Nissan X-Trail review
by Mike Grundon (1 June 2007)
Early morning sun sloped into the gorge through a gap near the peak and picked out the contours of the limestone cliff with charcoal clarity. Down in the valley, snaking along a wet track through the stunted oak and juniper, Nissan's new X-Trail was making light of the expedition through northern Greece.
Slithering through the clay mud, it shimmied down the slope and plunged into the stream. Twisting its axles over the riverbed stones, it rose dripping onto the far bank with steam evaporating from its hot exhaust. It climbed the rubble slope to the open slabs of bedrock at the top, all four wheels taking it in turns to scrabble for grip on what was virtually scree. A green and brown tortoise, watching its approach from the shelter of a low bush, pulled its head in as the 1.7-tonne compact SUV rumbled past.
This was the launch event of the latest version of Nissan's new mid-range 4x4, and it's clear that anyone dismissing the new X-Trail as an urban off-roader is simply wrong. It has the technology and the temperament to take on terrain much worse than marginal.
In the dirt-dominating toolbox there is, of course, four-wheel drive, available through the latest evolution of the All Mode system called All Mode 4x4-i. Turning a knob from two-wheel drive to the Auto position means that up to half the torque that's normally fed to the front axle can be fed to the back if it senses slippage. Turning the dial to lock it keeps a constant 50/50 torque split between the front and rear at speeds up to 25mph.
Another part of the system applies brakes to any wheel that's spinning and so feed torque to any wheel that still has grip. There's also the Downhill Drive Support system which controls your plummet to a sedate 4.5mph at the touch of a button, and the Uphill Start Support which holds the car on the brake for up to five seconds for a smooth getaway . . . useful for towing as well as coping with an arrested progress on a muddy bank.
When it goes on sale on September 1 the X-Trail will be available with two petrol and two diesel engines, but the company expects 90% of sales will be diesels. Both oil-burners have two-litre capacity, the top engine turning out 171bhp and 266lb/ft of torque, with the less powerful one milling out a surprisingly close 148bhp and 236lb/ft of torque.
I say "surprisingly" close because driving them one after the other, there's far from any obvious sign of the baby being underpowered. Both are reasonably economical too, with fuel consumption figures of 39.8mpg and 38.2mpg for the manuals. One can only hope the price differential is equally marginal.
On the road the ride is helped by the ESP system which does its best to stop you chucking yourself into a ditch when you're cornering too enthusiastically. Oddly enough, on my first day of driving, I found the car with the more powerful diesel had a slight a tendency to roll and oversteer, slipping out a little at the front under heavy cornering – something that simply didn't happen on day two with the lesser engine. Don't ask me to explain why.
As yet untried but waiting in the blocks are the petrol engines, a two-litre and a 2.5-litre turning out 139bhp and 167bhp – both marginally inferior to their equivalent diesel units but vastly inferior on the torque levels. The petrol units turn out 145lb/ft. and 172lb/ft of torque and I expect when you're towing a caravan or wending up into the hills, that deficit will be felt.
So to the car itself. The new X-Trail is a product of evolution – external styling themes are instantly recognisable, but the overall package is a significant improvement. Very sensible, since the last model won some high-profile awards and buyers have told Nissan they were still very fond of the old one.
Built on the same platform as the urban-themed Quashqai, and using an engine developed along with Renault, it still has big square lamp clusters at the front and tall pillar-housed lights at the back. The tail end is still an ungainly lump of metalware without much style, the flank is a bit boxy and it doesn't wear a very friendly expression on its face, but it has a certain utilitarian charm that matches the on and off-road technology within.
Inside, the instant sign of improvement is the moving of the instrument dials in from the centre of the dashboard, to in front of the driver where they should be. Good news is the longer-than-its-wide sunroof is still there, but bad news is that the back-seat passengers still get second-class treatment. Kneeroom and headroom for an average-sized guy like me is still cramped and the back door doesn't leave much room to get your feet out.
The cargo hold is bigger than before and more flexible. There's a removable double-floor feature which allows you to store things under the false bottom. With it in, it also means that when the rear seats are folded forward the load-bay is flat-bottomed. Oh and the rear seats fold in three sections now split 40/20/40 and there are no fewer than eight cupholders – four of them air-conditioned! Golly, eh?
Nissan hopes to sell 10,500 across the first full year. It also expects sales of the diesels to be split equally between the 148bhp manual, the 148bhp automatic and the 171bhp manual. Sounds sensible. The 148bhp engine is marginally more economical, cleaner and will probably be cheaper yet it's still a lovely quiet unit that delivers the power and torque smoothly.
The six-speed manual gearbox is a slick piece of machinery, but the automatic six-speed with a sequential stick shift is equally slippery. I found its changes were much smoother when using the stick than when letting the box decide for itself when to shift cogs.
In summary, the X-Trail has always been a favourite compact SUV among tow-drivers due to its power and rugged ability. The new version is better and therefore likely to engender some brand loyalty. But this is a competitive branch of the market and it's going to be tough for the X-Trail, not because of its technical abilities, but because of the sexier-looking competitors from the likes of Land Rover and Toyota. Pricing will be critical to its success.