Space, comfort, fuel economy, versatility, ease of use, CVT smoothness, performance
Room for improvement
Styling too similar to before
By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS 11/04/2008
IT MAY have been a Johnny-come-lately to the compact SUV party, but the original Nissan X-Trail won hearts, stole the show and got the girl.
Based on a derivative of Nissan’s FF-S platform that also underpinned the previous (N16) Pulsar, the 2001 T30 X-Trail became one of the hotly contested segment’s bestsellers.
No need for Nissan to change much then, judging by the all-new second-generation T31 series’ ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ styling.
Visually, this is a disappointment of Datsun 1600-to-Datsun Stanza proportions, since the neat, square-cut lines of the T30 seem Xeroxed by 10 per cent for the new car, to the design’s detriment – though millions may disagree and actually like tiny-looking wheels with a big boxy body draping over them like a moo-moo.
On the moo-move, however, this is one seriously improved vehicle.
For the T31, Nissan devised an all-new platform that not only banishes much of what was bad before, but also forms the basis of a whole range of models such as the Nissan Dualis/Qashqai, Renault Koleos and Samsung QM5.
Like the old one, it still uses a transverse-mounted four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels.
This time, however, there is an improved version of Nissan’s 4X4 system called All-Mode 4x4-i.
It uses a console-sited knob to switch from the standard 2WD mode to ‘Auto’ on-demand 4WD (which means it stays in 2WD until slip is detected and then torque is directed up to 50/50 front/rear), or the driver can select ‘Lock’ – which fixes drive 50/50 front/rear, but only up to 40km/h, after which it resumes back to ‘Auto’ mode.
This set-up features sensors that measure information such as G-forces, yaw rates and steering angles, which then help determine how much torque is channelled to all four wheels to achieve maximum grip.
Aiding this is standard stability and traction control functionality that works with the ABS brakes and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) to deliver the best possible traction.
X-Trail also gains a hill descent control, which only works in ‘Lock’ mode, to maintain a controlled speed of about 8km/h down a hill, and a Hill Start Assist device that maintains brake pressure for about four seconds to prevent rolling backwards during a hill start.
Also on the 4x4 front, maximum fording depth is 350mm, ground clearance is 200mm and approach, ramp-over and departure angles are 26, 19 and 22 degrees respectively. Plus Nissan says ‘our’ X-Trails are built to the maximum Level Four body reinforcement rating, for greater durability.
Now while all this conspires to make the X-Trail a more able off-roader, it is not a 4WD and so – like all its car-based compact SUV competitors – should only be restricted to light track or shallow sandy trail work. This ain’t no Pathfinder.
Having said that, the Nissan feels surefooted on rutted unmade roads, with plenty of grip in slippery situations and a handy level of suspension travel to soak up big bumps.
But it is on the road where most of the progress has been made from old and noisy to new and not-at-all-so-noisy X-Trail.
At last, this is a much more refined vehicle. Nissan says it is up to 6dB quieter at 120km/h than before, and we are prepared to swallow that after an extended spell in three different vehicles.
Adding balancer shafts and a number of other NVH noise/vibration/harshness quelling features to the carryover 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine helps. You now barely notice it, when before, the mechanical din did its best to disturb your peace.
This unit is now a strong, smooth performer, with power available from a wide range of revs. Reach the upper limits and it does not sound strained, while take a corner in a higher-than-you-should gear and the four-pot’s tractability will get you around easily.
Yet the all-new gearboxes are the real stars here.
In the Ti we drove, Nissan’s fine Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) never ceased to amaze us with its instant and virtually inertia-free responses smothered in a veneer of smoothness.
Why more big fours don’t use this type of gearbox is a mystery, since the level of refinement they offer, coupled with exceptional fuel economy, make them ideal. Nissan’s has a sequential shift pattern with ‘fake’ stepped ratios for those who feel they need the familiar jolt of a conventional torque-converter auto.
Yet just as nice is the six-speed manual gearbox. Our test ST’s ratios are well spaced to make the most of the 2.5’s torque characteristics, while the movement itself is sweet and easy. While going for the manual was a no-brainer in the previous X-Trail, choosing between the two is harder here. Both transmissions are terrific.
We don’t believe the X-Trail is as much of a driver’s car as the Mazda CX-7 or even Honda CR-V, but it is certainly not disgraced behind the wheel, thanks to light and accurate steering responses, lots of all-weather grip and a flat, neutral attitude to handling and cornering.
Perhaps it is the high level of suspension rebound that results in such a good overall ride, but there is a degree of body movement in the Nissan that is not fashionable these days yet, somehow, is welcome in a family-orientated SUV.
Maybe it’s a Renault-inspired old-school French car influence, but the ride’s comfort and suppleness is far preferable to firmness and harshness.
Much thought has obviously gone in the Nissan interior too.
Well-padded front seats provide hours of support, augmenting a fine driving position that does not really miss the fact that there is only tilt – and not telescopic – steering adjustment.
Lumbar and seat-height options further up the comfort ante. So do deep side and rear windows (that sadly don’t fully retract), which really do make parking much easier. If only Nissan’s own Dualis had this, then it would be almost perfect.
It is also difficult to criticise the dashboard’s construction, finish or operation, other than to say that it leans on the side of utilitarian aesthetically, and that it lacks the differentiation of the previous X-Trail's centrally-located instrumentation pod.
Having said that, the dials now located bang in front of the driver cannot really be clearer, or less offensively designed, and so actually work a whole lot better than before.
Ventilation is excellent, with ample face-level reach and stupendously simple controls, while the same is also true for an average-sounding audio unit (featuring CD and MP3 capability in the Ti tested) and enough cup, beverage and bottle holders to satiate even the thirstiest travellers.
There is more good news if lots of storage is important to you, with probably the largest glovebox we have ever encountered in a Nissan.
Rear outboard passengers also get a good deal due to a partially reclining rear backrest, adjustable head restraints, overhead grab-handles, rear ventilation outlets, a wider-than-usual padded armrest and a couple of storage slots in the doors. But the rear centre occupant is only suitable for sub-five-foot folk, with its harder and higher than usual seating and restricted width.
The X-Trail is also more of a conventional wagon than rivals in this sector, with handily sited baby chair hooks and a false floor for you to hide your stash in – with the latter’s drawers being great for additional storage. The tailgate’s large aperture aids access, while the cargo area’s load hooks and power outlets are in line with the practicality demands of today’s SUVs.
So who cares if today’s X-Trail is a trial to differentiate visually from its predecessor? All your other senses will be delighted with the progress that Nissan has made.
Spend a decent amount of time with this SUV and you’ll find that love is blind anyway.