Everyone is feeling the fuel-price pinch these days, but SUV sales are still going through the roof. It's partly the reason why so many manufacturers are offering diesels. And some, like Nissan, are offering two-wheel-drive versions of their SUVs.
But Nissan's reason for releasing an X-Trail which is front-wheel-drive only is more about grabbing market share than saving fuel. In fact, CEO of Nissan Australia, Dan Thompson, admitted why the Nissan X-Trail 2WD was brought to market.
“We are confident that our specification advantage, combined with a dynamite $27,990 driveaway launch price position will vault the Nissan X-Trail to the top of the shopping list for couples and families in the market for a practical and flexible vehicle of this type," said Mr Thompson.
“We are sending a strong message to the market that we are serious about improving our market share and sales position still further in 2011."
Forgive me, then, for approaching the X-Trail 2WD with a healthy dose of cynicism. After all, it's even lost the 2.5-litre engine, which was never a rip-snorter anyway, and replaced it with a smaller engine, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder. And the ST-L, which we tested here, has a lot of additional extras - which means it weighs more - plus it's only available with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). We're not off to a good start.
Despite no external differentiation between the 2WD and 4WD X-Trails, climb aboard and the All-Mode selector knob has been cheaply replaced by a raised cavity blank. It looks like a tiny recess for putting coins into, until you realise that a 50 cent piece will never come out because you can't get your fingers in there to get it out... and 50 cent pieces don't react to magnets - once it's in there, it's staying there.
It's starting to look like this car is a mistake. The whole point of an SUV is to be able to go off road, and a front-wheel-drive won't do that. With a huge back end able to be loaded, front-wheel-drive is also a disadvantage because the rear gets weighed down, which unloads the front wheels, meaning getting traction is extremely difficult. But it's not time to throw in the towel just yet.
The X-Trail is a wonderfully practical car - it always has been, no matter which model you buy - and I've always been impressed by it. The fact that you can load two prams side-by-side plus have two baby seats and a third person in the rear row, as well as having cooled drink holders, strorage for any sort of paperwork or books you'd like and still have room for extras, means the X-Trail is one of the best examples of packaging in the Compact SUV segment. And none of that has changed in its transition from 4WD to 2WD.
You'd also think that because the 2.0-litre engine is only producing 102kW that progress is going to be unhurried, and you'd be right. But it's not dangerously so; in fact it's more of a leisurely pace. Because it's so smooth, thanks to the CVT, it's a very relaxed drive - soothing, even. That applies for the rest of the drive experience.
The steering is ultra smooth, perhaps lacking in genuine feel, but it faithfully obeys inputs. The ride is also very nice, save big potholes which can thump a bit, and it treads a good balance between firmness and comfort.
The engine can be buzzy when overtaking or getting up to speed quickly on freeway on-ramps, however around town it goes about its business with a distinct lack of fuss, and without hurting your wallet, either.
On test we achieved 9.1 litres/100km with mostly city-based driving duties, which is not far off the 8.4L/100km ADR combined cycle Nissan lists officially. For those interested, the manual version (which only comes in ST trim) uses 0.1L/100km more than the CVT.
Just like its all-wheel-drive siblings, the X-Trail 2WD comes with a load of safety gear, like ABS, Brake assist, ESC including traction control, active brake limited slip (which forces torque to go to a wheel which is not spinning), six airbags including side curtain bags, active headrests and seatbelt pretensioners.
With a back end this big, though, the omission of parking sensors is a serious oversight.
Inside, that huge boot still allows for heaps of load area, and with the underfloor trays using dividers, there's plenty of stowage. It's advisable to remove the luggage cover; it does eat into the available space sitting as low and far back as it does. The dash also has a massive lidded space which can take wallets, keys and other items, and the doors will take bottles as well.
The funny thing is the X-Trail doesn't react badly when you load it right up. While you may think it'll claw at the road, struggling to take off, it just doesn't. Fully loaded, it does suffer a little with its lack of torque (198Nm isn't quite enough for its load-carrying capacity), but it never drives waywardly as a result.
The seat comfort is outstanding for both front and rear rows. The outboard rear seats are the best for older passengers, as the centre seat's headrest doesn't quite come up high enough for adults. Legroom for the rear is good and headroom for all is outstanding.
The main differences in the X-Trail 2WD between the ST and the ST-L are the additional luxuries. There are leather seats (instead of cloth) which are soft and not too slippery, and the front seats are heated. You also get six speakers instead of four, climate control instead of standard air-con, electric seats instead of manual adjustment, tinted rear windows, fog lights and a pocket on the back of the driver's seat. It adds up to a $4000 price adjustment in favour of the bank manager.
If you can live without any of those minor differences, then the base price (with CVT) of $30,990 is certainly worth looking at. It has miles more room than the Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi ASX, Kia Sportageand Subaru Forester, is far more comfortable than the Hyundai ix35, is a lot cheaper than a Mazda CX-7 2WD, is nicer inside than a Mitsubishi Outlander 2WD and has a bigger load area than the Toyota RAV4 2WD.
It's weird. Looking at it on paper, I thought it would be woeful. But it's not. Not at all.
In the world of front-wheel-drive SUVs, despite its name no longer describing what it can do, the X-Trail 2WD definitely holds its own.