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Car reviews - Nissan - Dualis - Ti 2WD 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Qashqai as a name, styling, dynamics, comfort, Ti presentation, equipment levels, compactness, value
Room for improvement
Dualis as a name, tight rear seat, high cargo floor, engine performance sluggish when laden on highway, no digital speedo in new instrument pack, poor rear vision

5 May 2010

PRESENTING Nissan’s Clark Kent, the humble Dualis.

Yes folks, it seems only Australians are unable to see the Superman figure that leaps small and compact SUV segments alike in a single bound.

As the Qashqai in Europe, the Dualis has become a sales superhero, giving Nissan a killer KA-POW amongst the hordes of ho-hum hatchbacks, to become a leading Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus rival in a way that its also-ran Pulsar-based Almera predecessor could not even pretend to be.

Among the Qashqai’s Continent-seducing qualities are its rugged urbane styling, ultra compact dimensions, refined interior, slick powertrains (especially the dCi diesel), pleasant driveability, SUV-style seating, and ease of operation. And this Nissan isn’t even especially cheap over there.

Yet, to Aussie eyes, it is as if the Dualis – which is a Britain-built Qashqai in everything but name only – is donning thick-rimmed glasses and a grey flannel suit. Its appeal is in deep disguise.

As a small-car/compact SUV crossover with FWD front or AWD all-wheel drive, the Nissan is little more than a curio, barely bothering the big sellers in either segment, despite garnering positive reviews since its release in January 2008.

And the cheaper FWD Dualis’ efforts, which have helped jumpstart sales to about 500 a month since the latter part of last year, is still a fraction of a Mazda3’s 3000-ish monthly numbers.

We’ve always suspected the Nissan’s name hasn’t helped it one iota: Cialis, dialysis, Duo Condoms – the associations aren’t pretty.

Unlike the car itself – and now there’s a new Dualis, with an edgier nose, bigger wheels, improved dash, more practicality, sharper dynamics, quieter cabin (and the previous one was already impressively so to begin with), and more standard kit. Nissan hasn’t sat on its laurels, so to speak.

To our eyes the facelift is a success but it’s what has happened inside that is far more important.

The biggest difference concerns the instrumentation, which sees a switch from the wearisome orange markings to concise white ones, with a comprehensive trip computer display wedged between the (chromed ringed) dials. Along with the move to conventional fuel and temperature gauges, it’s much clearer and classier than before, raising the Dualis’ dashboard ambience.

Not that there was much amiss before, for the trim and materials have a sober quality to their presentation and appearance, particularly in Ti trim (as tested), since that adds white-stitched leather upholstery for the seats, door cards and centre console bin lid.

Topping this off are the smart matt metallic cappings for the door pulls, steering wheel, vent surrounds, audio and climate switches, handbrake button and transmission lever housing. Owners of the latest Golf might think it a tad pedestrian, but we think Nissan has worked hard to maintain the Dualis’ contemporary and well-built presentation. Only some shiny hard plastic bits in the lower console area show areas of cost cutting.

Nissan seems to be listening because there are now more areas than previously to store stuff like MP3 players and mobile phones. That’s progress.

For your $32,190, Ti equipment levels are high, and include a full-length fixed glass roof with a powered sunshade, 18-inch alloy wheels, dual zone auto climate control, keyless entry with start, rear privacy glass, leather upholstery, a six-disc stacker, auto-on/off headlights and wipers, front fog lights and heated front seats.

The latter are a fine pair, snugly setting the driver up highly and mightily before the tilt and pull wheel and necessary controls. An elevated perch is one of the most compelling reasons to plonk for one of these, since it affords such excellent forward vision.

Too bad then that rear vision is dire – no wonder Nissan fits such large exterior mirrors, which – by the way – protrude so much that we did knock one a couple of times during our term.

And there are room-related issues that undermine this vehicle’s small-car aspirations.

Most pressingly, forget about the Ti if you are more than about 190cm tall because that glass roof/sunshade combo crunches heavily into headroom while the seat cushions are set too high.

