Car reviews - Nissan - X-Trail - Ti-L 5-dr wagon
Lockable AWD system, performance, styling, spacious and functional interior, comfort, light kerb weight, street cred
Room for improvement
No sequential-shift auto, slightly higher price than rivals, some internal switch locations, overly-light steering
22 Jul 2004
By TIM BRITTEN
NISSAN’S first venture into soft-roading, the X-Trail, has been a sales hit for the hitherto hard-core 4WD manufacturer.
In its first year on sale, in 2002, the X-Trail was already nipping at the heels of established entrants Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. In 2003 it topped the class and has continued its charge into 2004, running head-to-head with a recently refreshed RAV4 in the first half.
It seems people love their Nissan 4WDs.
Little wonder, really, because the X-Trail, like its big brother Patrol – and Pathfinder - speaks of off-road capability with a minimum of nonsense.
The style is strong and slab-sided, the interior quite strong on space and functionality. And, even if it reveals its true colours with the lack of a dual-range transmission, it at least allows the driver to select a proper, locked-up 4WD system if the need arises.
The undoubted benefits of being seen as a small Patrol give it a sense of credibility not so apparent in the softer-looking RAV4 and CR-V.
The X-Trail is very close in size to the Honda, slightly bigger and heavier than the Toyota - which is probably a good thing - and is also slightly more expensive than both, by about $1500, in top-deck Ti-L trim.
The running gear follows the same essential pattern though. As with the Honda and Toyota, the X-Trail is based on a front-drive transaxle, with the engine located east-west in the engine bay.
Like the Honda, drive is directed to the rear wheels as and when required, with the difference that the Nissan driver can decide to run in straight two-wheel drive mode, automatic 4WD mode or full-time four-wheel drive.
The Toyota has a bit of an ace up its sleeve here because it is the only one to provide genuine, three-differential, all-time 4WD operation.
The Honda only offers a single, on-demand 4WD mode, while the Nissan at least allows the driver to select full-time 4WD if the going gets tough – but it must be switched off on high-traction, sealed surfaces.
The X-Trail’s 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is a new development using typically Nissan cutting-edge technology. It’s a lightweight design that runs twin overhead camshafts with four valves per cylinder, a balancer system and continuously variable valve timing.
Moving parts are lightweight and low-friction, and the bore-stroke ratio favours a torque-enhancing long-stroke configuration.
Gearboxes are either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic, the latter a pretty straightforward arrangement minus the now common sequential-shift capability.
Because the X-Trail came to Australia a year behind the Japanese home market introduction, the first facelift appears pretty quickly. But the changes are nothing to get too concerned about and mainly relate to detail tidying-up outside and inside.
In fact, from the outside you’re unlikely to notice much at all.
The bumpers have been redesigned so subtly that, if you were anything but a dedicated X-Trail spotter, you’d barely pick it, even if old and new were lined up together.
Look for redesigned foglights on Ti and Ti-L versions, plus slightly wider "spars" bordering the Nissan badge in the grille. The bumpers are new but equally difficult to pick.
The interior has had more of a rework, retaining the central instrument cluster but swapping tacho and fuel and temperature gauge positions, moving the drink cooler/holder apertures to the outboard edges of the dash, relocating the air vents that formerly ran across the centre console section of the dash to two separate vents either side of the radio, and giving the driver an adjustable face-level vent directly above the steering wheel.
The controller for the All-Mode 4WD system is now a Pathfinder-style rotating knob to the left of the (also redesigned) four-spoke steering wheel.
The idea of all this is to supposedly improve the X-Trail’s ergonomics, but a couple of annoying faults still exist.
The most irritating is the hidden location of the external mirror adjuster switch, buried down low on the dash to the right of the steering wheel, where it’s not just a long stretch away, but is only discovered after a deal of fumbling.
The other is the also distant location of the trip meter/external temperature gauge/clock button in the centre-mounted speedometer, which requires a stretch and lean from the driver when it’s being re-set.
The centre speedometer location however is quickly adjusted to, and all other controls (climate-control, sound system) are within easy reach at the centre of the dash. The cooled drink holders are undoubtedly handy but probably don’t chill your beverages quite as effectively as the pre-facelift system.
