Last week, I spent a couple of highly illuminating days immersed in the world of Nissan as the company launched its new Qashqai to the UK’s media. I’m sure pretty much everyone who reads this website will be more than aware of just how many Qashqais have rolled out of the company’s factory in Washington, but this is not a Japanese car that happens to be built here… far from it.
The original Qashqai was launched in 2007, and is generally regarded as having kick-started the boom in family-friendly SUVs that didn’t have to feature four-wheel drive or have any real off-road capability. Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no denying that SUV crossovers have become quite the phenomenon. They sell in their bucket-loads, and make good money for their makers. Yes, of course, there was the Matra Rancho before that, which sold 56,700 examples between 1977 and 1984, but the Qashqai’s success goes well beyond that with more than three million copies built as it goes into its third generation.
Back in the early 2000s, Nissan’s staple products were the Primera and Almera, and they were selling steadily. The Qashqai concept originated in the company’s London Design Office, in Paddington, and was quickly developed into a production reality. The engineering of the product was conducted primarily in the UK at the company’s development centre, and worked on by hundreds of UK Engineers before going into production in Washington, which directly employed around 700o workers.
Fast forward almost 15 years and the recipe has been repeated. It’s been designed in the UK and the project has been led by a Brit, Matthew Weaver. It was engineered once again in Cranfield, and last week it went into production at Nissan’s Sunderland plant, which locals will tell you is in Washington and was formerly the site of RAF Unsworth.
Either way, it’s as British as British can be right now, this side of anything by Jaguar Land Rover or Morgan and, currently, if you want a volume-produced British car, the Qashqai is as good as it gets. The Nissan Design Europe (NDE) head office in Paddington is a great place, and looks like the perfect location to devise innovative products. The building is in a renovated maintenance depot for British Rail, and you don’t have to look too hard for signs of its heritage and, these days, it is a registered historical property.
Nissan Technical Centre Europe (NTCE), located in Cranfield a fascinating place, too… and it was good to get a tour of many of its usually top-secret areas. As well as being the base for new model testing for the Qashqai, calibration, quality and production engineering happens here, and it’s an ongoing process. They shower, bake and tear them apart all the name of quality and, from what I’ve seen of the latest model, it’s paid dividends. Another 900 people are based here, so it’s a hefty organisation and a big contributor to the local economy…
Then there’s the factory in which the new Qashqai is built. Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) is the real deal, with sheets of steel and aluminium coming in at one end and cars emerging from the other. It’s highly automated, and the line workers are treated well, with the facility split into Body Assembly, Paint and Final Assembly – encouragingly, Alan Johnson, Vice President of Nissan Sunderland, told me on the factory tour that it’s still one of the highest-rated factories within the company.
So, clearly, the Nissan Qashqai is the pride of Sunderland (as well as Cranfield and Paddington). It’s proof that we’re still capable of designing, engineering and building world-class cars in the UK, even if they don’t wear a British badge on their nose. Not only that, but the line workers in the North East as just as good, if not better, at building them than anyone else across the globe.
And the good news is that, after a couple of days driving, the new Qashqai has emerged from its gestation period as a particularly fine car. It looks smart and has a well-thought out, family-friendly interior that’s been screwed together tightly, and is trimmed in high-quality materials. I love some of the mundane details, such as the wide-opening rear doors, which have obviously been designed to meet the needs of buyers. As is the climate control system, which still has – gasp – physical controls in an increasingly touchscreen-driven world.
Its ride and handling are particularly impressive, and its technology is easier to use than many of its highly-praised rivals. In short, it’s an excellent family car, and one you can buy safe in the knowledge that you’re supporting all of those UK engineering and manufacturing jobs.