Car reviews - Nissan - X-Trail - 5-dr wagon range
Design, packaging, economy, decent CVT auto, improved refinement, excellent rear seat, active safety tech options, gravel-road stability, seven-seat availability
Room for improvement
Loud 2.5L engine, firm and busy ride on Ti AWD, still road noise intrusion, dreary handling
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17 Nov 2014
IS NISSAN evolving or destroying the X-Trail myth?With more than 140,000 sold in Oz over the last dozen years or so, the medium-sized SUV/crossover from Japan has enjoyed a utilitarian edge against less macho rivals, putting the Nissan in a unique niche among soft-roaders.
It appears that many buyers – as well as thousands of car rental and government fleet groups – have responded to the X-Trail’s somewhat manly appeal.
The reality of living with and driving the old T31 model, however, was like a rude awakening for the hordes of gentle folk who would never venture beyond the ‘burbs. You can blame numb steering, a firm ride, cheapo interior presentation and too much noise intrusion for that.
Newer competitors – particularly the slick Mazda CX-5 and dynamic Ford Kuga – showed how far behind Nissan had fallen with the seven-and-a-half year-old preceding version.
Now there’s an all-new one – the third since 2001 – with a softer look and a whole lot more sophistication. But is removing the X-Trail’s rawness throwing the baby out with the bath water?Central to the latest model’s appeal is its styling. Gone are the squared off wheel arches, clumsily long overhangs, deep windows and blocky detailing, for afar more handsome visage.
Yet it is hard to tell this apart from the larger recently released Pathfinder that also shares a similar design language- except that they are Nissans of today.
There is no denying that everything has changed for the better inside – with perhaps reduced reversing vision being the one exception due to a (slightly) smaller side glass area.
Flowing and contemporary, the dash retains the old car’s functionality but manages to look far less ugly and cheap, with excellent ventilation, superb instrumentation, intuitive controls and ample storage solutions all raising the bar as far as useability and ease go.
Furthermore, the upper half of the fascia’s dashboard feels squishy and expensive (as opposed to the cold and hard lower plastics used underneath), the front seats feel immediately comfortable and inviting, and the driving position is enhanced by a commanding view up front.
Nissan has thought about the rear-seat environment, too, dividing the bench into three sliding and reclining parts and offering room to stretch and relax. You’re perched higher than the front-seat occupants so the view out is great, there’s adequate ventilation and places to put things in, and the back doors open up wide for stupendously unfettered entry and egress.
If you’re contemplating the five-seat X-Trail, the luggage area should impress with its hide-and-divide compartmentalisation, which means there are multi-level storage options for heavy things, light stuff, wet items and whatever requires separation.
The newly available seven-seat version, meanwhile, is really only for children since the twin chairs are small and (simply) erected within a very confined space. Adults of up to about 180cm could tolerate a cramped short-term trip back there, but the squished, knees-up posture would soon require osteopathic intervention.
Note that there is no meaningful storage space available when all seven seats are occupied.
So the X-Trail looks and feels far fitter for family consumption from a static point of view, and Nissan should be congratulated for packaging its medium SUV so expertly with kids and clutter in mind.
But how would everybody fare when the engine is fired up and the gear selector is engaged? Nissan gave us the keys to a base ST 2WD and flagship Ti AWD – both as 2.5-litre CVT autos – to find out. Sadly no 2.0L manual was available at the Victorian launch.
Well, in isolation, the driving experience has also taken a massive step forward compared with before.
Aided by that great seating position ahead of the wheel, the driver can now accelerate in a rapid and linear fashion without his/her ears being assaulted by a raucous drivetrain.
While the carryover 126kW/226Nm four-pot engine is a strong and torquey performer, it is the all-new CVT auto’s uncharacteristically smooth, responsive and (mostly) quiet operation that impresses.
Basically it reacts to inputs with the speed of a conventional torque-converter auto, taking off smoothly, changing up or down to the correct ratio without hesitating, and keeping itself free of the flaring histrionics that has marred so many similar types of trannies.
Only when you’re bearing down hard on the throttle up an incline or at high speed does the drivetrain drone, but most drivers will probably never thrash an X-Trail to that point. There is also a neat tip-shift facility for manual intervention, though the Nissan’s software will take over with a gear change to stop you from causing damage.
Moving on, the steering feels eager yet relaxed, with newfound weight that imparts a sense of stability and control.
But there is precious little feedback from the system, and if you push the X-Trail through corners the natural outcome is for the car to run wide into progressive understeer, accompanied by a fair degree of body lean.
Note, however, that the Nissan feels far more composed than its ragged predecessor. Ford’s engineers won’t have sleepless nights, but there is fundamentally nothing wrong with the way the T32 steers, handles or brakes at all.
An extended stint on a gravel road revealed two things – a surefooted attitude and a propensity for the larger-wheeled Ti AWD to feel too firm and fidgety.
The same applies over bumpier roads, with the base ST’s 17-inch tyre arrangement the more comfortable compromise of the two. Somehow the latter’s velour-like trim felt more inviting than the leather, though the up-spec sat-nav screen works a treat.
Yes, except on the smoothest blacktop, the X-Trail still has a slightly too-noisy ride, while the anodyne driving experience is a bit disappointing, but the series has really taken huge strides forward to catch up with a good deal of its competitors.
Medium SUVs are meant to convey families with minimum fuss and maximum safety and security, and in this context the brilliantly packaged T32 is surely one of the segment front-runners. Against most rivals such as the Honda CR-V and Mitsubishi Outlander, the Nissan mounts a very formidable challenge.
But overall greatness eludes the long-lived series again, with competitors including the Kuga, CX-5 and ageing VW Tiguan offering a more compelling dynamic, performance and refinement edge. What they do that the Nissan doesn’t is make you love the driving experience.
Still, we wouldn’t try and talk you out of choosing the X-Trail if you like what you see, feel, touch and experience.
Better still, there is still enough of the old trooper’s hardy personality among the cuddly lines for existing owners to trade up.
Having made the right decision, Nissan ought to have a massive hit on its hands.
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