Despite everyone associating Nissan’s engineering prowess with all things Skyline, the company possesses a redoubtable leisure product portfolio.
Nissan’s Patrol, though criminally ignored locally, is a Land Cruiser equal in Australia and with the recent Dakar racing success of the locally engineered Navara, its image as a softie has been redressed
What about the latest, second-generation X-Trail then?
Everybody remembers the first incarnation of Nissan’s small SUV primarily for its centrally mounted instrument cluster, which was not universally popular as it allowed backseat drivers to keep tabs on one’s speeding.
The new model has reverted to a more traditional, driver-fronted instrument stack, but does this mean X-Trail has lost some of its X-factor?
Unusual for an X-Trail, the latest generation car has a thoroughly neat, yet conventional instrument binnacle with attractive, recessed dials.
The second generation SUV, which has been on sale locally since April last year, might appear evolutionary in design, but it is 175mm longer and Nissan claims all the body panels are new.
With a family familiar Nissan grille (the badge is framed by two broad, slanted chrome strips similar to Navara and Patrol) the overall proportions are a bit portly – with an oversized D-pillar rendering a particularly overweight feel to the rear three-quarter view.
Those ornate roof rails (inexplicably embellished with integrated lights) make the X-Trail appear a bit top heavy too, and what’s the point of such elaborate roof rail structures when you don’t get standard cross-over bars?
It’s not the prettiest SUV then, but turn the design architecture inside out to realise the logic behind the bloated shape and large greenhouse structure as X-Trail sports one of the most spacious and leisure activity-friendly interiors in its class. The load bay can accommodate 603l worth of goodies, and with the rear seats folded, loadability increases to a vast 1 773l.
Loadbay capacious and tough, grippy floor with sliding drawers hugely practical. Good luck getting to the sparewheel quickly in an emergency though...
Nearly all manufacturers bore the motoring press corps to agony on launches by showing us slides of their SUVs filled to the brim with exotic lifestyle accessories such as mountain bikes, kayaks, Labradors (oops) and enough climbing ropes to conquer Everest and K2.
Very rarely do you actually find these items happily stowable in practice. The X-Trail, with its tough polymer load bay floor (removable) and seatback linings, absorbs the dust, mud and scratches of weekend surfing and mountain-biking sojourns with ease.
Load bay utility is further enhanced by a dual floor, which features a sliding drawer - with partition walls configurable to your needs - which is ideal to stow muddied, or wet, activity kit. In mitigation, access to the X-Trail spare wheel has become quite a chore thanks to the selfsame dual-floor design.
On our range topping LE trim test vehicles (we evaluated both six-speed diesel and 2.5 CVT petrol versions) the only option, with regards to interior comfort and convenience, was iPod integration. Leather seats (front units are powered and heated), keyless entry, automatic climate control and six airbags ensure a comprehensively equipped cabin.
The second generation X-Trail cabin architecture is quite conventional. A neat instrument binnacle is now mounted behind the steering wheel (itself a nimbly proportioned, leather trimmed design) and although the satellite controls preclude you from ever having to tangibly actuate the audio controls, they’re chunky and logical too.
In fact, the interior is an ode to user-friendly SUV design, with cooled cup holders and a warren of concealed stowage spaces to keep phones, digital cameras, GPS units away from potential smash-and-grabbers.
It might be a small SUV, but the X-Trail features some pretty neat mechanical engineering.
Nissan claims X-Trail’s all mode 4X4 system is the business, and with a slick, rotary knob housed in the centre console actuating the system, usability is seamless.
All-mode drive system is very user friendly and features some clever electronic aids. Better than most other soft-roaders, it's still bested by Freelander 2 though.
Like most 4X4 systems devoid of a dual-range transfer case, X-Trail is primarily front-wheel driven with a clever electrically-controlled centre clutch coupling engaging torque distribution to all four wheels.
On testing dirt – or wet – roads the "auto" mode runs the system like a standard all-wheel drive car with an open-centre differential, whilst the "lock" mode does what it says to the centre clutch, and feeds torque in an equal split between the axles.
As good a system as it might be, all mode is no conventional locked mechanical centre-differential, though. It’s more akin to having electronic LSDs front and rear, necessitating a fair degree of momentum to detect slip and apportion torque. Considering X-Trail’s road-biased underpinnings, you’re constrained by how much momentum you can use off-road before damaging it and if you do get stuck, extricating yourself without low-range will be a clutch-cooking affair too.
On median sand tracks and over soft obstacles, X-Trail is only bettered in its class by the Freelander (perhaps a low-range Subaru Forester, too) and as long as you progressively feed throttle inputs, the all mode 4X4 system responds diligently. For novice off-roaders the hill-descent control system is a boon, actuating the ABS system to ensure skid-free and secure downhill progress.
In urban terrain the large glasshouse area renders excellent visibility, and though the steering is electrically assisted, it retains a linear feel, even around the centre point. In fact, in urban driving, X-Trail displays a nimbleness which belies its dimensions.
Ride and handling benefit from the front McPherson struts and rear multilink suspension being mounted on separate rubber insulated sub-frames. Chassis generated noise, vibration and harshness is subsequently well dampened.
Performance is highly dependent on which of the two 4X4 engines you choose. I dislike medium capacity turbodiesels, primarily for cost reasons (add fuel price parity, servicing costs and purchase price premium and you can’t run a comparable diesel SUV cheaper than petrol) but the Nissan 2.0-litre turbodiesel is a splendid engine.
It produces fine power figures (110kW and 320Nm) and driving through a slick, short throw six-speed gearbox, provides excellent low engine speed responsiveness in everyday driving. It's uncannily quiet too and disconcertingly light on diesel (we averaged 7.2l/100km with climate control on) as Nissan recently proved.
Evolutionary, yet goes to show that Darwin’s theory had much to do with survival instead of aesthetics. Bulbous and oddly tall, X-Trail is not helped by the 215/6 profile tyres that appear diminutive on their 17-inch alloys and hardly fill up the arches.
Perceived build quality is redoubtable. The utility factor is high with a surfeit of stowage spaces and loadbay solutions and the tough plastic load bay floor a boon too. The cabin is feature-laden, which you would expect considering the price.
Drone-like in 2.5-litre petrol spec with a CVT gearbox, X-Trail is very responsive in 2.0-litre dCI diesel trim with the six-speed ‘box. Economical and refined, with acceleration in from 0-100km/h in the low 10 second bracket, the dCI models are the best choice. All round dynamic refinement is impressive, and the entire list of safety acronyms (ABS, EBD, ABLS, VDC) keeps things neat.
As a second generation engineering exercise the X-Trail is an accomplished car.
Bigger and more refined, with a sophisticated choice of drivetrains and stupendously practical interior environment, it’s a very engaging SUV for those SUV who actually work load their vehicles to the hilt.
From the all-important SUV image perspective, the styling does not endear it with the requisite premium snob value, as a Tiguan would, for instance. A Freelander 2 is better off-road too, and Subaru’s Forester, despite lacking diesel power and sporting less space, remains the most sensible in class.
If you do happen to own three mountain bikes, two Labradors and plenty of interesting rope accessories and remain keen to take all of the aforementioned items along on weekend trips, you’ll find the X-Trail - especially in dCI form - a very apt choice.
Quality diesel engine
Clever all-mode 4X4 system
Tough, spacious interior
Not cheap either
X-Trail dCI 4x4 LE manual - R389 500
X-Trail 2.5 CVT 4X4 LE - R393 200