More than 15 000 units of Nissan's outgoing X-Trail were sold locally and it enjoyed four years as the top seller in its segment. It had to have been fairly decent, then, so how close will the new-generation X-Trail come to emulating this performance?
It should come within striking range, if first impressions are to be believed. This is an all-new model that Nissan promises is better equipped and more comfortable than before, and local journalists were allowed to venture out in the Cape to give it a go.
Just don't be fooled by the exterior that, apart from the obviously new headlights and a few extra bobs, looks almost exactly as its predecessor's. It is, in fact, an all-new body with styling that has been deliberately modelled to appear box-like with a large glasshouse and static lines and creases. Why break with a winning formula, right?
Inside the cabin, X-Trail's new interior is also a lot more refined and, like Qashqai, appears very European-like. A big move is the re-arrangement of the instrument cluster to a more traditional position behind the steering wheel that tidies up the facia immensely.
Furthermore, the central hangdown is neat and dials are easy to reach after a quick glance. The overall quality of the materials and finishes is good, too.
Petrols only, for now
There are two petrol engine derivatives available at launch; a new 2.0-litre and a revised version of the existing 2.5-litre motor. A new turbodiesel will be added to the range from June.
Until then, the petrol engines should do quite a good job of satisfying demand. There are three variants - the base front-wheel drive 2.0-litre, and mid- and high-spec 2.5-litre 4X4 models.
My driving partner and I tried our hands at the base model first, before progressing to the range-topping 2.5 LE. We opted for the six-speed manual gearbox in both cases even though a new CVT gearbox is offered on the 2.5-litre models. But operating the slick-shifting manual was a pleasure, and its nicely-spaced ratios allayed any concerns of constant cog-swapping.
The new 2.0-litre powerplant, which is good for 102 kW and 198 Nm, is quite sprightly and apart from the obvious lack of all-wheel drive is a very competent vehicle. And while it may not offer steering-wheel mounted controls, a sunroof and heated seats, for example, it should suffice in carting you and your charges between points A and B.
The range-topping 2.5-litre was a welcome step up though, with its 125 kW and 226 Nm on tap at 6 000 and 4 400 r/min, respectively. This is down on the 132 kW and 245 Nm previously produced, although you'd be hard-pressed to feel it in real-world situations and torque reserves are still ample for easy overtaking.
It looks slightly different from its lesser sibling though, since all 2.5s are fitted with "hyper roof rails" that also have nifty driving lights but aren't especially pretty to look at. We also noted that the SE's cabin, which does without those unsightly rails, was notably quieter.
Ride quality on both models sampled is exemplary, thanks to the struts employed on the front axle and the multi-link rear suspension with rubber insulated sub-frames. X-Trail's ability to soak up bumps on the off-road portion was particularly impressive and, on tar, its road holding was impressive too as evidenced on the several mountain passes we negotiated.
The ride height has been increased somewhat to 203 mm, which proved useful while making our way across the dongas littering the Paarl mountainside we found ourselves on. Approach and departure angles are now 28 and 24 degrees, respectively.
While the 4X4 models are naturally more off-road friendly, the few 4X2s on the launch handled a fair amount of scrambling with aplomb. For the rest of us, hooking it into second and ambling across the terrain was good enough.
Just a little twist
Nissan regards its 4X4 system as the most advanced electronic all-wheel drive system on the road today.
A knob on the centre console allows one to dial in one of three modes best suited to the driving conditions. 2WD defaults to front-wheel drive, while Auto is best on gravel surfaces or other slippery surfaces. In Auto mode, a controller monitors engine speed and acceleration to automatically distribute torque to the rear wheels via an electronically controlled coupling when slippage is detected.
In Lock mode, the centre differential ensures a 50/50 torque distribution. Lock, and Auto, can be engaged at any speed, although the former is only operational at speeds below 30 km/h.
High-specification LE models are fitted with 4X4-i (for "intelligent"). It comes with hill start assist (that also works when a vehicle is reversing up a slope) and hill descent control that uses compression braking to descend steep slopes at a constant 7 km/h. It is operated via a switch on the centre console when the drive system is in Lock mode.
The intelligent system comes with yaw-rate and steering angle sensors that work together with Vehicle Dynamic Control (or ESP) to monitor the driver's intended direction versus the actual direction and then brakes individual wheels, and even reduces engine power, to help correct under- or oversteer.
All models are equipped with ABS with brake assist and EBD although the high-end models also have Active Brake Limited Slip (ABLS) that uses the ABS to act as a diff lock and redirects torque when any wheel loses traction.
New X-Trail shares its platform with smaller sibling Qashqai, even though its wheelbase has grown by 5 mm and its overall length, at 4 360 mm, is more by 175 mm longer.
This is mostly evidenced in the load bay though, which has a neat double-floor arrangement offering a variety of storage and load options. It's vinyl too, so a quick hose down should ensure it remains mostly clean. A full-sized spare wheel is housed beneath the load bay's floor.
Overall, the new X-Trail is quite a step up from before. But with stiff competition in a segment occupied by the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Land Rover Freelander 2, Hyundai Tucson and (shortly) Volkswagen Tiguan, Nissan had to bring something to the fight.
The front-wheel drive version is fine for climbing kerbs and if you honestly don't need all-wheel drive, it's more than capable in most situations. That is, unless you object to poking your hand through the steering wheel to reach the trip computer's controls?
If you're hankering after the finer things in life, such as Bluetooth connectivity and steering wheel controls, mixed with a bit of rough and tumble, the more hard-core offerings are unlikely to disappoint.
2.0 4X2 XE - R255 600
2.5 4X4 SE - R325 200
2.5 4X4 SE CVT - R342 600
2.5 4X4 LE - R352 800
2.5 4X4 LE CVT - R368 100
All models come with a three-year/90 000 km service plan and a three-year/100 000 km warranty