The first-generation X-Trail is Nissan’s best motor coup yet

The X-Trail is built by the company formerly known as Prince. No, that is not a lame joke. Nissan was once called the Prince Motor Company, but that is beside the point.

Towards the close of the 20th Century, Nissan faced engineering problems that were more acutely felt as financial difficulties. Before merging with Renault (a move necessary for it to regain its feet), its daily bread came from a few niche models of which the X-Trail was one.

Its unprecedented sales success kept Nissan afloat, which made us assume it had to be some kind of a saviour.
But, does it have saviour-like characteristics?

Let’s have a look:

Long hair and sandals

The X-Trail has a handsome square profile, detailed into a blocky shape that mimics closely the design of much larger SUVs. The raised rear light cluster is an imitation of what Volvo started with its estate cars in the mid ’90s, and lent the car an air of expensiveness that lacked in the RAV4 (its biggest nemesis) at the time.

Its high ground clearance hints at some off-road ability. The window surrounds are in black plastic instead of body colour, but it works well as a design cue. A very fat D-pillar separates the Nissan from other crossover pretenders’ overall appearance.

Five-spoke alloy rims complete the look by giving a sporty, athletic stance. Roof rails and rear roof spoiler are options that I would extend to, both for aesthetic and aerodynamic reasons.

Temptations in the desert

As Nissan tries to sell you this car, others will tempt you with their own products. Toyota leads the wolf-pack with its ugly but highly talented RAV4 (Random Access Vehicle? No. Recreational Active Vehicle).

Mitsubishi will offer something called a Pajero iO, or Shogun Pinin if you import it from markets unfamiliar to most people. Honda has a CRV; Suzuki broke from making high-speed motorcycles to sculpt the Vitara, and if you crawl up-market, you will encounter Land Rover’s Freelander and BMW’s X3.

The Nissan X-Trail is the cheapest of this pack, but it feels cheapest also. Ignoring the Land Rover and the BMW (premium brands), you’d think the X-Trail would be better than the Vitara, but Suzuki’s latest creation outshines even the best of them.

Can it feed 5,000 people?

If you took the number of loaves Jesus had with Him and gave one person each, those people would fill an X-Trail to capacity without overloading. The X-Trail seats five in comfort, which means it is a handy tool for the weekly trip to a nearby place of worship.

Those lucky five have options of leather interior, which we did not and had to make do with fabric. Common to all cars are electric windows, electric mirrors, climate control, single CD player, four airbags and remote central locking.

The cabin is bright and airy — compliments of the generous glass work all round, and low-set dashboard and sun-roof. The dashboard has the instrument cowl pushed away from the driver to the centre, a blatant indication that this car was meant for multiple users and, therefore, is not driver oriented.

The cowl has three clocks in it: speedo, tach and oil/fuel indicators. Directly below it is the radio, which is flanked by air vents, and below this ensemble are controls for the air con.

Rear seat space is adequate rather than generous. Everybody gets a safety belt. The boot has 350 litres of air with the rear seats in place; fold them flat and the space swells to 1,841 litres.

If you don’t do numbers, these figures mean the X-Trail has plenty of cargo space, and I mean plenty. The wheel wells intrude slightly, but the intrusion is worse on the left, where the fuel feeder pipe housing increases the irregularity of the load bay’s shape.

The rear hatch opens upwards unlike the Suzuki and Toyota portals, which swing open sideways

Does it change water into wine?

It does one better. It turns unleaded petrol into 140hp for the 2.0-litre version we drove, though it is alleged there exist other power trains with these abilities: a 2.5-litre that makes 180hp and a 2.2-litre common-rail turbo-charged diesel unit that makes a similar 136hp to our mule.

Strictly for JDM is an X-Trail GT turbo, the most capable, that makes about 280hp. JDM means Japanese Domestic Market, so forget about buying one locally. 280hp is the same power output one finds in a Subaru Impreza WRX STi or a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution (rally fans should be familiar with these two).

The 2.0-litre that we drove also turns one litre of petrol into 12 kilometres of sojourning when gentle with it, but during our rough and aggressive road test, it managed 7.2. Blame it on the acceleration and braking tests.

Will it walk on water?

