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First drive: Nissan revisits well-worn Trail

Skin deep: Nissan faces the challenge of convincing buyers that the X-Trail is completely new.

Bigger X-Trail looks just like before, but is all-new and much improved underneath

21 May 2007

By JAMES STANFORD in GREECE

BELIEVE it or not, this is Nissan’s all-new X-Trail.

The second-generation compact SUV might look much the same as the current model, but it is completely new from the ground up – apart from its engine, which has been revised.

Launched in Europe last week ahead of an Australian introduction in November, the new X-Trail will form part of a two-pronged compact SUV attack from Nissan Australia, which is adding the AWD Dualis either in December or next January (depending on supply).

Both vehicles are built off the same platform, but the Dualis is a more city-friendly SUV, with less off-road capability than the X-Trail.

This strategy meant Nissan was able to resist softening off the X-Trail in contrast to Honda’s new-generation CR-V, which is aimed squarely at city-slickers.

It is hard to pick from the pictures, or even in the metal, but every panel of the second-generation X-Trail is new.

Nissan was encouraged by the success of the first-generation X-Trail, with more than 800,000 sold globally since 2000. However, this also caused concern when it came to updating the design.

The Japanese car-maker chose to maintain the basic original shape after most participants in market research test groups said they did not like more adventurous, forward-looking X-Trail design concepts.

“The message coming back was that we changed the X-Trail formula at our peril,” said Nissan Europe product planning vice-president, Pierre Loing. “The original was loved by its owners and many didn’t want us to change a thing.” The conservative policy now means Nissan faces the challenge of getting the message across that the new X-Trail is significantly different to the model it replaces.

At 4630mm, the new X-Trail is 175mm longer than the previous model, with a longer cargo area accounted for most of the increase. It is also 10mm taller, 20mm wider and has a 5mm longer wheelbase. Compared to the CR-V, the X-Trail is 110mm longer and 5mm taller, but is 35mm narrower.

The new X-Trail uses the new Nissan-Renault alliance’s C platform, which will also be used for the next-generation Megane small car.

It maintains a MacPherson strut front suspension layout, but its multi-link rear set-up has been significantly modified.

The previous model used upright strut towers that protruded into the luggage space. This time around, the X-Trail uses a set-up that sees the struts laid on an angle and attached to the rear subframe. As a result, the minimal width of the rear cargo area has increased by 120mm.

Its load area is also 127mm longer, 174mm wider and 85mm deeper than the previous model. Engineers also managed to fit the muffler next to the spare wheel tub, rather than let it hang down underneath, which limits the chance of damage if the car is taken off road.

The new X-Trail maintains the same 200mm ground clearance as the original model.

Nissan says its off-road capability has still be been improved, though, thanks to a new electronically controlled AWD system called All Mode 4x4-i.

12 center imageJust like the previous model, the X-Trail runs as a front-driver, automatically feeding torque to the rear wheels when needed. As before, it can also be locked in 4WD.

The new system is improved courtesy of a range of sensors that allow the system to better manage the torque distribution, including a yaw sensor (which detects pivoting), and longitudinal and lateral G sensors, while wheel-speed sensors are also compared to the throttle position.

This data is used to predict traction loss and change the torque distribution in order to attempt to prevent or limit any traction loss. When needed, up to 50 per cent of torque can be sent to the rear wheels through an electronically controlled coupling.

While drivers can lock the drivetrain in 4WD mode only for off-road work, the system will automatically revert to the on-demand setting above 40km/h to avoid drivetrain damage. It will automatically re-engage the 4WD lock system when the speed returns to below 40km/h.

Unlike the original X-Trail, the new model also features Downhill Drive Support, which is a descent control system that, when engaged, uses the brakes to limit the car’s speed to around 8km/h.

The new vehicle also holds the brakes on when you have stopped pointing uphill and take your foot off the brake pedal. The idea is that when driving a manual version, the car brakes to give you time to dip and release the clutch without rolling back.

