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When is a 4x4 not a 4x4? When it's a Nissan Qashqai. June Neary reports.

In the current environmentally-conscious climate, all of us - even those who really do need to struggle up half a mile of rutted track to reach their front doors - are being forced to think long and hard about the ethical implications of 4x4 ownership. Completely unjustified though much of the criticism heaped on the trusty off-road vehicle may be, it has still had an impact on public opinion and 4x4s, particularly larger ones driving in towns, are now routinely frowned upon by the populace at large. If only 4x4 fans could get the undoubted benefits of an offroad vehicle in a friendlier, less controversial package. That's the idea behind the current breed of so-called 'Crossover' models, family hatchbacks with SUV hormones and the option of AWD. The car that started the trend for models of this kind is the one we're looking at here, now rejuvenated in MK2 guise. Say hello to Nissan's second generation Qashqai. As ever, the Qashqai looks well-equipped to do a great PR job for the 4x4 vehicle. It has the chunky styling that people warm to, the high ride height that aids visibility while helping you tackle high kerbs or speed humps and you can get it with four-wheel-drive for added grip in slippery conditions. On the other hand, the Qashqai is light, economical and nimble. It's also similar in size to a conventional family hatch and most models come in front-wheel-drive form. Nissan certainly have an interesting proposition on their hands here.

The Qashqai in no way pretends to be a 4x4 that's capable of besting difficult off-road terrain. This is sensible because even the compact 4x4s that do make such claims tend to get stuck or damaged pretty quickly when put to the test and most owners would never dream of getting them seriously muddy anyway. Think of the Qashqai more as a high-riding family hatchback, a jacked-up Volkswagen Golf if you will, and you'll be on the right track. Most models come in two-wheel drive form only, with 4x4 mechanicals only offered on pricey models at the top of the range. The interior yields plenty of headroom for a spacious feel and leg room for passengers in the back is unlikely to cause complaint - it certainly beats most family hatchbacks. With three adults across the rear bench, it is a little snug but smaller children won't have a problem fitting in and there's a big boot behind to take luggage or shopping. This MK2 variant's extra length partly explains why there's no 7-seater variant this time round. The Japanese brand reckons that most buyers who went for the first generation '+2' variant did so to get a larger boot rather than the extra seats, an additional luggage space requirement that this evolved Qashqai is now apparently better able to satisfy without the need for separate bodyshapes. I'm not sure that I'd buy into that completely: a family buyer with a trio of kids has more on his or her mind than simply carting baggage around and often finds three seating rows to be extremely useful. But then that'd be the sort of person Nissan is now more directly targeting with its pricier 7-seater X-Trail compact SUV. On the safety front, Nissan have provided front, side and curtain airbags as part of the basic package which is very commendable. So is the standard ESP stability control. Nissan have a good and well-deserved reputation for reliability, and the quality of construction in the Qashqai's cabin really stands out so buyers can buy with confidence.

High kerbs and rogue traffic calming measures are all taken in the Qashqai's stride thanks to its increased ride height and tough suspension. You also get a good view around the front end for parking and driving in areas where space is tight. Rear visibility isn't as good with the window line rising up at the back making for a smaller glass area and thick pillars down the sides of the tailgate. The Qashqai is really comfortable on the open road with the suspension soaking up the bumps in a measured manner. When cornering, you'll experience more lean in the body than in hatchbacks that sit much lower to the road but at sensible speeds, the difference is pretty slight. The steering is quite hefty and this may not be to everyone's taste but it's also accurate and there's none of the twitchiness you can get at speed in cars with lighter set-ups. I tried the 1.2-litre turbo petrol engine with 115PS and it had plenty of guts for getting the Qashqai up hills and smartly away from the lights. I suspect that those seeking a really sporty drive will feel a bit short changed by this engine and may want to upgrade to the 1.6-litre dCi 130 diesel option - which comes with the alternative of four-wheel-drive. To be honest though, the Qashqai is quite a lump, especially with that 4x4 transmission installed, so performance is never going to be all that fiery. My 1.2 DIG-T variant sounded a little strained on occasion but when it returns over 50mpg on the combined cycle, you can't really complain. Besides, that kind of economy and the 129g/km emissions give you the perfect retorts when people see you in what appears to be a 4x4 and question your environmental credentials. My Qashqai pumped out less carbon than my old 1.4-litre Ford Focus and used less fuel than a 1.0-litre Chevrolet Matiz. Put that in your pipe and smoke it! On second thoughts, don't. You'll only contribute to the greenhouse effect.

At prices starting from around £18,000 for the entry-level 1.2-litre petrol model or £1,800 more for the small 1.5-litre dCi diesel, the Qashqai is competitive when compared to equivalent family Crossover models like Peugeot's 3008 or Kia's Sportage. And of course it compares very favourably to compact 4x4s like the Toyota RAV4 or the Honda CR-V on price: expect o save around £5,000.

If you value those 4x4 looks and the advantages that the higher ride height affords in urban areas, the Qashqai makes a very good alternative to a run-of-the-mill hatchack. It's an original but very well-conceived product that isn't quite as tidy on the road as the best hatches but comes close and represents a much more individual choice. If you're considering a fully-fledged compact 4x4 but never plan on using its offroad capabilities, the Qashqai makes a very attractive compromise.