Nissan X-Trail: Hitting the right spots

A good dose of technology and a fresh platform and looks makes for a reborn Nissan X-Trail.


Pros: Strong equipment level, roomy interior, chassis competence.

Cons: Engine losing its edge, low-speed ride quality, CVT still irks.

Score: 3.9/5

THE sports/compact utility sector is the place where currently one in three Kiwi new car buyers want to be and the medium category is a particular hot spot, with 38 percent growth last year alone. One in nine new car sales draw from this part of this playground so, while quite intensively populated, it’s the place to be.

Into this fray comes the Nissan X-Trail. Emboldened styling, the option of a seven-seater as well as a five-pew format, smart technology and a fresh platform – Nissan has delivered a strong hand, though it’s not quite ace-complete: The seven-seat format applies only to front-drive, and pegged to just the entry specification. Diesel is a good thing here, but the Renault-supplied oiler in the 4wd, CVT format our market desires is a year away.

So, X-Trail begins in petrol, from a two-wheel-drive seven seater at $39,990 up to the $53,290 2.5-litre 4wd Ti on test; all with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder in marriage to a constantly variable transmission. Good enough?

Design and engineering:

A stylish body that cloaks a more conventional but bigger and more flexible cabin is just part of the big leap forward taken by this model.

Equally important is what’s underpinning to the friendlier, fresh look. This model debuts modular underpinnings set to spread across a diverse count of Nissans and Renaults.

The so-called ‘Common Module Platform’ allows the monocoque-bodied model to be just 5mm longer than before at 4640mm, yet 30mm wider at 1820mm, 10mm taller at 1710mm and, most importantly, 75mm longer in the wheelbase (2705mm). It’s an increase that adds to significantly increased space.

I’ve no issue with two generations of cubism and associated hard angles having made way for a sleek look. A sharply raked windscreen, roof that tapers off gently and high wheel arches bulging from the flanks make a powerful statement. Unfortunately, it also makes for potential confusion with certain others in the market. But, overall, a handsome looker.

Rating: 3.9/5

Powertrain and performance:

The 2.5-litre is a carry over from the old model. It is still solid engine, but starting to falter on refinement, being a bit noisy at high revs, and perhaps not the briskest. Outputs of 126kW at 6000rpm and 226Nm at 4400rpm are class competitive but the torque band is quite narrow.

Does it feel quite as zesty as it previously did? That question never quite went away during the test. Nissan is one of the few makes that still tunes for 91 octane petrol, which is a handy consideration for cost-saving, yet while this does tend to cost a little in edge, the old car was like-configured and still felt feisty.

Perhaps also influencing is that the car has gained a bit of weight and also switched from an orthodox automatic to a constantly variable transmission.

The CVT delivers a plus in theory – CVTs are lighter and, with fewer moving components, should be less energy-sapping – yet less so in actual use. The response is sometimes quite measured and not always immediate. And, yes, that’s in its most active mode, not the ‘eco’ setting that obviously does cut engine outputs for best litre-eking, though cited optimum economy of 8.4 litres per 100km hardly supports argument about CVT abetting thrift.

Rating: 3.6/5

Driver appeal:

One perceived appeal of this kind of vehicle is the ‘go-anywhere’ aptitude. One reality of ownership is that there’s always a gap separating imagined and actual ability. Where does the X-Trail sit?

Our test car visited a farm – restricting to well-formed, but muddy tracks – and a relatively rough riverside trail. There was wheelspin and it did get dirty, but no drama though some circumspection. There’s no low-ratio, of course, and it has 5mm less generous ground clearance than the previous car, which was hardly lofty, plus the less bluff body creates shallower departure and approach angles. But to get you to a picnic spot, skifield, the beach and so on? I’d put my faith in it.

Fair due to Nissan; they are progressively making the Xtronic unit better. The seven pre-set ‘gear’ speeds are relatively clearly defined. Another likeable trait is a feature that sets out to mimic a regular torque converter auto in providing engine braking in cornering or decelerating.  Yet restrictions still show in a ‘lite’ 1500kg towing rating, slow step-off and occasional flaring between ‘changes’.

Rating: 3.6/5

Ride refinement and quality:

An electric power rack-and-pinion steering system is introduced, featuring software that interacts with the really smart stuff that’s also new. Notably, there’s an Active Ride Control system that monitors the road ahead for undulations to counteract body roll and pitch and an Active Trace Control that applies the brakes individually to improve stability through bends and in slippery conditions. Both lifted from technology proven on the GT-R sports coupe, this tech might sound a bit far-fetched, but it does seem to provide tangle benefit. There is some body roll, but it’s well controlled and never has you lurching about, and overall the car has a pleasing assertiveness.

Driving on gravel is especially revealing; switching off the stability control affects the engine and actual braking though that electronic 4x4i system obviously maintains commanding presence. It’s easier, too, to induce the wheel-braking effect that pulls the nose back into line. The competence of the ride also shines through over imperfect surfaces.

Rating: 3.6/5

Practicality and packaging:

The seven-seater configuration is actually a bit of a squeeze but, as five-seater no-one is going to complain. The back bench is really good for lower leg room and shoulder space.

The back seats recline and slide in user-friendly fashion, all seatbacks fold flat save the driver’s, the rear doors open up at a wide 80-degree arc for easier loading of a child seat (yes, ISOFIX hooks are also fitted) and this maker can be justifiably proud of the multi-level compartmentalised cargo area (though the ‘divide-n-hide’ label is just too twee). The top X-Trail also takes an electrically remote-operated tailgate with ‘garage’ mode for adjustable height control in confined spaces. Clever? Yes. Slow? Well, that also – and every closure is signaled by electronic warbles. Still, you can over-ride it and just pull the door closed by hand.

The new fascia and a shift away from hard plastics to higher-quality finishes is hugely welcome, though taking this car at the same time as a Renault Clio shows how different the design thinking is between these partners. I still like Renault’s approach better – they’re so good at small touches and their keycard idea is fantastic – but that’s not to say Nissan hasn’t upped their game. The sat-nav rendering, for instance, is very good and the controls are generally so intuitive you’re unlikely to be baffled by an overwhelming count of buttons and switches. It’s just that the perceived quality of the materials could be better.

Standard equipment is generous for the class; X-Trails have alloys, a rear-view camera, keyless start, Bluetooth phone/audio, and cruise control. The ST-L adds foglights, roof rails, a seven-inch screen with satellite-navigation, an around-view monitor (to assist with parking), an electric driver’s seat, heated front seats and dual-zone climate control while the Ti completes by adding a power tailgate, auto-levelling headlights, rain-sensing wipers, a sunroof, lane departure warning and blind-spot monitoring.

Rating: 3.8/5

How it compares:

X-Trail very much reasserts Nissan’s tradition of offering plenty for a reasonable outlay. There’s no apex-clipping dynamic delight to be found here, but the technology assists are hardly gimmicks and while the drivetrain isn’t more than average, it is overall impressive enough to show up older alternates.