Walking on water might seem a bit overambitious, but the X-Trail will walk on mud, and shallow mud at that for our base-model 2WD. Walking on tarmac was so much better as the road manners are impeccable; after all the X-Trail borrows its chassis from its Primera stablemate.

When we got tired of making it walk on tarmac, we made it run. Nissan’s Primera was a good handler with barely a trace of understeer from its front-drive chassis when flung around corners.

The X-Trail repeats this performance with the understeer a little more pronounced than in its sedan sibling. Still, it held the corners convincingly, and tore down the straights to a top speed a little shy of 180 KPH.

If you intend to drive your X-Trail like this, opt for one with a rear roof spoiler to increase rear downforce.
So it walks on tarmac, but does it stop on a dime? Not exactly, but it tries its best.

Hard braking was free of drama, but we did notice a bit of brake fade after a few violent stops.

The Nissan is blessed with discs all round, which makes its anchoring talents a little better than some of its rivals, but the overall braking performance was under par for a car fitted with discs on both axles.

(Just a matter of note: the lowly 2.0 litre car is available in 2WD only. If you want 4WD, you will have to make do with the 2.5 litre petrol or 2.2 litre turbo-diesel.)

Role in society

Such crossover utilities serve one purpose: they convince their drivers that they can have the butch personality and most of the rugged abilities of a fully-fledged SUV while preserving their environmental conscience and enjoying saloon car dynamics, otherwise they would simply buy a station wagon.

Rarely do people explore the X-Trail’s off-road capabilities, but when they do, they are not disappointed. The 4WD powertrain works fairly well, as does the ground clearance; but if you are in for something akin to the Rhino Charge, get yourself a proper SUV.

The X-trail is a lifestyle vehicle, targeted at young, active 20-somethings with busy weekend lives. We, however, have made it into a family car, a role it serves just as well.

Gripes and carps

So, what weaknesses does the X-Trail have? For one, I have never liked the centre-placed instrument cowl in any car, especially cars in which families are most likely to spend time.

Families make for nervous passengers, and nervous passengers rank high up in the killjoy stakes, right behind removing alcohol from vodka. As a driving enthusiast, I could do without public displays of ambitious velocities to whom it may not concern.

The blocky styling is inoffensive and safe, but that frequently translates to boring and unexciting, which is the case with the Nissan’s breeze-block outline.

Mitsubishi’s Pajero iO is similarly blocky, but it is pretty, its beauty attributable to the pen of Pininfarina, the same design house that does Lamborghinis and Ferraris (and the untrustworthy Peugeot 405 that I drive).

Power

The engine is the starting point of any given love affair between a petrol-head and his mount. Cars in this niche usually have a range-topping V6 engine in their respective line-ups, typically in the 2.5 to 3.0-litre bracket.

Nissan does not, and what it provides as an X-Trail flagship is a JDM-only 280hp GT, also a 4-cylinder… and a car that I wish to try. Another issue with the power unit is that Nissan did not bring in the boffins when they conceived it, so there is none of the technological sorcery that we find in most other major manufacturers’ products.
What am I referring to? Toyota had VVT-I (Variable Valve Timing-Intelligent) before replacing it with the current D4 engine management. Mitsubishi had MIVECS and MIVECS II (Mitsubishi Intelligent Valve Something-or-the-other), now substituted with GDI (Gasoline Direct Injection).

Honda has and has always had VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control — and yes, we too are wondering how the acronym works out to VTEC) and later, I-VTEC, a technological tour-de-force that can best be described as two engines in one.

These alphabetical soups essentially give their respective engines a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona: extremely low fuel consumption for easy driving and sports car performance when the taps are fully opened.
Come on Nissan, we need something better than what we saw in the X-Trail. Is this not the same company that built the GT-R, a car that outperforms Porsches for half the money?
All that said, would I buy one? Maybe not, and it is purely down to that central instrument cluster. The looks don’t annoy me, and the performance is passable — as is its everyday usability — but that speedometer in the middle…?
You, however, can get one for roughly Sh1.5 million, which is as good a bargain as you will ever get. DT Dobie sells used examples for anything up to 2.5 million, so you are better off scanning the forecourts for an affordable unit. Hurry while stocks last.

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