Nearly identical except for design and price, should your money go to the Far East, or Europe?
Badge engineering is a more intricate art than you might imagine. If two or more manufacturers collaborate on research and development, and get it right, the outcome is excellent products with individual personalities that draw buyers in their droves. The finest examples exist in the VW Group – think Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf – where componentry sharing also results in advanced technology spreading throughout different ranges of vehicles (the Polo, for example, adopted a large part of the Golf's electronic architecture with its midlife facelift), and costs being kept to a minimum. Get it wrong, however, and you're stuck with a ho-hum Ford Mondeo and a mediocre Jaguar X-Type…
The Franco-Japanese Renault-Nissan Alliance is equally adept at adapting the same platforms, engines and electronics for use in various models spanning a number of divergent sectors of the market. The two vehicles compared here, the Qashqai and Kadjar, are built on the partnership's Common Module Family (CMF) modular architecture that also underpins Nissan's Pulsar, X-Trail and Rogue, and Renault's Espace, Kwid, Talisman and new Mégane, with even more vehicles in the final stages of pre-production, including some badged Dacia.
We've assembled the CAR-favourite Qashqai – which we first tested in October 2014 – in 1,2 Turbo Visia specification – and the brand-new Kadjar with a slightly more powerful version of the 1,2-litre in Expression grade. Both are the entry-level models in their respective ranges and we were curious to see whether these two carmakers from opposite ends of the globe have managed to engineer distinct personalities into their compact crossovers; or whether it's a case of imitation for the sake of the bottom line, in the process forsaking distinctive dispositions.
Design and packaging
Carrying their respective makers' family faces with restrained style, both the Qashqai and Kadjar look thoroughly modern and chunky. Testers agreed the Renault, here painted in lustrous Flame Red, is the more stylish vehicle overall thanks to its neatly designed LED daytime-running lamps, fluently scalloped sides with deep plastic cladding that lend it a more rugged ambience, and small rear lights that emulate the front ones' LED elements. The Nissan, though, is no wallflower and counters with sportier side-mirrors, a decently sized rear spoiler and a steep kick in the shoulder line towards the D-pillar. That said, this test vehicle's white body paint hides the contrasting chrome work surrounding the side glazing.
Both the Qashqai Visia and Kadjar Expression come as standard with 16-inch steel wheels clothed in plastic hubs. The 17-inch alloys you see here are cost options. Pull one of the identical door handles, tug open one of the hefty drivers' doors and you're greeted by cabins that have even more distinct designs than the body work. Where the Nissan is all restrained, almost German-like in the design of its T-shaped facia, understated analogue instrumentation and controlled use of contrasting trim (going so far as to have grey plastic door handles), the Renault boasts a more driver-oriented setup and digital instruments that are crystal clear and forward-thinking.
Oddly, considering their relatively premium pricing especially in the case of the Renault both crossovers lack leather trim on their steering wheels. It's a shame, as this tactile luxury item would add greatly to the user experience. Another element of the Kadjar's cabin that came as a surprise is the simple audio interface; we've become so used to Renaults having integrated touchscreen infotainment systems such as the one used in the smaller Captur. Dynamique models have a seven-inch system with sat-nav as standard, as well as an extra USB port.
Otherwise, we have few criticisms of the French vehicle's cockpit. The front seats, more deeply contoured than the Nissan's already supportive items, are comfortable and the driver's chair adjusts widely across six ways. The Kadjar's perceived quality feels a small notch up on the Nissan's, as its soft-touch surfacing extends lower down on the dashboard and doors, its headliner is deeply padded and the cabin lights are contemporary bright-white LEDs instead of more old-fashioned yellow incandescent units. The Nissan counters with a more straightforward facia that’s slightly easier to use – its buttons are a touch larger and the air-conditioning system simpler to tweak – and cruise control buttons that are logically sited on the steering wheel instead of on the transmission tunnel like half of the Renault's.
