Nissan\'s ever-popular softroader is strong off road but its refinement - especially in diesel form - is also off course.
The current, second-generation Nissan X-Trail enters its sixth year of production in 2013, yet remains one of Australia’s most popular SUVs.
At the time of writing this review, in fact, the Japanese soft-roader is battling with the Toyota Prado and Mazda CX-5 to be the best-selling SUV locally for 2012.
With an all-new Nissan X-Trail on the cards and previewed by the Hi-Cross concept at the 2012 Geneva motor show, it’s time to revisit a model that faces a number of newer rivals since we last reviewed it.
Most of the X-Trail’s competitors tend to feature styling that’s more jacked-up-oversized-hatchback than the traditional boxy, rugged 4WD look the Nissan came to market with in 2001 and retained for its replacement in 2007.
Nissan covers the big-hatch-with-SUV-cues market with the Dualis that’s twinned with the X-Trail, though the curvier Hi-Cross suggests a new design direction for the third-generation X-Trail.
The rugged styling isn’t out of keeping, though, because the X-Trail is one of the most robust-feeling vehicles in its medium-SUV segment when it comes to off-roading.
That’s especially true in the TL diesel AWD variant we tested.
Nissan was late bringing an oil-burning X-Trail to Australia, with the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel – from alliance partner Renault – arriving in 2008.
There’s a chunky 360Nm of torque (from 2000rpm) if you go with the standard manual gearbox, losing 40Nm if you opt for the six-speed auto that was fitted to our X-Trail tester.
The strong diesel adds to the X-Trail’s sense of solidity and strength on dirt and gravel roads, with the Nissan feeling more like a proper 4WD than most soft-roaders.
Off-road aids include downhill speed assist, decent approach and departure angles, and a 209mm ground clearance, and the X-Trail’s All Mode 4x4-i system combines sensors and vehicle-angle monitoring to automatically determine whether the propshaft needs to be engaged and send up to 50 per cent to the rear axle.
The 4x4-i dial on the centre console, and below the centre stack, can be rotated to a LOCK position to fix the torque split at 50:50 up to 40km/h, and can be turned in the opposite direction for 2WD for fuel-saving front-wheel drive.
Head back onto bitumen and the Nissan X-Trail’s ride quality doesn’t disintegrate into a jiggly mess like your common off-road-focused 4WD (including its stablemate Pathfinder), but it’s not smooth, either.
The suspension will thump over sharper bumps and joins, as well as generally feeling a little nervous when travelling over lower-quality patches of road.
The X-Trail’s body can move about a lot, leaning noticeably through corners if the driver is pushing on and pitching noticeably under braking. The steering is agreeable, however. Although there’s a lethargic response to initial steering inputs, the leather-wrapped tiller is well weighted and travels from lock to lock smoothly.
The diesel engine feels more at home in the bush, because its refinement falls short for an urban SUV.
The 2.0-litre chugs away at idle before a rattling soundtrack accompanies acceleration. Initial acceleration is also sluggish in the auto version before that strong mid-range starts to make its mark.
It’s simply no match for the quiet, frugal and punchy 2.2-litre turbo diesel found in the rival Mazda CX-5 – which uses 5.7L/100km to the X-Trail's 7.2L/100km – or the Kia Sportage’s 2.0-litre rival unit.
Neither is the X-Trail’s interior design, which is somewhat plain and unimaginative and with a dash dominated by a chunky but fairly spartan centre stack.
In the TL AWD it at least integrates standard touchscreen satellite navigation, albeit with basic graphics. It’s easy to use, though we’re not sure about the matron-like voice that dishes out directions in a patronising tone.
If you’re after a practical SUV, though, the Nissan X-Trail excels.
Although the front door pockets are narrow they include a moulded section for bottles. Then there are the lidded cupholders at either end of the dashboard, another lidded compartment in the top of the dash, a console bin and an enormous glovebox.
The double cargo floor in the rear is also clever thinking. The lower section includes a pull-out drawer that’s perfect for storing wet swim gear and the like.
Remove the lift-up upper floor and the boot’s capacity increases from 410 to 603 litres. The maximum cargo space enlarges to 1649 litres if you remove the rear headrests, tip the rear bench cushions forward after pulling release straps and fold the split (reclinable) seatbacks completely flat.
The cargo floor also features a grippy surface and is easy to clean, while the boot features pull-out hooks, 12V socket and a cargo blind.
The packaging of the Nissan X-Trail isn’t perfect for a vehicle that stretches beyond 4.6 metres in length.
Rear seat legroom isn’t as generous as some rivals, and the panoramic sunroof standard in the TL AWD limits headroom.
As the more expensive model of the two trims available for diesel X-Trails, the $42,990 TL is loaded with gear.
In addition to the aforementioned sat-nav, sunroof and off-road aids, other equipment includes leather seating, electrically adjustable heated front seats, DVD player, full Bluetooth hook-up, cruise control, front/side/curtain airbags, climate control, keyless entry and start, auto headlights, and a reverse-view camera.
Externally, there are 18-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlights, LED tail-lights and rain-sensing wipers.
You can get into a Nissan X-Trail from just $28,490 (before on-road costs are added) if you’re happy to forgo AWD and a number of features, and trade the turbo diesel for a 102kW/196Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol.
Sitting in the middle of the engine options is a 125kW/226Nm 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol. Both petrols come as standard with a six-speed manual but buyers can pay extra for a CVT auto.
Nearly six years on, then, the Nissan X-Trail remains one of the most practical offerings in the medium-SUV segment.
It’s showing its age, however, in terms of cabin design and diesel engine refinement, while a number of rivals also deliver better on-road manners.