Generally, the X-Trail is accommodating inside, with adequate head and legroom in both back and front, and the cargo area proves quite useful, especially if one section of the double-fold 60-40 split rear backrest is folded down.
A mountain bike with both wheels in place can be juggled quite easily into place if the larger section is folded, leaving room for one rear-seat passenger. As with the previous model, the rear floor lining is trimmed so it can be wiped clean, avoiding the more common use of stain-vulnerable carpet.
The driver also gets well looked after in the X-Trail. The front seats in the Ti-L test car were leather-trimmed, well shaped and power adjustable both sides – although the front passenger missed out on the cushion height-tilt adjuster enjoyed by the driver.
A welcome discovery was that the little Nissan 4WD proves quite a comfortable place to be on extended, two-hour-plus trips. The back pain, or nether numbness often afflicted by some Japanese-designed seats just didn’t happen in the X-Trail, even on a journey of more than three hours.
Four adults will find the X-Trail an appropriate carriage in which to tackle a long haul, with adequate supplies of head, shoulder and legroom.
Additional to the leather-trimmed, power front seats, the Ti-L comes with standard 16-inch alloy wheels, climate control air-conditioning, six-speaker sound system with six-stack CD player, rear spoiler, foglights, aluminium pedals and the intriguing choice of an electric tilt/slide sunroof or a rear seat DVD system with eight-inch screen and headphones.
The relatively lightweight Nissan (1455kg for the top-spec Ti-L) rides quite well, although there’s a suggestion that the wheel travel is not exactly what you’d be wanting for any sort of off-road work.
Place the X-Trail on a rutted, washed-away dirt surface, add only a modicum of upward gradient and it will begin scrabbling even when the drive system is in locked-up mode.
But, as we said, the ride is generally pretty good, maybe slightly on the firmish side, but absorbent enough to take the sharp edges out of most bumps.
The handling is quite car-like too, marred only by too-light steering. In regular front-drive mode it tracks securely and responds to the steering quite adroitly with - as you’d expect with 57 per cent of the power going through to the front wheels in 4WD mode - final understeer being the usual outcome of a too ambitious entry to a tight corner.
On dirt, in auto or full-time 4WD mode, the X-Trail is in its home territory, although the sharper edges of ride quality begin to find their way through. It doesn’t feel as comfortable on dirt as, say, Mitsubishi’s similar-size (but much less visible in the marketplace) Outlander, neither in ride comfort nor composure.
The brakes are no-nonsense, with four-wheel discs – ventilated at the front - backed up on all models by an ABS system incorporating brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution.
The 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is smooth, endowed with useful mid-range torque and proves quite economical. The 60-litre tank gives it a useful touring range of 500 or so kilometres.
At 100km/h on the open road, it spins at around 2300rpm with the (optional) four-speed auto’s lock-up torque converter helping it to cruise quite efficiently.
The engine’s good mid-range torque allows it to respond quickly to the accelerator without the need for anxious, high-revving kickdowns. It would be nice though to find a sequential shifting facility, especially when driving on tight, hilly, firetrail-type roads.
The 4WD selector is perhaps a little difficult to see, partly obscured by the steering wheel, but it’s simplicity itself to use and quite effective. The light indicating which of the two 4WD modes is selected comes on instantly and so, presumably, does the actuation itself.
If you’re suddenly finding a lack of traction a quick flick of the dial will usually restore it unless, as we said earlier, there’s a problem with the X-Trail finding an adequate footprint as a result of the lack of wheel travel.
But the little Nissan will go pretty deep into the bush, even if the tyres aren’t exactly intended for that sort of thing, and is helped along by the automatic transmission allowing a certain amount of low-speed crawling.
With its well-chosen size and the very beneficial association with highly regarded off-roaders like the Patrol and Pathfinder, the Nissan X-Trail just had to be a success.
Considering the "base" model is barely less equipped than the top-line Ti and Ti-L and is priced just over $30,000, it’s not difficult to understand why it has stormed so spectacularly onto the market, going head-to-head with the RAV44 in sales despite the fact there’s only one, five-door version available.
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