The new SUV is offered with a new 104kW 2.0-litre petrol four-cylinder, and a lightly revised version of the 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that powered the previous Australian X-Trail. While the smaller engine will be fitted to the Dualis, it will not be available for the X-Trail in Australia.

Diesels account for around 80 per cent of X-Trail sales in Western Europe, but a turbo-diesel engine will not be available for X-Trail Down Under.

The European X-Trail diesel uses a Renault-sourced 2.0-litre turbo-diesel available in two states of tune – 110kW and 320Nm in its base form or 127kW and 360Nm for the premium unit.

The 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol available in Australia, which Nissan refers to as an “old favourite”, produces 124kW at 6000rpm and 233Nm at 4400rpm … a minute increase of 1kW and 3Nm.

The only changes include a new plastic manifold and new twin balancer shafts to improve refinement.

A revised six-speed manual transmission is standard equipment, and Nissan claims it is 30 per cent quieter than the previous manual transmission. Nissan has continued its rollout of continuously variable automatic transmissions, choosing that system over the previous four-speed automatic for X-Trail.

The CVT offers fuel economy savings of 300ml/100km, according to Nissan. The step-less system is able to constantly change gear ratios in order to keep the engine in the optimum torque band.

Nissan has fitted the CVT with a manual override, which uses six pre-set ratios to enable the engine to run higher revs than the CVT would normally allow.

Official fuel economy figures, which are yet to be officially confirmed under the ADR 81/01 standard, indicate 9.5L/100km for the manual and 9.3L/100km for the CVT.

Nissan says the new X-Trail is 30 per cent stiffer than the previous X-Trail, and as with the last model the Australian version is fitted with about 4kg of extra bracing around the tailgate opening to compensate for our tougher road conditions.

The new X-Trail weighs around 70kg heavier than the first-generation model, which means it will come it just past the 1500kg mark.

Nissan has also overhauled the interior of the X-Trail. The most notable change concerns the instrument panel including the speedo and tacho that was mounted right in the middle of the dashboard of the existing model.

According to Nissan Australia surveys, the unconventional layout prevented some customers from buying the car, but in Europe it also meant the instrument panel took the place of an optional satellite navigation screen. The new instrument panel is now in the traditional position in front of the driver.

Nissan has improved other aspects of the interior, updating the design – which is still functional, but looks less rugged and has moved a little more upmarket.

The horizontal can coolers of the original model have been replaced by cup-holders in the dashboard that are linked to the air-conditioning ducting to keep them cool. There are four other cup-holders in the front area and two other ducted cup-holders for rear passengers.

The top-spec X-Trail sold in Europe comes with satellite navigation and a reversing camera, but neither will be available on Australian models as Nissan Australia is unable to come up with a compatible sat-nav system.

The new X-Trail features a new double load floor which contains a drawer and other separate storage area that cannot be accessed unless the tailgate is raised.

This floor, which is also waterproof, can be removed if the owner prefers to make use of more cargo room.

Nissan has located a full-size spare wheel underneath the load floor.

Pricing for the new X-Trail is yet to be confirmed, but is not expected to stray too far from that of the current range which starts from $31,990 for the ST.

Drive impressions:

THERE’S no need for a revolution when things are running along nicely.

Evolution is a much better and easier way of moving forward and the X-Trail is a good case in point. The next generation model is slightly better in most ways than the existing car. The improvements might be small, but they are many.

It also helps that the existing X-Trail was already a very good vehicle which delivered the right mix of practicality, off-road ability and rugged styling.

There are only two aspects of the new X-Trail that attract question marks. The first is the updated styling. X-Trail-spotters might notice the changes, but they are likely to be lost on most of us.

Given the styling of the second-generation X-Trail is essentially the same as the first, it could have some issues as it gets older.

A design theme introduced in 2000 will start to look fairly ancient getting closer to 2014 when a new model is likely to appear.

