a tall hatchback with optional 4WD, masquerading as an off-road vehicle. Which of course was the essence of Qashqai; Nissan had broken the – largely European – unwritten rule that passenger vehicles with the merest sliver of off-road intent had to offer all-wheel drive across the range, and an engine of at least two litres. The paying public had no such unease, and it was all down to vulgar money.
In the UK, the entry-level 1.6 litre petrol 2WD Qashqai was priced at £13,500. That sort of money didn’t take you very high up in the Focus, Golf, or Astra ranges. RAV-4 and CR-V prices started just below £20K, whereas an all-wheel drive Qashqai could be had for around £3000 less. Nissan were playing to their traditional values; high levels of equipment, mechanical integrity, a trusted brand and above all, value for money. A class-leading five-star EuroNCAP rating also helped the Qashqai’s prospects.
Nissan’s production target at the Sunderland plant was 100,000 per annum, not wildly ambitious, but unnerving for those who depended on it for their livelihood and knew how much of Nissan’s European product plan had been staked upon the new product. To clear space for the newcomer, British production of the Primera P12 was ended. Primera demand across the continent had fallen to not much more than 20,000 per annum, and after 2006 would be met with Japan-supplied cars.
More significantly, there was no plan to produce a C-segment hatchback in Europe to replace the UK-built N16 Almera after it reached the end of its model cycle towards the end of 2007. In 2000 Sunderland had produced nearly 116,000 Almeras; by 2006 the number had slipped below 30,000. Nissan took the bold decision not to challenge the mighty Focus, nor the Astra H and Golf Mk.5, and instead present the Qashqai as its sole C-segment offering in most of Europe.
In 2007, its first production year, Sunderland built 89,919 Qashqais. The 100K per annum target was vindicated, but it took the 2008 European sales figure – 144,879 – to reassure Nissan that the early success was not just down to novelty and vigorous promotion. An encouraging portent was the Qashqai’s fifth place in European Car of the Year 2008 – a meagre 147 points, placing it behind the Fiat 500, Mazda 2, Ford Mondeo, and Kia Ce’ed. Once again the earnest jurors failed to recognise a powerful emerging trend. The charming 500 was a worthy winner, but the Qashqai was to far outsell it in Europe, and gained worldwide acceptance beyond Fiat’s wildest dreams.
In 2009 European Qashqai sales rose again to 180,486, and for the following ten years never dropped below 200,000.
In its seven year production lifespan, the first generation Qashqai changed little. In October 2008, the range was augmented with the Qashqai +2 (NJ10), the +2 suffix signifying an additional row of seats which required a 130mm wheelbase stretch, and 220mm added to the overall length. Dependent on trim level, the extra cost was £1200-1400. The +2 looked like a winner, offering seven seats at an affordable price level without going full MPV, but in reality was sold in small enough numbers that a sighting makes a Qashqai-spotter’s day.
A spring 2010 facelift for the whole range brought a restyled nosecone, and new head and tail lights, along with upgraded infotainment and across-the-range adoption of traction control. In 2011 the 2.0 litre diesel was replaced by a new 1.6 litre unit from Renault’s R-Type range.
Those first seven years brought success to Nissan, but also several strong competitors, most notably the 2008 VW Tiguan, rather different in its visual presentation, but dimensionally very close to the Qashqai. Priced upmarket of the Nissan, the Tiguan did not trouble the Qashqai’s European chart topping position in its early years, but closed in gradually as small to medium SUVs became the default choice in many European sales territories.
Nissan’s pioneering crossover was not only a European success, but a global one, built in Japan, China, and Russia as well as its core site in north east England. After three years of production, Carlos Ghosn declared the Qashqai to be “the most important Nissan of the decade”.
Notwithstanding its phenomenal impact on the market, the Qashqai’s continuing success was dependent on staying ahead of a growing battalion of rivals and evolution was necessary to maintain its dominant market position. In the next chapter we will look at the next Qashqai generation, the J11 presented in 2013.
 Nissan identified a risk to sales in eighteen European nations considered to have car-buying tastes too traditional to accept the new crossover as a substitute for a conventional saloon or hatchback. Their answer was to supply Tiida saloons and hatchbacks from their Civac factory in Mexico between 2007 and 2011. Numbers were modest, peaking in 2008 at 14,586, and totalling less than 30,000.
 These two small seats required almost completely different sheet metal rearwards of the front bulkhead. The investment in NJ10 probably justified itself, with a total of 270,018 Qashqai +2s produced at Sunderland between 2008 and 2013. For comparison 2007-2013 production of the standard wheelbase J10 Qashqai between 2007 and 2013 was 1,482,214.