Everyone enjoys getting out of the urban jungles and hitting the road. North, south, west, it really doesn't matter as long as you're comfortable.
Sadly, we cannot all afford the most expensive and luxurious car for the task, so, compromise is necessary. It's a battle of the ages: Budget versus purpose is generally the main consideration, and that's probably a good thing for the Nissan X-Trail.
The X-Trail still has a solid following, given how many I noticed on the road north. Still, while Nissan has some impressive vehicles in the family, to me, the Nissan X-Trail has never sat at the pointy end.
Over the years, it's had some interesting design elements, including, for a time, a centrally located speedometer. I'm glad they moved on from that (even if it did make some sense).
It also started life as a boxy compact crossover with five seats and ample storage in the back for families with up to two children. In fact, you still see many of them on the road today. The model stayed that way for close to thirteen years until the current shape was introduced in 2014, adding extra length and allowing Nissan to offer a seven-seat version - albeit, in only the front-wheel-drive petrol-powered ST and ST-L variants.
The model we tested was indeed that front-driven ST-L, which retails for $38,090 plus on-road costs. Competition mainly comes from the Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Tucson, Toyota RAV4 and Mitsubishi Outlander. All but the Outlander are five-seaters, though - and for most buyers in this segment, that's probably enough.
After looking at the space in the rear of the Nissan X-Trail, the extra row would be used sparingly - and certainly not for long drives or people over the age of, say, eight. What there is, though, is plenty of luggage space, with the rear seats folded flat into the recesses in the floor and with the second row lowered too.
It makes for a cavernous area, or, in my case, enough room for two 5'8 surfboards in board bags and three unbagged boards up to 5'11 in length, plus wetsuits and other surfing paraphernalia. (What can I say, I like to be prepared.)
For this trip, I was heading off to Catherine Hill Bay, just a couple of hours north of Sydney, for a surf trip. There are dozens of locations for a coastal getaway only hours from major centres, and this has to be one of my favourites. Catherine Hill Bay is a quiet town, with the nearest large centre being Swansea, a mere 15 minutes away. Most of the surrounding area is bushland, and nearby there is also the popular fishing spot of Frazer Beach, located in the Munmorah State Conservation area. A NSW Parks camping ground here is perfect to extend your getaway a day or two.
I collected the car from Alexandria, which gave me a good indication of the suburban handling of the X-Trail as I headed through the city and up the Pacific Highway. Once I had stowed my gear, I jumped behind the steering wheel and had a quick familiarisation with the car and set my seat position. Simple enough.
It comes with a solid entertainment package, but I felt the sound was not the best I've experienced. A 7.0-inch media screen runs sat-nav and a rear-view camera, which also has surround-view on the left of the screen. It's not the most precise display, and therefore I didn't use it at all. It was a little hard for my brain to actually decipher what I was looking, at such is the warped nature of the view.
The stereo has Bluetooth, CD, Mp3 compatibility and radio, plus USB/iPhone connectivity. Also onboard is dual climate controls and heated front seats - not that I needed those in a Sydney Summer. On a Winter's day after a surf, though, I could see myself using these obsessively.
The seating is comfortable, with an armrest located on the driver's door and atop the centre console, creating a comfortable driving position for suburban and freeway driving. That's where the enjoyment ends, though, as through the city the car is a little off. The suspension seems harsh and every little bump is felt in the driver's seat.
The steering, too, felt spongey and with too much play. It still goes where you point it, but it's not as precise as it could be. On the freeway, though, I found the car to be more enjoyable. It's hardly quick, but, once you get up to speed, the suspension feels like it's from a different car and seems much more capable on the long stretches of flat open road.
It may be a minor thing, but I like driving with the window down, and the aerodynamics are actually good enough that you can sit on 110km/h with the driver's window open, and not be buffeted constantly by the wind.
Power comes from a naturally aspirated, 126kW/226Nm 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, matched to a CVT automatic transmission. Responsiveness from the throttle isn't great, and there were many times in the city that I felt the engine sounded like it was giving much more than I was getting.
If you're no speed demon, I'm sure you'll get by, but when you're looking to overtake on a single-lane country road, you want to choose your moment wisely. As it was, on the freeway, the performance was acceptable for being able to overtake reasonably efficiently when the engine was already up to speed and the road was reasonably clear.
Back to the location: Catherine Hill Bay is a beautiful location for a weekend trip or a quick getaway, and this car is more than capable of carrying all the essentials if you're the outdoors type. This small town is located just south of the entrance to Lake Macquarie. It started life as a coal mining town, with many of the miners cottages still standing and lived in today by the small number of residents.
There is a large surf club overlooking the beach, with the striking coal-loading wharf to its south. As you head into the town, a bowling club also provides commanding views of the Pacific Ocean. Further into town, on the hill, is the local Catho Pub, a great destination for lunch or a quiet ale after a surf.
Prices are reasonable, by big city standards, and the chicken wrap fills a hole. Beyond the pub is a big subdivision which was recently approved. It's not from the town centre, by the hill, and while there are no homes built yet, I fear there will come a time where this quaint town will lose its heritage feeling and charm.
If you're looking for a wave, there is an entrance to a dirt road alongside the cemetery leading to a carpark overlooking the beach, atop the dune at the north end of the beach. This is where most of the local boardriders go, and it's protected from a southerly wind and slightly protected from a northerly. This end of the beach is not patrolled, though, so be mindful of that. Further south, near the surf club, is another car park, this one tarred. This stretch of beach is patrolled, thankfully.
While the X Trail isn't the most surf-inspired vehicle, it certainly packs a punch in the storage/luggage department. It's not a dynamic drive, but one that is at least comfortable.