IAIN ROBERTSON 

IMG_0745-1

Fashion can be such a passion-killer, states Iain Robertson, as he reflects on the 2007 Greek launch of a Mark Two Nissan staple and a few ‘secrets’ that made the car so appealing at the time, which the current Mark Three version cannot replicate.

At the turn of the Millennium, Nissan was a car company that was starting to look like a dedicated 4×4 specialist. Its UK model range contained the stalwart Patrol and a well-regarded pickup truck but, with the strange little Juke and the more ordinary Qashqai yet to make their debuts, the original X-Trail of 2001 would be Nissan’s equivalent of the Land Rover Freelander and all the better for it.

Possessing a reputation for indefatigability, thanks to solid core engineering, it hit British roads running, with its ease of driving, a reapplication of the excellent Primera platform and (on 4WD models) the same rear, limited-slip differential as the all-conquering GTR sports coupe. Multilink suspension was already familiar ground for Nissan, a factor that raised the midfielder Primera from rudimentary business transport to superior, in-demand, great handler; it would aid X-Trail’s advancement, while conquering the important UK fleet sector for Nissan.IMG_0737-1

However, the SUV scene of the mid-noughties was in transition. It was growing rapidly but along the way it was losing much of its heft. Nissan had viable rivals from Toyota and Mitsubishi but both Mazda and Honda were already tasting the successes of offering 2WD platforms in less capable off-road packages. Yet, while the market loved the precepts of cars that looked like they might tackle the boondocks…but actually could not…users could don their Barbour wellies and jackets, join the ‘country set’ and bolster the repute of the ‘Chelsea Tractor’, even though residing in the great outdoors would be something of an alien concept.

Nissan would adapt with the Mark Three and current version of the X-Trail by 2013 but not until the rehashed Mark Two variant had made its debut in 2007, retaining solid market share for the following six years. Nissan flew a planeload of scribes to a warm but far-from-sunny mainland Greece to sample the newcomer, which had been revised significantly over the original, to a level at which it could be deemed ‘all-new’ and not the more customary ‘grab-handles and coat hooks replacement programme’.

While the end-of-dashboard cupholders remained, placed usefully within the full-chill airflow of the climate control system and largely ignorant of the fact that the driver would be breaking the law, were he to enjoy the contents of a Coke can on-the-move, the instrument binnacle of the first generation X-Trail was removed from the dash-centre to a more sensible location ahead of the driver. Rather than a pair of matched storage bins on either side, a single, rubber-lined receptacle filled the top-centre space. It was all eminently practical but still stylish and informative.IMG_0739

Quite square-rigged but Tonka Toy-like, occupant access was excellent to a roomy and accommodating cabin that also offered copious storage slots. However, the biggest change was in the boot, accessed through a conventional hatchback rear door. A false floor produced from modular plastic mouldings, which could be snapped apart readily, should the massive load capacity be required, but reassembled with equal ease, introduced the practicality of a flip-over panel. Rather than placing grubby outdoor footwear and damp clothing on lovely carpet, the opposite side was a large and washable plastic tray.

Below the floor, a pull-out drawer could be used to stash dry gear, or the usual in-boot paraphernalia, with useful dividers to stop items from rolling around. There was still bags of space above the modular storage units for holiday luggage, or shopping trips and the split-folding back seats provided hatchback, extended boot versatility, when required. Of course, if you invest in a very expensive Range Rover Autobiography, you can also order a walnut-trimmed equivalent that is sure to add £10k to the price tag but, to the best of my knowledge, no other carmaker has ever provided such practical packaging in its standard boot compartment (bear in mind that a fully-loaded X-Trail did not breach £25,000 at the time…even a new 1.4-litre Suzuki Vitara is now £2,000 more expensive!).

Naturally, I am grateful to Lincolnshire 4×4 specialist, Keith Arnold Cars, for reminding me about the excellent X-Trail and allowing me to take photographs of the well-priced and immaculate nine-years old example on his forecourt. Fortunately, he allowed me to drive it too. While in Greece, on the launch driving exercise, I was immediately impressed by the car’s ability to tackle typical, rock-strewn mountain tracks, while dodging wild tortoises. Traction was superb, even on slippery mud and sand.IMG_0742-1

On-road, the X-Trail was a fluent mile-eater, its long-travel suspension, so ideal for off-road progress, was damped to provide good body-roll control but not to the teeth-jarring effect of many of today’s totally road-biased and usually only 2WD members of the SUV club. Yet, grip levels were also excellent on normal, not compromise, or multi-surface, road tyres. Greek roads have among the worst imperfections of any in Europe and the X-Trail dealt simply with their give-and-take nature, betraying no improper side effects. It was top marks to Nissan for its choice of launch venue.

This nine-year-old example demonstrates the value of sound Japanese engineering, betraying almost zero signs of wear in its running gear (over 60,000 miles) and its 2.0-litre 175bhp turbo-diesel delivering the ideal blend of strong performance and excellent 48mpg frugality, when driven judiciously. It remains a purposeful and timeless design, with excellent outwards vision from the cabin, making it easy to manoeuvre and park (not a quality inherent to the latest Evoque, with its letter-box rear window and corners invisible to the driver).

It is only when experiencing such a good example of a worthy multi-purpose, multi-surface car of less than a decade’s age that you realise that those manufacturers pursuing the quick-buck potential of selling fashionable SUVs have totally ignored an important workmanlike attribute. Nissan’s X-Trail of one mark removed was an underrated superstar.

Conclusion:     If you want a good tow car that is capable of satisfying your present ‘staycation’ requirements, seeking out an up-to-10-years old Nissan X-Trail would be a wise decision, at the right price.IMG_0743-1