Getting to and from the rear seat is via a small set of doors with a narrow aperture, so it’s a bit of a squeeze to enter or exit, and really only suitable for kids or contortionists.

Larger people may find the rear backrest a little too unsupportive (the Ti’s unyielding leather cushion doesn’t help), knee and legroom can be marginal unless the front-seat occupants move forward in sympathy, and the small side windows contribute to a slightly claustrophobic effect. Three in the back is an intimate experience. A Ford Focus feels far more spacious.

And then there is the cargo area – short in length, with a high loading lip and elevated floor that is not level when the rear seatbacks are folded flat. Again, most modern hatches are at the very least the Dualis’ equal for luggage space, with many (such as the Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback) easily eclipsing it.

But don’t forget: this is not pretending to be as big as a Toyota RAV4 or Subaru Forester it’s an inbetweenie. If rear-seat and cargo room are vital then look elsewhere. Nissan also offers the commodious X-Trail wagon or will upsell you into the midsized Murano crossover.

So stop and think about this fact for a second – the Dualis is an alternative to a mid-spec Toyota Corolla, for people who like an elevated seating position. So it’s like a hatch – but taller.

AWD models are still available, of course, but Nissan expects up to 80 per cent of buyers to choose the lighter (by about 80kg) FWD models (now that the entry-level ST AWD is no more), and so that’s what we have here.

The fact is, the Dualis Ti FWD feels more like a small car than an SUV from behind the wheel, with an agility that belies its lofty driving position. That’s quite a feat since the bones of the Nissan X-Trail and Renault Koleos lay underneath.

There’s a surprising amount of weight and feel to the steering that allows drivers to point and squirt through turns without a second thought, and this is backed up by a sense of being well planted to the road surface.

Combined with the 188mm ground clearance and plenty of suspension travel, the Dualis makes for a fine inner-urban runabout even on the Ti’s 18-inch rubber, since it can shoot through corners, absorb much of the rougher road irregularities and skim over speed humps. Not much noise permeates through to the cabin either.

Some other publications’ testers have complained over the years that the Dualis’ 102kW/198Nm 2.0-litre twin-cam four-cylinder petrol engine (that carries over unchanged) struggles to haul around the 1500kg-ish Ti.

But while we agree that more performance would definitely be welcome, particularly since the 10L/100km fuel consumption average (achieved almost entirely in city driving conditions admittedly – expect that to fall below 9.0 in freeway use) is nothing to write home about, the Nissan isn’t underpowered in a hatchback context.

Sure, get four people on board, with the air-con on, a (small) load in the back, and faced with a hill or overtaking duties, a hefty right foot and a bit of patience would be a prerequisite. Yet we’d argue that the same would be true in most common-variety small autos anyway.

The fact is that the CVT Continuously Variable Transmission’s sound characteristics can make the engine seem as if it is struggling, when really it is just working at its peak rev efficiency. And as far as CVTs go, the Dualis’ is one of the better ones anyway.

So, driven around town, with only one or two on board, the Ti CVT feels more than sufficiently spirited. Having said that though, we have also driven the six-speed manual version, with its slick shift quality and well-spaced ratios, and we would choose that gearbox every single time.

Alternatively, wait for the dCi. Apparently Nissan will soon offer the sweet and strong 2.0-litre turbo-diesel its hefty slug of low-down torque will surely silence the critics once and for all.

Clearly, we’re big fans of the Dualis – and have been since first driving one in early 2008. As it stands though, context is important for small car buyers to see the whole picture.

Forget about lining the Nissan up against the larger compact SUVs because the lack of back seat and cargo space will be problematic. Instead, weigh it up against other hatches such as the Golf, Focus, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai i30, Peugeot 308, Renault Megane, Skoda Octavia, Mercedes B-class and BMW 1 Series, and the Dualis gels.

The price is right. The driving is good. The styling is smart. All Australians need do now is take off the Clark Kent glasses to see the same quite super small car that over half a million Euros already have.

After badging its popular predecessor Pulsar, maybe Nissan Australia should have considered continuing the outer space theme by calling the Dualis ‘Krypton’ instead!

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