Nissan X-Trail 2011 st (fwd)

Nissan X-Trail & Pathfinder Off-road Review

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Nissan’s four-wheel drives have always been at the forefront of off-roading. Be it the Patrol, Navara or the Pathfinder, the Japanese company has a long and rich history of four-wheel driving success.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the first vehicle to cross the Simpson desert. Want to have a guess as to what that was? Yep, a Nissan Patrol.

The hard-core off-roaders are either always in Patrols or LandCruisers, with the occasional Defender thrown in, but what about the majority of us 'normal' humans that want to indulge in some off-roading but not the seriously heavy stuff?

Nissan Australia believes there is a market of buyers out there who would like to do recreational four-wheel driving, but not necessarily the serious stuff. Unlike the hard-core drivers, a healthy number of new recreational four-wheel drivers are also female. To cater for both men and women in this emerging market, Nissan has the all-wheel drive X-Trail.

Nissan’s number one position in the compact SUV segment (with X-Trail and Dualis) is not clearly evident at first glance. Although competition from the Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4 has seen X-Trail fight hard to maintain momentum (currently second to Forester with 9.9 per cent market share), it’s well regarded in the industry as one of the best proper all-wheel drives in its segment (Suzuki Grand Vitara being the other contender).

To showcase what the X-Trail is all about, Nissan Australia brought us to Mount Hotham, famous for its many four-wheel drive tracks and beautiful scenery. Nissan hosts a yearly 10-day Beyond Mount Hotham four-wheel drive adventure, which attracted more than 100 people this year. The event is organised by Four Wheel Drive Victoria, a 35-year-old club that boasts 14,500 members.

Our plan was to cover as many of Mount Hotham's spectacular tracks as possible in one day. For the majority of the time we found ourselves in X-Trails crossing rivers, dirt tracks and climbing mountains. For the more serious stuff we enlisted the help of Nissan Pathfinders and Patrols.

Although the current-generation Nissan X-Trail has been around since 2008 and is not exactly the most attractive car in its segment, it’s the compact SUV’s great practicality, off-roading credentials and excellent powertrain combinations that have seen it remain the second best selling vehicle in its class this year.

As we began our drive through the twisty mountain roads surrounding Hotham, there was a quick sense of realisation why the X-Trail has been so successful. For a start, the interior’s design may be simple and lacking gadgets, but run your fingers along the dash and doors and you’ll feel the high quality soft-touch plastics used throughout. The seats are comfortable and the cabin is a relatively nice place to be, given the type of vehicle.

A simple dial will see you switch between 2WD, Auto and Lock. For the most part you can simply leave it in Auto and the X-Trail’s computer system can work out which end to place the power - which is exactly what we did for the duration of our drive.

Despite the four-wheel drive briefing we endured prior to the course, the X-Trail is a pretty easy vehicle to handle off-road. If you understand the basics (where to place the wheels, how to handle climbs and descents), Nissan’s compact off-roader will have no issues crossing rivers, climbing hills and bringing you to locations that simply require a stop for admiration.

The on-board computer system can work out which wheel needs power to help you get out of tricky situations and after crossing a series of rivers and speeding along mountainous roads, we can confirm it works rather well. The Nissan’s numerous active safety systems also keep the X-Trail in line when driving on loose surfaces. On a few occasions when our X-Trail began to lose a bit of traction, the stability control quickly took over and corrected our mistakes. It works beautifully on dirt roads as it’s not too intrusive (letting you have a little bit of fun) but comes in when you really need it.

The Nissan X-Trail is available in a few flavours, including 2WD or 4WD with a choice of petrol or diesel (manual or automatic). For those contemplating a bit of recreational off-roading, the 2.0-litre turbo diesel is a good choice, particularly when coupled with Nissan’s excellent six-speed automatic. Apart from the Kia Sportage diesel (which is nowhere near as versatile off-road but provides a great diesel engine and gearbox combination), it’s hard to find a package that can match the X-Trail's off-road ability, diesel powerplant and six-speed automatic.

The 2.0-litre diesel is good for 127kW and 360Nm of torque (110kW and 320Nm for automatic) and , which will see it sip about 7.4L of diesel per 100km (7.2L/100km if you go for a manual). If you do want to do a bit of off-roading, don’t be fooled into thinking manual transmissions are the way to go - even if it does offer a little bit more oomph. The old-school mentality of 'real four-wheel drives are manual' is no longer true. An automatic transmission will make even the hardest four-wheel drive task significantly easier, regardless of how good you are. In the case of the X-Trail, the six-speed automatic coupled with a diesel is a godsend in this category.

It’s hard to fathom the sort of tracks an X-Trail couldn’t cross, but they exist. For that purpose we were put in Pathfinders and Patrols. We climbed and descended a series of heavy-duty tracks that required patience and a thorough understanding of where to place the car.

The Patrol and Pathfinder have a sort of 'go-anywhere' attitude to them and although having a great deal of four-wheel driving skill is handy, some drivers on our journey were first-time off-roaders and had no issue crossing some of the toughest courses on offer, thanks largely to mentoring on offer from our four-wheel drive experts and of course, the vehicles themselves.

The Nissan Pathinder Ti550 is an interesting SUV. As with all Pathfinders it’s based on the Navara, which means it’s essentially a truck that has been turned into an SUV. As a result, it’s a little rougher around the edges than the X-Trail but does provide excellent off-roading ability.

The 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 is an absolute cracker of an engine, providing 170kW and an enormous 550Nm of torque. Best of all, it’s mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission (yes, seven) which ensures a smooth drive. How many other Japanese SUVs out there produce that much power and torque and employ a seven-speed auto? None.

Weighing 2170kg means it’s not as quick as the figures may have you think, but it does pull hard from low revs. We found the Pathfinder and Patrol capable of eating up pretty much anything we threw at it on the day.

The current Nissan Patrol has been around since 1997, which is a remarkable feat in today's industry. Next year will see the introduction of the all-new Nissan Patrol but Nissan Australia will continue to sell the current model at the same time since the incoming Patrol will only be available with a whopping 5.6-litre petrol V8 and is unlikely to be available with a diesel any time soon.

The Nissan four-wheel drive day was a good eye opener as to how four-wheel driving doesn’t have to be about a bunch of over-enthusiastic guys trying to out-do each other. If you have a capable vehicle, recreational off-roading can be a rather fun activity for the whole family.

Nissan’s X-Trail was still the highlight of the day, despite not being as capable as the Pathfinder or Patrol (mainly due to its ground clearance), the practicality, interior refinement and overall usefulness of the vehicle makes it the perfect daily SUV to take the kids to school in and a weekend warrior capable of conquering some tough terrain.

If you live in Melbourne, Mount Hotham is about 350km away while Sydney folks will have to make an adventure of it, with a good 750km drive to get there. There are many tracks on offer but some notable ones include

  • Davies Plain Drive
  • Wonnangatta Drive
  • Otways Drive
  • Snowy River Drive
  • Mallee Drive
  • Grampians Drive

Four Wheel Drive Victoria offers a whole variety of activities for first-timers and professionals alike, with a new emphasis on female-friendly courses (and before you think it’s a dumbed down version of the ‘real’ course, it’s exactly the same tracks as the standard 'men's' course). If you happen to own a Nissan X-Trail (or something similar) or are planning on buying one, don’t write it off as just a city commuter before you give this a go. We couldn’t think of a better way to explore its potential than by driving through historic sites in beautiful country Victoria.

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