Four-wheel-drive vehicles have always been big business for Nissan in Australia. Think Patrol, Pathfinder, Navara workhorse and, more recently, X-Trail.
Now there is the Dualis, a compact four-wheel-drive wagon, which is more than a Tiida and less than an X-Trail.
It is heavily focused on breakthrough business in Europe, where it is sold as the Qashquai — named after a nomadic Iranian tribe — but it could also do well in Australia, being priced from $28,990.
Explore the 2008 Nissan Dualis range
“We see the Dualis as a huge opportunity,” Nissan Australia CEO and managing director Shinya Hannya says.
“It is the first true compact crossover with the attributes of a small hatch and a compact SUV. They are Australia's two top growth segments and in the Dualis we have combined them.”
The only real decision concerned the name. Qashquai missed out, despite being used in Europe and New Zealand.
“We played around with the Qashquai name for a long time, but it just didn't seem to work here,” Nissan Australia marketing boss Ross Booth says.
“There were issues with pronunciation, with not understanding where it came from . . . in the end we thought the Dualis name better suited the car's dual-purpose personality.”
Whatever the badge says, the Dualis is a marriage of segments previously kept separate, a sort of cross-species breeding program, if you like.
Dualis lands in Australia with a 102kW, 198Nm and 2.0-litre petrol engine running through a standard six-speed manual or the optional ($2000) CVT automatic.
The base ST model starts at $28,990 for the manual, but comes without stability control, side and curtain airbags or alloy rims, though an optional safety pack brings the missing ESC, airbags and alloys for $2000.
Without the extra airbags, Nissan says the Dualis earns a four-star crash rating, which rises to five stars with the safety gear.
At the top of the range the manual Ti is $33,990 and adds heated leather seats, leather-wrapped steering-wheel with controls for the audio, cruise control, Bluetooth phone compatibility and drive computer, aluminium trim highlights, a six-stacker CD player with six-speakers, rain-sensitive wipers, light-sensitive auto headlamps, sliding centre-console armrest and a pull-out storage tray under the front passenger seat.
Both models are fitted with a simplified version of the 4x4 system from the X-Trail, which gives dial-from-the-dash settings ranging from 2WD through an active automatic 4x4 to the lockable 50:50 torque split that automatically disengages at 40km/h.
Ironically, Dualis grew from a failed small hatchback development program in Japan.
“That project was cancelled, but the group was unwilling to let go of some of the ideas hatched there,” Nissan vehicle manager Peter Brown says.
Brown says the most difficult part of getting approval for the Dualis was explaining a concept that had no benchmark against which it could be measured.
“There were no direct competitors — there are no direct competitors — and because of that we had to consider the two segments (hatch and compact crossover wagon) at once,” Brown says.
“We wanted to create two cars in one with the best attributes and as few of the vices of each as possible. Selling that concept was not easy.”
The Dualis team put a premium hatch driving experience and the command drive position of a crossover wagon high on the wishlist.
They then went to the X-Trail mechanical package and changed little as they wrapped a less aggressive body around the underpinnings, managing a very respectable 0.34 drag coefficient.
The cabin was styled to be as premium hatch as possible with little about the trim and instrumentation, other than the 4x4 selector, hinting at the car's dual personality.
The Dualis development program worked. In Europe, 100,000 cars sold in the first nine months. Some markets faced order banks of up to a year.
That sort of demand, coupled with Nissan Australia's perverse reluctance to embrace diesel for its passenger cars, means Australian buyers will not get the 112kW and 320Nm 2.0-litre diesel any time soon. In fact, getting 370 petrol Dualises a month out of the company's factory in Britain is a win.
“Can we sell more than that? We certainly believe so,” Booth says.
“Can we get more than that? Not at the moment . . . but we will keep trying.”
But the Dualis is about to go into production in Japan, and that could mean extra supplies for Australia . . . but still without a diesel.
The Dualis is a marriage of segments previously kept separate
On the road
At first the Dualis looks as if some sad soul has jacked up the family hatch.
It is not big but sits a little higher and plants a slightly bigger footprint, yet cleverly avoids the threatening look in which many four-wheel-drives — even small ones — revel.
It is welcoming inside but not exciting or ground-breaking. There is good space and it seems well assembled.
The seats, redesigned late in the development to improve side bolstering after tests proved their inadequacy, work well, though the cut-away shoulders of the backrest could be an issue for the larger driver.
Instrumentation is clear and well sited, the sound system is better than you might expect, and access and space for rear-seat passengers is good.
Boot space behind the rear seats is slightly compromised by the height of the load floor — the price for having a full-sized spare.
On the move, the Dualis is surprisingly quiet. Road noise is minimal and wind noise is at the better end of the scale.
But the Dualis weighs a tick under 1.5 tonnes, so the engine finds it a touch difficult to muster anything but adequate performance.
Unhurried cruising with the optional CVT is pleasant enough, but asked for an effort on the open road — particularly in the 80-120km/h zone — the car feels flat, if not downright breathless.
The manual feels better, if only because of its ability to force some attitude from the engine.
Still, the development team has kicked a goal with the suspension and drive dynamics, allowing fun and comfort to co-exist.
Pushed along, the car sits flat and turns with a surety that would be the envy of most hatches and all but a special few crossovers.
On flowing roads the Dualis is fun to drive. There is even better news when it comes to keeping the Dualis cruising. Not only is the recommended fuel 91 RON, but it is one of the few cars that gets close to the claimed fuel figures. An enthusiastic test drive at launch saw the manual return a credible 8.7 litres for 100km — only 30ml shy of its official economy.
The car sits flat and turns with a surety that could be the envy of most hatches.
Road noise is minimal and wind noise is at the better end of the scale.