AS there in recent times been as large a shift in character from one vehicle generation to the next than between the new X-Trail and its predecessor? We doubt it. Gone are the previous version’s rugged design and utilitarian charm; in their place are thoroughly modern design cues and the implementation of Nissan’s newest design language.
It’s a risk for the Japanese carmaker – the first (launched in 2001) and second generations (2007) of the X-Trail were a hit with buyers (1,7 million were sold) and motoring scribes alike.
The third iteration turns the concept on its head because it has to appeal to a predicted 500 000 buyers a year across 190 countries. It sports a curvy front-end adorned with a large, chrome-trimmed grille boasting an X-motif, sculpted sides and clear-glass taillamps.
If it appears larger, that’s because it is. Nissan has lengthened the body by 5 mm, widened it by 30 mm and stretched the wheelbase a whole 75 mm. Promising off-road ability (on AWD models, at least) to equal that of its forerunner, ground clearance has been boosted by 6 mm.
More significant changes await buyers when they climb through the large, wider-opening doors. Taking its design and materials directly from the new Qashqai, the cabin is now of the standard of the best vehicles in the compact-SUV segment. Soft-touch plastic is used extensively, buttons are large and clearly marked, and a touchscreen infotainment system is standard fitment. The seats are comfy (the second row can slide and recline), sightlines are decent (the wide A-pillars do create some blind spots) and space all-round abounds (except if you select the flagship LE model and its panoramic sunroof, which significantly robs rear headroom; versions without the glass panels have more clearance).
For the first time, buyers can specify a third row of seats. They’re tiny (as they would be in a vehicle measuring far shorter than five metres), but small children would find them comfortable enough on longer journeys. They impinge on overall cargo capacity when folded away (a claimed 95 dm3 is lost), but the floor remains practically flat.
There are some spec anomalies on this entry-level XE model. Despite costing near-R330 000, it has to make do with a cheap-feeling polyurethane steering wheel instead of a leather-covered one, and its roof rails are optional. XE grade does include multifunction controls on that wheel, height-adjustable driver’s seat, air-con, audio with USB compatibility and Bluetooth, cruise control, LED daytime-running lights and 17-inch alloy wheels.
Next up is SE (1,6 dCi and 2,5), which adds All-Mode all-wheel drive, auto lights and wipers, leather trim on the steering wheel and gearlever, climate control, hill-descent control and roof rails.
The flagship 1,6 dCi LE 4WD includes 18-inch wheels and the questionable addition of that panoramic sunroof, as well as a powered tailgate, LED headlamps, keyless starting and driving, leather upholstery and electric front seats. Two option packs that add either visual enhancements (Design Pack) or sat-nav and further safety equipment (Techno Pack) can be selected. All models have six airbags, ABD with EBD and BAS, VDC and hill-start assist as standard. What’s more, the X-Trail boasts a class-leading six-year/150 000 km warranty in conjunction with the five-year/90 000 km service plan.
As alluded to earlier, three engines will initially be offered. This naturally aspirated 2,0-litre petrol – a modified version of the powertrain that featured in the previous X-Trail – kicks off the range. It’s supplemented with the Renault-sourced 1,6-litre turbodiesel (installed in the Qashqai we tested in the October 2014 issue) and a 2,5-litre, four-cylinder unit mated with a continuously variable transmission. The latter two powertrains can be specified with an all-wheel drivetrain, while the 2,0-litre drives only the front wheels through a slick-shifting six-speed manual gearbox.
Curiously, Nissan has chosen to equip the Qashqai with only forced-induction motors (we recently evaluated a 1,2-litre turbopetrol and came away impressed) while the bigger vehicle retains the lower-tech petrol engines. Representatives of the company did hint that this strategy may undergo revision halfway through the X-Trail’s lifecycle.
The 2,0-litre is par for the course in this segment. Not overly endowed with torque, it struggles when fully loaded (especially at the Reef), but is otherwise decently strong, refined and smooth. But ultimately Ford and Volkswagen (with the Tiguan) have shown the way forward with their small-capacity turbocharged powertrains that offer more performance combined with
a drop in fuel consumption.
Underneath the skin is the new Renault-Nissan Common Module Family platform that also underpins the Qashqai. The suspension system features Active Ride Control, an adaptive-damping system that assesses road conditions and firms or slackens the dampers, while Active Trace Control can brake individual wheels to reduce understeer and tighten the driving line. CVT versions also boast Active Engine Brake, a system that can influence engine braking.
The result of these technologies is that the X-Trail drives very differently to the vehicle it replaces. The absorbent ride is still there (firmer than before, granted, but not by much), but body roll is now far better harnessed. The steering system has been beefed up in terms of weight, and is nicely direct, while pedal feel across the board is excellent. It drives like a slightly larger Qashqai, which of course is exactly what it is.
We were impressed with the new X-Trail. It’s unquestionably a better vehicle than its charming but flawed predecessor. Whether it offers enough features to convince buyers to choose it instead of the excellent and cheaper new Qashqai (the third row of seats surely isn’t a significant USP), however, remains to be seen.
Alongside the challenge from its in-house rival, the X-Trail has to compete with a number of strong alternatives. Our current Top 12 Best Buys Compact SUV champion, the Ford Kuga, has a better engine, even more composed on-road manners and additional utility room. Meanwhile, the underrated Mazda CX-5 undercuts the X-Trail and is a pleasure to drive.
Come voting time for the 2015 Top 12 Best Buys, we’d be surprised if the X-Trail is awarded a spot on the podium. The Qashqai, on the other hand…