Next up is the continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic. The question is whether the no-step transmission with ‘clutch-slip’ sound and different power delivery will attract or put off customers used to a regular automatic.

Apart from those two questions, there is little doubt the new X-Trail will satisfy existing customers and find a fair few new ones.

The new X-Trail is still not a sporty SUV.

Hit a corner and there is no way you will feel like attacking it in the same way you would in a Mazda CX-7 crossover. The Nissan sits up quite high lean in turns, as you would expect from a SUV with reasonable off-road ability.

When pushing a bit harder, the existing model would tend to push on at the front (understeer) a fair amount. The new one doesn’t and we suspect that might be due to the more intelligent four-wheel-drive system.

Off-road, the X-Trail is in its element.

Roads on the international launch in Greece last week did not present the most extreme rock-hopping off-road challenge, but the chunky rutted gravel roads showed the X-Trail has the combination of good ground clearance and a quite a competent 4WD system.

It is quite easy to put along on the dirt road in Auto mode, letting the various sensors talk to each other and sort out the torque distribution. There is very little, if any, noticeable lag as the rear wheels hook up.

Nissan had prepared an extreme off-road track to demonstrate the capability of the X-Trail and it conquered a range of challenges that almost no owner would attempt in the car.

The hill descent control worked well, but it is the ability of the car to break wheels that are off the ground and transfer that torque to the other wheels that are touching Terra Firma that was the most impressive.

Back on the tarmac and the X-Trail is quite a nice car to ride in.

Nissan admits it set up the suspension with comfort in mind and the rough Greek roads highlighted this point.

Pleasantly compliant on most surfaces, the X-Trail feels a bit spongey over large undulations as it rises and falls.

This softness doesn’t stop the suspension from crashing and banging when confronted with the odd harsh rut or pothole on poorly maintained tarmac roads.

To get a more accurate picture of how the car will perform on local roads, we’ll have to wait until the Australian launch.

The 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine might not break any new ground, but it is still a reasonably smooth and quiet powerplant.

It has enough torque to push the X-Trail along well enough, but can feel sluggish under hard acceleration when linked to the CVT automatic.

When left alone, the CVT doesn’t call on the engine to rev much past 4000 revs and that can be frustrating as you wait with your foot pressed hard on the accelerator pedal.

If you need to go harder, you need to flick the CVT into manual mode and use one of the preset gear-ratios which at least lets the engine rev-out.

It’s a shame that Nissan has decided against importing a diesel engine for the X-Trail, because the more potent of the two 2.0-litre oil burners is the best engine available for the X-Trail.

Its prodigious torque supply means it doesn’t have to work hard and pulls the car along easily.

When used with a manual, it is possible to select third gear and leave it there for twisty roads as the engine has more than enough grunt.

It might be lovely, but it’s still not clear how many Australian X-Trail buyers would pay the premium demanded for this engine (which could be as much as $3000).

The increased practicality of the X-Trail’s larger cargo area is likely to be popular an the addition of the hidden compartment in the cargo floor is very handy for storing valuable items out of sight.

It’s also worth noting that the load owners have the advantage of a full-size spare spare wheel, which is important for a vehicle that can go off road.

The interior layout is now much more logical, and it is good to have the instrument panel above the steering wheel in front of the driver.

Designers can argue all they like about the merits of a speedo mounted in the middle of the dashboard, but the saturation of speed cameras means drivers need to keep a close watch on the speedo and the road in front. Apart from a head-up display, the only way to do that is have the speedo in the traditional spot just above the steering wheel.

The X-Trail’s seats are quite comfortable and supportive and there is ample legroom for all occupants.

Taller rear seat passengers could struggle, with the head lining of the X-Trail test cars coming close to the top of the head of an average male adult.

All of the available vehicles had sunroofs, which feature thicker headlining that probably eats into the available headlining, but owners who will need to carry taller occupants should test this out.

Nissan has also lifted its game with the interior, with plastic surfaces that look and feel better than the previous model. The seats are also more comfortable.

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