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Dave Harding • Having worked in a previous life for a couple of OEMs that built their reputations on serious off-roading, I am well versed in what a capable off-road vehicle is, well, um, capable of. So, I was super surprised that the X-Trail delivered a lot more fun (and performance) than I expected and got us both home in one piece.
My day out off-road consisted of some beach driving, rutted bush tracks, and some pretty decent rock-crawling, descents and climbs. All tracks I’d taken some heavier artillery on over the years – so I had my benchmark. I love this place, so I’m not going to reveal its exact location, but eagle-eyed viewers will recognise this great 4WD playground.
We kicked off the day with a leisurely beach drive. And I’ll admit, I was a little apprehensive as my photographer Nathan didn’t bring his daily drive 4WD as back-up, but his wife’s Kia Rio! So if I got into trouble, I was going to be on my own to get myself out of it.
Dropping the tyre pressure down to 18psi and selecting the 4WD lock mode, I gritted my teeth and pushed through the soft sandy entrance onto the harder-packed shoreline sand.
Without any sweat from the engine or traction control, the X-Trail sure-footedly ploughed through the access track without any stress.
From there it was smooth sailing down the beach (but I was always mindful of keeping on the harder-packed sand). Having only 210mm of ground clearance, I wouldn’t have wanted the ruts to be any deeper exiting the beach, if I didn’t want a front grille full of sand. First test complete without any dramas.
From the beach, we headed to my favourite little off-road playground. It’s a fun spot that offers climbs, ruts, rocks and mud baths of varying difficulty, all within a square kilometre.
So, you can slowly work your way up to some pretty extreme fun, if you have the right vehicle under your bum.
In the X-Trail, it was a case of taking it very, very slowly, so that I didn’t find out its limitations in ground clearance, traction or articulation with a loud bang, snap or crunch … And also because (stupidly) we didn’t have any recovery gear on hand.
Crawling through the various tracks, the X-Trail’s articulation was given a workout, and bar some of the deeper, hairier ruts (that I was smart enough to avoid), the Nissan did surprisingly well for a stock standard, off-the-showroom-floor soft-roader.
The X-Trail’s road-going heritage was always evident, with the stiff chassis and tight suspension creating a few moments where one or two wheels were left hanging in the air.
It was never going to win a suspension-flex contest, but that’s not what the vehicle was designed for. And with a few extra inches of ground clearance, some of the more difficult tracks could have been given a crack. Overall, a very respectable performance.
Next was to see how far up we could get on some of the rocky climbs this great place offers. The X-Trail nailed the easier gradients with traction from the 225/55R19 highway-terrain tyres providing ample grip (although had it been wet or muddy, forget about it).
I was still running 18psi and was getting plenty of traction from all four wheels – using all of the 226Nm on offer – on all but the steepest tracks that I have completed in ‘proper’ 4WDs.
I could have probably given it a bit more right foot on the one climb that defeated me, but not being my car – and not wanting to be stuck in the middle of nowhere for the rest of the day – I called it quits.
On the way down, the hill-descent control worked well considering it is probably calibrated to much more subtle slopes and surfaces.
Again, just some small design elements, such as more generous approach and departure angles, would have allowed for a few extra moments of excitement. But, for a family SUV, the X-Trail again delivered plenty of fun for the money.
The only tests we didn’t attempt during our fun day out were a water crossing or any serious mud. With a published wading depth of 450mm, and the aforementioned highway-terrain tyres, attempting either of these potentially disastrous activities was never on my radar.
Maybe with some recovery gear and serious support vehicle as back-up, decent tyres and rock-solid insurance policy (do they actually exist?), I’d be game to have a go another time.
So, after a great day out, there are obvious limitations to the level of adrenaline the X-Trail can push through your veins in an off-road environment.
However, it does provide plenty of competent performance for those who want to go some places that other family SUVs can’t. Beaches, remote campsites, and secret fishing spots off the bitumen would be accessible.
In meeting the challenge of engineering a vehicle that delivers a composed on-road driving experience, while being able to tackle some light off-road duties, Nissan’s brains trust has managed to successfully meet the brief and produce an off-road hero – of sorts.