2008 Nissan Dualis review

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2008 Nissan Dualis review

It turns in like a car, the body stays flat and it is not flustered by mid-corner bumps - how many SUVs can you say that about?

Model tested:

  • 2008 Nissan Dualis ST manual - $28,990, as tested $30,990

Refinement. Fuel consumption. Safety credentials.

Poor rear vision. Mild performance. Small boot.

CarAdvice rating:

Model range: $28,990 - $35,990

Options fitted: Electronic stability control, side and curtain airbags, 16-inch alloy wheels

- by Robert Wilson

Call me old fashioned, but there are some things about the modern world that I just don’t get. (pause here, as I light my pipe and put my feet into comfy slippers) I mean, singing stars chosen by TV programs, text messaging when you can use your phone to let someone hear your voice, what’s that about? And then there’s the really odd one, SUVs that look like hatchbacks. What the … ?

SUV - sport utility vehicle - is a creeping Americanism but a useful one. The phrase, if not the vehicles it refers to, deserves to be as ubiquitous as the Big Mac. Its inherent contradiction and clumsiness (Sport and utility? Yeah, right) serves as a fair warning to anyone who thinks about purchasing one of these things. Caveat emptor, trendsetters.

A four-wheel drive, by comparison, is a very different beast, the automotive equivalent of a frontiersman, with few social graces, a fair number of filthy habits but an impressive repertoire of basic bush skills that have been bred out of the rest of us.

Nissan makes both SUVs and 4WDs. The new Dualis is at the SUV end of the spectrum. True, it’s got an all-wheel drive system but Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City would be more interested in the rugged outdoor life.

Dualis is a metropolitan creature, designed to be irresistible to urban dwellers who find themselves torn between a snappy little hatchback and an appealingly butch off-roader. As a sort of off-road hatchback it combines the advantages both, Nissan says.

One thing we can all agree on is that it doesn’t look too bad. It’s low-slung by SUV standards, with an almost car-like roofline and a slightly elevated driving position. The effect is like a hatchback suffering from the effects of a Big Mac diet, but would anyone disagree that it’s more elegant than the boxy X-Trail?

Inside there’s a genuinely car-like driving position. You sit low behind a rake and reach adjustable steering wheel in grippy sports-type seats. There’s good headroom and the dash is nicely fitted and finished, if unrelievedly black. Curiously, there are no steering wheel audio controls, although the centrally-mounted on/off button is not too long a reach away.

The dashboard architecture is similar to a new X-Trail with the same instrument pod in front of the driver. But perhaps surprisingly for such a lifestyle vehicle it lacks the X-Trail’s very functional dash corner cupholders. In this it show its European rather than US origins. Dualis was styled at Nissan’s London design studio. It’s also made not in Japan but Sunderland, England, although it seems none the worse for that.

The English designers, then, must take some of the blame for poor rear vision. As on many modern designs (including the X-Trail) the rear window is shrinking to something not much bigger than that of a 1950s FC Holden.

The reason is body strength requirements imposed by modern crash testing - a strong body needs thick pillars. But the price is a small vehicle that is harder to reverse and park than a car of its size should be. Sonar parking assist is optional on Dualis and, of course, your friendly aftermarket or electronics store will sell you a reversing camera - but it’s a pity you need one.

Luggage space is not great - no more than you’d find in a Golf or Corolla sized hatch, thanks in part to a high boot floor made necessary by a full size spare. Nissan quotes 410 litres, which to my eyeball seemed a little generous although, of course, the rear seats fold down. Rear seat accommodation is fairly snug, little bigger than a small/medium hatchback’s.

Ride is much firmer than the distinctly pillowy progress of the X-Trail. There’s a tight screwed-down feel to the Dualis with very little pitching and floating but occasionally some impact harshness and bump-thump, as you find in a hot hatch.

But a hot hatch it is not, more like a heavy hatch. The 2.0-litre engine is a willing thing but it has to be because it has 1429kg to haul around in the ST manual. Performance is okay if you use the light and sweet six-speed manual but nothing more but the vehicle is undeniably refined at highway speeds.

Fuel consumption on test was spot on Nissan’s stated figure of 8.4 litres per 100km. You’re probably saying ’he should have driven it harder,’ but I wasn’t soft-pedalling, honest. You could call the figure pretty good for an SUV or mediocre for a hatchback.

Handling is a pleasant surprise. It’s a tidy cornerer, spoilt only a little by the slightly numb steering that seems to be a consequence of bigger wheels and tyres on SUVs compared to passenger cars. It turns in like a car, the body stays flat and it is not flustered by mid-corner bumps - how many SUVs can you say that about? Switching the control knob for the all-wheel drive system to auto improves things by directing torque to the rear wheels for driving out of corners.

But the power to weight ratio blunts it. It’s too heavy to be truly dynamic. The only major black mark is that electronic stability control is not standard on the ST model. It comes as part of a $2000 option pack that also offers side and curtain airbags and 16-inch alloys. But all Dualis versions enjoy a five-star EuroNCAP safety rating.

In dirt road driving the Dualis is better than a hatchback but with a vulnerable 19 degree approach angle it’s never going to approach being a true off-roader. Wading depth is a quite impressive 450mm and although the water crossing I did could have been handled on a skateboard ( it wasn’t even hub height) I have a suspicion it bestows on me the award of all-time Nissan Dualis off-road champion. Not many buyers will challenge me for that one.

The auto is CVT, which some people don’t get. Personally I don’t mind them - and reservations about the way they sound (like a plane taking off - the engine note stays constant as your speed increases) are overruled by the fuel savings because the best of them are every bit as efficient as a manual. The Dualis CVT has a torque converter, not a clutch, so it would work better in off-roading than a single-range manual but perhaps we’re splitting hairs here. The car is as at home in the wilderness as the cast of Lost.

But enough cheap shots. Dualis has found a clear niche. In the UK it has sold twice as many as anticipated. Over there, Nissan found 85 per cent of buyers were new to the brand and younger than average SUV buyers. Are they hip young people who get things that clearly, I as a 1960s vintage old fart don’t or are they marketing-led twits, the sort of people who buy pre-ripped jeans?

I still think the Dualis concept is silly but I have to say Nissan has done an impressive job of trying to reconcile two opposite car styles. They largely succeeded, with performance, rear seat room and luggage space the only disappointments.

Nissan says Dualis is two cars in one. Let’s split the difference and call it one and a half. That’s still good value if you can’t decide between a car and an SUV.

CarAdvice overall rating:

How does it drive:

How does it look:

How does it go:

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder
Power: 102kW
Torque: 198Nm
Top speed: N/A
Safety: ABS - dual airbags, ESC side and curtain airbags $2000 option on ST models.
0-100km/h: N/A
NCAP rating: 5
Turning circle: 10.6m
Fuel tank: 65 litres
Fuel consumption: 8.4 l/100km
Fuel type: 91RON