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Car reviews - Nissan - Dualis - Ti 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Qashqai as a name, styling, dynamics, comfort, Ti presentation, equipment levels, compactness
Room for improvement
Dualis as a name, tight rear seat, high cargo floor, engine performance sluggish when laden on highway

20 Mar 2008

REMEMBER the Pulsar Plus?

Like a lick of paint on an old shack, it was a value-added package to liven up Nissan’s long-lived small-car, providing a much-needed sales push at a time when the Pulsar wasn’t exactly performing particularly well.

Now there’s a new Pulsar ‘plus’.

But it isn’t called a Pulsar at all, but a Dualis. And ‘plus’ doesn’t refer to an added-value package (in fact the contrary is true, as we shall see later), but a philosophy – so you won’t find a ‘Dualis Plus’ appliqué anywhere (yet – this is Nissan we’re talking about here after all, and it loves to flog an old warhorse – D22 Navara, anybody?).

What you do get is a small car PLUS a three-mode four-wheel drive system PLUS slightly more ground clearance PLUS an SUV sort of attitude (and at 205mm – more latitude) PLUS a bill for about 10 per cent more than you otherwise might expect from a Japanese-via-Europe small-car.

Why? Well, the Dualis’ back-story is kind of interesting.

In Western Europe, where small cars like the VW Golf, Opel Astra, Peugeot 308, Renault Megane and Ford Focus rule, the old Pulsar hatch (known as the Almera) could not cut it in the eyes of consumers, being more of a ‘nightmera’ for Nissan.

So the company quashed it for the Qashqai. And since going on sale over there last year, demand has outstripped supply and Nissan is finally a formidable presence in the European small-car segment soiree.

Unbelievably, Nissan Australia thought us too stupid to deal with the interesting name Qashqai, so out came Dualis – but it’s virtually exactly the same car that comes down the English production line.

Anyway, that’s why the Dualis is a ‘plus’ small car OR (and we certainly hope you’re sitting down for this)... a compact SUV.

Yes, a compact SUV.

But doesn’t Nissan already have two compact SUVs on sale in Australia?

Indeed, and the Dualis is even based on one of them, the recently released T31 X-Trail.

You gotta hand it to Nissan – it has two light cars (Micra and Tiida) and three compact SUVs (Murano’s one too, you know) but no small car – in a country where, like Europe, that segment leads all others.

Anyway, the great news is that the Dualis is a brilliant compact SUV, exceeding our expectations in many areas with nothing short of panache.

Size wise, this is eerily similar to the previous-generation Toyota RAV4 wagon. And this is a good thing.

For starters, it is appealingly compact and manoeuvrable, sidestepping the bulk that blights so many other soft-roaders. Even compared to the latest Subaru Forester, the Dualis seems dinky.

However, this aspect is a double-edged sword for the Nissan, since the backseat area is pretty tight, particularly for knee room.

Combined with small rear door apertures, the tiny triangular C-pillar windows and a shallow window line that somehow still doesn’t allow the rear windows to fully retract, and this place starts to feel a tad claustrophobic inside.

And even scooping in the generously bolstered front seats from behind for lankier legs to nuzzle in isn’t enough to overcome this. But then again, this is really only the size of a small hatch, so let’s focus on the front seat area.

Even tall drivers will find a comfy place behind the wheel, with easy reach and understanding of virtually every switch and control in the car.

The dash is plain and functional in the modern Japanese way, with a neat combination of analogue and digital dials.

The audio system works well, and includes a helpful Bluetooth function that we defy anybody to figure out without the aid of the handbook.

The steering wheel is perfectly sized, features nifty little cruise and audio remote controls, and tilts and telescopes for comfort. And there is no shortage of storage space, including a very deep glovebox and a hidden under-seat pullout tray.

And we especially liked the one-touch indicators.

In the Ti tested, the black leather trim and white stitching added a touch of class to the Dualis, as does the flocked-like ceiling trim, and matt silver door, wheel and ventilation surrounds.

