In the quasilinear approximation to the Navier–Stokes equation a minimal set of nonlinearities that is able to maintain turbulent dynamics is kept. For transitional Reynolds numbers, exact coherent structures provide an opportunity for a detailed comparison between full direct numerical solutions of the Navier–Stokes equation with their quasilinear approximation. We show here, for both plane Couette flow and plane Poiseuille flow, that the quasilinear approximation is able to reproduce many properties of exact coherent structures. For higher Reynolds numbers differences in the stability properties and the friction values for the upper branch appear that are connected with a reduction in the number of downstream wavenumbers in the quasilinear approximation. The results show the strengths and limitations of the quasilinear approximation and suggest modelling approaches for turbulent flows.