Curiously, despite very similar external dimensions that scantly favour the Renault in terms of length, height and width, we measured the Nissan's cabin as the larger space. It offers more headroom front and rear – although the Renault hardly feels deficient in this area and 27 mm of additional clearance between second-row passengers' kneecaps and the backs of the front seats. The French contender, however, has the marginally larger boot and exactly the same utility capacity. Ultimately, both vehicles, despite being slightly smaller than conventional compact SUVs such as the Ford Kuga and Toyota RAV4, would make worthy family vehicles.
Performance and fuel efficiency
Under each stubby bonnet nestles the Alliance's widely used 1,2-litre turbopetrol, the same unit that does great duty in our long-term Captur. In the Nissan, it delivers 85 kW at 4 500 r/min and a solid 190 N.m of torque that peaks at 2 000 r/min. Thanks to a closely stacked and smooth-shifting six-speed gearbox, and despite weighing nearly 1,4 tonnes, the Qashqai 1,2 Turbo accelerates to 100 km/h from standstill in a commendable 11,72 seconds.
Boasting 11 kW and 15 N.m more than the Qashqai, the heavier Renault is slightly quicker-accelerating from a stationary position (by 0,26 seconds). It uses the same gearbox with the same ratios, and the shifts are as clean and short as the Nissan's. If you plan on employing these vehicles as family transportation, of far more importance than standing-start acceleration is their in-gear flexibility. In this discipline, the Kadjar is quicker in the crucial fourth-gear 60-100 km/h stretch by a whole 2,29 seconds; while in fifth it reaches 120 km/h from 80 a lengthy 2,34 seconds sooner.
These differences in accelerative force are more nuanced in day-to-day running, but the Renault does tangibly feel quicker than the Nissan and doesn't have the Japanese vehicle's irksome flat spot below 2 000 r/min (the Qashqai requires you to take care in modulating the throttle and clutch when you're pulling away to avoid stalling the engine). In our emergency-braking test across 10 punishing stops, the Renault came to a halt in a truly excellent average time of 2,84 seconds; that time bests the Nissan's by 0,27 seconds. Unfortunately, due to an electronic glitch in our otherwise flawlessly reliable VBOX timing equipment, we didn't capture a braking distance for the Nissan, but the Renault stopped in 37,81 metres. Both vehicles' directional stability in these tests was beyond criticism.
On the road
Not only is the CMF platform a practical one, as we've seen with both vehicles' generous interior dimensions, but it's also in the top half of the class in terms of ride refinement. The companies' respective engineers tuned the MacPherson-strut-front/multilink-rear suspension to suit owners' expectations regarding dynamic abilities, and it's instantly obvious on-road. Where the Nissan favours a softer setup that does an excellent job at masking road scars – undoubtedly helped by the optional 17-inch wheels’ generous 60-profile tyres – to the slight detriment of body control, the Renault rides with a moderately firmer edge (some team members thought a touch too jiggly), but resists lean through corners well. Whichever solution you prefer, both crossovers rest at the more talented end of the spectrum.
Each vehicles' electrically assisted steering system is equally first-rate the Nissan's is adjustable through normal and heavier sport modes – but subjectively the Japanese vehicle does feel and sound a touch more refined at speed and less plagued by wind whistling past the large side mirrors and across the vast windscreen.
Value for money
At last we reach a considerable point of difference between the Qashqai and Kadjar. Despite their countless similarities, Renault has priced its compact crossover more than R40 000 beyond the Nissan. The only notable spec difference beyond the visual ones we mentioned earlier is rear-sited park-distance control on the Renault. Otherwise, their standard features list is pretty much identical. A notable point of difference, though, is that the Renault boasts a five-year/90 000 km service plan to the Nissan's shorter three-year one, but the latter's warranty is in effect for 12 months longer. On our 100 km urban and extra-urban fuel route, the Nissan consumed 7,8 L/100 km and the Renault a more parsimonious 7,0. The latter also emits less CO2 emissions.
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