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Design Review: Nissan Trail Runner Concept (1997)

A jacked-up sports car prototype with off-road credentials and four-wheel drive.

What do you get when you combine a sports car and a crossover? You probably guess that the answer lies somewhere in the likes of the BMW X6, the Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe or the more recent Porsche Cayenne Coupe.

But, have you thought about doing it the other way round? Instead of having an off-road vehicle with a coupe-style roofline and sporty design touches, you could take a two-door sports car and give it extra ground clearance, huge wheels and 4WD.

That is exactly what Nissan did back in 1997, well before the start of the current SUV craze.

The Nissan Trail Runner Concept premiered at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show, looking like a sports car, but with huge wheels and generous ground clearance.

Under the bonnet, was a turbocharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder Neo VVL engine producing 138kW of power and 196Nm of torque.

The Hyper CVT-M6 automatic gearbox with simulated gears transmitted power to all four wheels with the help of the Attesa 4WD system borrowed from the Nissan Skyline GT-R.

Nissan didn’t release any performance data for the concept but on a gravel road, fun matters more than the actual numbers. So now we know the basics, let’s move on to the styling.

At the front, the traditional Nissan grille sat between four circular headlights supplemented by rectangular turn signals. The pronounced wheel arches protruded from the flat bonnet in order to make room for the 18-inch wheels with 205/55 R18 tyres.

The front bumper was short and featured an aluminium skirt for underbody protection.

If we take the massive three-spoke wheels and the unnatural ground clearance out of the equation, the profile of the Trail Runner was similar to a front-engined two-door sports car with a coupe-style roofline and a flashy aftermarket body kit.

Thanks to the add-on aero parts and the protective elements, the concept looked like it came straight out of Dakar Rally.

The most striking element was the huge rear wing sitting high above the flat rear windscreen, combined with a roof spoiler. The top surface of both aero components sat on the same level, allowing them to serve as a roof rack.

Special clips on the rear wing, made it possible to securely carry a pair of snowboards - ideal for adventurous trips to snowy mountains.

Another very unusual design detail is the rear bumper housing a full-size spare tire inside a drawer, in order to better integrate it with the rest of the bodywork.

Two large chromed circular tailpipes on each side of the spare wheel reminded this car was designed for performance (diffusers were still an unknown feature to most people back then). Above them, the rectangular tail-lights were integrated in a flat face housing the licence plate.

The two-seater cabin featured heavily bolstered seats, and a very practical boot under the rear hatch. The colour combination of the upholstery was polarising, with bright yellow and two different shades of grey, along with touches of aluminium-style material.

The complex human-machine interface included a multi-control grip next to the driver housing an array of buttons and two rotary switches. The touchscreen on the centre console was combined with a pop-up screen at the top of the dashboard for navigation and a separate digital instrument cluster.

So, what happened next?

Before we move on we have to clarify that the Nissan Trail was not the first car to merge performance and off-road driving capabilities.

That would be the ultra-limited production Aixam Mega Track all-terrain supercar unveiled in 1992, which obviously was among the influences of Nissan’s design team.

Back to the concept car, Nissan decided not to proceed with the Trail Runner’s development, as it wasn’t easy to justify a business case for an unconventional vehicle of this type that would create a completely new segment.

A few years later, at the 2000 Paris Motor Show, Nissan unveiled its first SUV - the first-generation X-Trail - which looked nothing like the Trail Runner. The same applies to the more sporty but still bulky Murano (2002), Qashqai/Dualis (2006) and Juke (2010).

Other concept cars that combined a sports car body with on- and off-road abilities would be the Korres Engineering P4 (2010) - a mid-engined all-terrain supercar with amazing suspension technology, the ItalDesign Giugiaro Parcour concept (2013) based on the modified underpinnings of a Lamborghini Gallardo, and the more recent GFG Style Kangaroo (2019) with electric drive and active suspension.

Last but not least, the rally-inspired Lamborghini Huracan Sterrato (2019) might hint at a future production model from the Sant’Agata factory. Although some of the aforementioned projects came pretty close to production, none have yet materialised.

Verdict

Some could say the Nissan Trail Runner was ahead of its time, while others will criticise it as a solution to a non-existent problem. We cannot guess what would have happened if Nissan had decided to produce this vehicle, but maybe it was best for it to remain a concept.

Nissan made a clear point showcasing its expertise in both off-road vehicles and sports cars, without the great risk of losing tons of money by developing and offering a product no one had asked for.

At the end of the day, the Trail Runner would neither be as practical and comfortable as an SUV, nor as sporty to drive as a regular sports car.

This is a compromise only a handful of people in the world would be willing to make - surely not enough to justify a mass-produced vehicle.

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