RIDING on the back of Nissan’s South African success story in the last three Paris-Dakar desert races, using specially prepared Nissan Hardbodys, the soft-roader X-Trail is enjoying a mini sales boom in this segment, and throughout 2004 was a clear market leader. The facelift introduced about a year ago was a mild one, with changes to the grille and lights, some mechanical fine-tuning, topped by the addition of a pair of hefty-looking roof rails. Previously rectangular rear bumper reflectors have become round ones that look much like foglamps. Truth is, the genuine foglamp is actually the rectangular red light in the centre of the bumper.

The overall styling exercise certainly works, providing a heavyduty appearance, rugged and macho but without overdosing on testosterone. An appreciated facet of the body design, especially when parking or travelling through bush, is being able to see the front of the bonnet from the driver’s seat. The dimensions of the X-Trail are well chosen, big enough to carry both people and goods, but not so big as to be too unwieldy on- or off-road.

Interior design is unusual, to put it mildly. A centrally-mounted instrument cluster is not to everyone’s taste, but the X-trail's is clear, easy to read, and allows for a glove compartment ahead of the driver. Upholstery is in a synthetic material, said to be easily washable should the kids or dogs get it too dirty. The downside is that the appearance is somewhat shiny and cheap looking, and static electricity build-up, even at high-humidity sea level, caused some yelps until we remembered to grab hold of the steel doorframe before putting shoe to earth. Seats are amply padded, softish and comfortable with reasonable side support. The driver’s seat is height adjustable, but some testers complained that it is positioned too high, even in the lowest setting, exacerbated by a steering wheel that does not have sufficient height adjustment. Legroom and headroom are fine all-round.

A gap between the front passenger’s seat squab and backrest means that if you place small items or documents on this seat while travelling solo, be prepared to retrieve them later from the rear floor, since they will likely fall through. Front door pockets are very narrow but are useful as CD holders. Other storage bins are scattered around the interior, but do not contain rubber mats to stop items from rattling around. Rear seats offer lots of space and incorporate 60:40 split rake adjustable backrests. These are collapsible to form a fully-flat load bay that could even be used as a bed. A ski flap is also found in the rear armrest which can be useful for transporting long items. Other features include a good quality audio system together with a cassette player and steering wheel-mounted satellite controls. An enormous sunroof is a standard feature and should be great for game viewing.

The designers made an ergonomic faux pas by placing the electric mirror adjustment controls far down to the right of the steering wheel. This requires a forwards stretch at which time your adjustment will be incorrect since you are not sitting in a normal driving position. But this is not as upsetting as the fact that the steering wheel angle is offset to the right. Before you first notice this, it doesn’t bother you, but once detected, it is very annoying.

The best part of this vehicle is without doubt the engine. Mechanical changes from the previous model are subtle, with an upgraded common-rail injection system supplemented by a larger intercooler. This has to be one of the smoothest and quietest diesel engines available, with the expected clatter only evident at idle. Additionally, its tractability from as low as 1 000 r/min is also superior to most, with no discernable turbolag or dead-spot before the real urge kicks in at about 2 000 r/min. With most diesel-powered vehicles, we are forced to skip overtaking acceleration in top gear from 40 to 60 km/h, to prevent stalling the engine. Not with this one, which is one of very few vehicles of its kind that can accelerate from as low as 40 km/h in sixth gear.

A rotary switch immediately to the left of the steering wheel takes care of off-road competence by allowing the driver to select twowheel drive (front wheels only), auto (which will send torque to the rear wheels via a viscous coupling, should the front wheels start slipping), and lock (permanent four-wheel drive).

On pull-away, the initial impression is one of smooth progress with easy and positive gearshifting, although engaging first gear can be notchy and the synchromesh can be beaten by rapid first to second shifting. Acceleration is surprisingly swift, notching up a time of 12,69 seconds to 100 km/h, while scrubbing off speed from 100 km/h took an average time of 3,20 seconds. Top speed measured 178 km/h. Our fuel consumption index figure of 7,6 litres/100 km should satisfy even the most miserly, and will offer a range of nearly 800 km on the 60-litre tank.

Steering is well weighted, and with the sporty, leather-clad steering wheel and aluminium drilled pedals, one is led to expect a sporty handler. The X-Trail does not disappoint with better-than-most road manners, restrained body roll, plus the ability to absorb bumps without jolting passengers off their seats. Ground clearance of 200 mm is only average, but approach and departure angles are quite good at 28 and 25 degrees, respectively.

Test summary

Choosing the turbodiesel powerplant gives one the most expensive model in the X-Trail range but we believe it is the best bet, due to the sweetness of this particular engine coupled to easy-going driving characteristics and good fuel consumption. Space utilisation is first-rate. The unusual interior remains functional, and only the skew steering wheel really gets on your nerves. Although the price has always been considered good when comparing this model with the Freelander and Jeep Cherokee (as we did in our previous test in 2001), more manufacturers are now in the mix with some very keen pricing on offer, so we will have to watch the sales charts throughout the year to see who scores.