On the other hand, the view out the back is hindered by that rising window line and tiny back glass (at least the head restraints are of the out-of-sight flush variety).

We found the air-conditioning feeble on our particular vehicle (the ST we also tested seemed fine). And the high cargo floor (which houses a full-sized spare wheel) makes loading heavy objects more of a chore.

But driving the Dualis certainly isn’t.

There is a satisfying weight to all the controls, as if this car were more European than Japanese. The powered steering system is a good example of this, being light enough for around-town use, yet measured enough to involve and satisfy a keener driver. It’s not Ford Focus-sharp, but the helm feels alive.

A linear, accurate cornering attitude further bolsters the Dualis’ driver appeal, with agile and predictable handling confirming this is more car than SUV.

Aiding it is a part-time 4WD system that, unsurprisingly, is similar to the set-up found in the latest X-Trail.

Like its larger SUV sibling, the Dualis operates as a front-wheel-drive until the driver engages ‘Auto’ on the console-sited knob for up to 50 per cent of torque availability to the rear wheels if a loss of traction (or a sniff of one) occurs, given a sudden throttle prod.

There is also an AWD lock function that locks the drivetrain in 50/50 split mode, which is primarily designed for taking off in tricky conditions as the system will unlock itself once the car passes 40km/h and will not revert to the 50/50 split automatically.

But you won’t find the X-Trail’s Hill Descent Control device.

Accordingly then, we didn’t drive the Dualis on anything more demanding that a dirt road.

Perhaps it’s the cushy seats, but the ride on virtually every surface we experienced the Dualis on has a plushness that is all its own, for a cosseting, isolating feeling from the outside world.

But be careful – there isn’t the extra-long wheel travel that some SUVs have, and on more than one occasion we were caught out traversing a road hump faster than the suspension bump stops allowed.

That’s partly because the engine – not the 125kW 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol unit found in the X-Trail but a 102kW 2.0-litre four-pot petrol powerplant – is a sweet and revvy number that encourages exploration of its upper limits without sounding harsh or too strained.

Now this is a good thing because, fully laden, the 2.0-litre must be worked hard in order to really get a move-on, with frequent visits to second gear necessary, as is a determined right foot.

However, with only two occupants, the performance is more than adequate and certainly no worse than most small cars, and the excellent fuel consumption a pleasant plus point.

We averaged around 8.7L/100km in both the lovely six-speed manual shifter and the quite impressive continuously variable transmission (CVT) even managed to match that as well, with little of the ‘slipping clutch’ feel of earlier such gearboxes.

Now we might be Robinson Crusoe here, but we cannot condone the call for a larger petrol engine in this car, particularly as Nissan’s focus for the Dualis is as an urban runabout that gives you some of the advantages of an SUV.

Instead, we think that a diesel would be a smarter (but not really strictly necessary) alternative, because this 2.0-litre petrol engine is fine.

Brakes that are up to the task of retarding the Dualis is another dynamic feather in this SUV's hat.

Now only the question of value for money arises when assessing the Dualis.

From $28,990 for the base manual without the optional $2000 stability control and curtain airbag safety suite, it’s up against some very impressive metal – and not only from rivals as diverse at the Corolla and Subaru Impreza, but also excellent mid-sizers like the Mazda6, Ford Mondeo and Skoda Octavia, not to mention the Honda CR-V and Mitsubishi Outlander, and of course the Golf. All are similar money.

And we also agree with Nissan that the Dualis does not feel at all like the X-Trail.

But the latter definitely seems better value for money since its $3000 price disadvantage is whittled away by standard stability control, vastly more space inside, better performance and probably a better resale prospect.

So the Dualis needs to lose one of its ‘Pluses’ – the one that makes it at least 10 per cent more expensive than it should be.

The ST manual with stability control and curtain airbags is a whopping $6500 more than the almost equivalently equipped Impreza R.

And that’s a Dualis plus that doesn’t send our pulses racing at all.

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