IAIN ROBERTSON 

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There was a point in Nissan’s more recent history at which it was the ‘king of the hill’ in world SUV terms, states Iain Robertson, and the X-Trail was not its biggest but was its most innovative step into the growing crossover scene.

 

By the early-2000s, with its own Japanese ‘disasters’ placed into the ‘dealt-with’ file, as part of its deal with Renault, Nissan was redeveloping its model line-up and, within a new raft of off-roader look-alikes, its intriguing X-Trail took to the road. While not the first ‘crossover’ to market, it was an early contender and, in my book, it was a best of breed.

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Although not many observers were aware of its sophisticated underpinnings, its ‘on demand’, go-anywhere transmission featured the same rear differential assembly as the remarkable Nissan Skyline GTR. Mated to a transverse front engine and gearbox, as was the new practice, the X-Trail possessed an off-road competence that was someway above its intended place in the new car scene.

 

Nissan persevered with the product, powered by either a 140bhp petrol, or 136bhp turbo-diesel, engine. It was not a performance machine, although a 280bhp GT version existed in its domestic market. However, it introduced enough novelty and provided exceptional value for money that its place in the world market was assured, even though it made no boasts whatsoever about its off-road prowess, which proved to be substantial. A slightly larger Mark Two variant arrived in late-2007 to continue the great work the original X-Trail had laid down and its popularity was unceasing.

 

While production of the latest version commenced in late-2013, it hit our shores in early-2014. It was a somewhat different machine, shaped by Nissan’s new styling language and incorporating design cues that had already been explored by the Juke, Murano and Patrol models. However, it incorporated other populist ‘tricks’, such as ‘stop-start’ technology, extra seating and a significant dimensional growth. You see, in the meantime, while the X-Trail appeared to be basking in the glory of its past, the smaller Qashqai had been stealing its downsizing buyers at an unrelenting rate.

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Usurped by its little brother, the X-Trail needed to take an alternative route. Possessing a strong family appearance might make you wonder about Nissan’s insecurities, after all, X-Trail had been able to break a new market sector for the company and internal loyalties were such that insiders did not wish to lose that impetus. Yet, X-Trail sales had faltered, since the Qashqai had arrived on the scene. So, too, had Patrol sales. The large SUV-class had matured somewhat and dressing up an agricultural monster, with fine hide and plastic wood, was deemed insufficient. X-Trail was in a quandary.

 

Yet, where the first generation Qashqai had grown a slightly longer ‘plus-2’ variant, Nissan perceived that X-Trail might serve that niche instead, after all, not all buyers wanted the extra seating, although the added space was the bonus. Still, X-Trail needs to satisfy both consumer types, so you can have the extra carrying capacity, for either people, or belongings, that is the choice. If there existed one key area of interest for me, it lay in the desire to have extra legroom, a quality with which the original X-Trails were not gifted. The new version provides it in abundance, up front and in the rear.

 

These days, to make an impression, even more unique qualities need to be inferred and, with a bit of judicious jiggery-pokery, the rear seats can be configured in several different ways, all of which appear notionally to add value to the X-Trail proposition. In Tekna trim, at one time the least popular but now the most ordered, the rest of the specification is typically high-end, a bit like the price tag (£34,946, with constantly-variable transmission and three years extended warranty that factors in an additional £2,118). It includes 19-inch alloy wheels, which only serve to make the ride quality quite harsh, a full-length, fixed glass sunroof and Nissan’s useful 360-degree, exterior camera system, which displays on the full-colour, multi-purpose TV screen in the dashboard centre-stack.

 

Unfortunately, even with a concentration on ‘kit’, the actual tactility and perceived quality of the X-Trail’s interior still leaves something to be desired. It is not that anything is missing and it is all very easy to keep clean but, rather, that it all works exceptionally well but still feels lacking in some areas. This is not a criticism that belongs to Nissan exclusively, as the latest BMW 2-Series demonstrated to me earlier in the year. The great, organic sweep of the dashboard even lacks the practical end-of-dash cupholders, for which the much-squarer, first generation car was roundly praised. In some respects, the new X-Trail is all too safe, a bit like the customary safety addenda (airbags et al) that swells its standard equipment tally.

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However, the driving position is excellent and the thicker screen-pillars soon diminish, as you become familiar with peering around them. With insufficient time to sample the car’s off-road agility initially, I second-guessed that it would not be as strong as the original version, mainly because of more stylish bumpers fore and aft that reduce approach and departure angles, although Nissan’s command of electronic technology is such that I could believe that an X-Trail (in 4WD trim) would not become stuck fast in sticky conditions and, even with just 2WD, it would possess some useful traits. The former thought would be substantiated.

 

It was actually around the time of the Pulsar launch exercise that I was able to tackle an off-road ground (at Rockingham, near Corby) and add the credibility that I hoped would lie within the new X-Trail‘s capabilities. Despite trying very hard to ‘lose’ the manual gearbox, 4×4 car, it ploughed through deep water that sluiced over the bonnet, while also tackling chassis-twisting slopes and 40-degree traverses that sent its chassis ‘electrickery’ into motor-whirring and clicking overdrive. Trust me, 99% of X-Trail users will simply never indulge in this form of potentially damaging escapism, although I was glad to confirm its competence. There are no lost marks for X-Trail in even the most adverse of  environments, which bodes well for providing an assured grip on weather wracked surfaces. Similar technology is employed by the 2WD versions, to reduce slippage and enhance all-weather grip.

 

The biggest gripe I have with the CVT lies in its inability to hold any ratio other than first, or second (useful for soft-roading). Occasionally, such as when towing, the ability to hang onto third, fourth, fifth or top is not available and, as soon as the engine determines that an ratio-shift is needed, it will be taken, without recourse to the driver. Of course, it is worth highlighting that this is not a traditional style of ‘gearbox’, as there are no gear ratios present, and the unit does boast quite acceptable levels of frugality, considering the manner in which the engine is allowed to rev (sometimes unnecessarily), when Drive is selected. Were the X-Trail my car of choice, it would be with a manual gearbox and probably 4WD, which also provides a more beneficial performance spread.

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The latest 1.6-litre dCi engine delivers a modest 130bhp, which is enough to power the X-Trail to a top speed (CVT) of 112mph, after despatching the 0-60mph benchmark in a zippy 11.1 seconds. It emits 135g/km of CO2, which equates to Band E for VED (£125). Sadly, I tried very hard to achieve its 55.4mpg Official Combined fuel figure, managing a best of around 45mpg, with an acceptable 41.2mpg average following a week’s worth of mixed driving. The similar Honda CR-V is markedly more economical.

 

Conclusions:  As likeable as the first two generations of X-Trail were, the third version cannot muster as much enthusiasm for me. Yet, it is undoubtedly very competent and on-road capable. The diesel engine is refined enough and its performance is adequate. I quite like the X-Trail’s soft-ish suspension, although I feel that the 18-inch wheel option would impart a better ride quality overall. It is a good car that will engender a typical Nissan following.

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).