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Is the Nissan X-Trail good enough?

Bijoy Kumar Y | May 08, 2004

Mr Alvares is a lawyer 'been one for time immemorial', according to him. I know that is good enough reason to stay away from him. But I don't, since a) he is my neighbour b) touch wood, I am not one of his clients and c) he loves cars especially those that I bring home.

He has always owned two cars at the same time, ideally one petrol and the other diesel. And he likes any colour as long as his cars are white. Let me tell you, over the last four years, I have had some momentous starts to my weekends.

He would take the cars, some of them extremely rare and maybe one-off examples in the Indian market, drive them as hard as his 72-year old body would allow, put on the wipers instead of indicators, brake spontaneously using the left leg if the car had an auto'box, nearly miss the gates, make remarks that made me sit up and notice, and dismiss the machine summarily at the end of it all.

Actually I made up most of the above he has been driving for ages and he drives well (lest he sue me for slander). So when I parked the Nissan X-Trail on a Friday evening in my parking lot (Mr Alvares lives in an apartment directly above this space), I was expecting an early wake-up call.

Mr Alvares didn't call. I was devastated. I went looking for him only to find that the old cat had gone on a holiday maybe to New Zealand or the US where his daughters live.

Really, that was shattering, because the Nissan I had for the weekend would have been perfect for Mr Alvares to replace his trusted Qualis.

He would have certainly laughed aloud if I had told him that it would cost the wrong side of Rs 20 lakh but would have certainly appreciated almost everything else. You see, he is a prospective buyer for Nissan he certainly can afford the car, but he has been around for enough years not spend so much money on in his own words 'just another Mercedes-Benz.'

Forget the cost, would he buy the X-Trail? The Nissan X-Trail brochure has lots of photographs of young and athletic men snow-boarding, mountaineering, wind-surfing, mountain-biking, riding water scooters, fishing, rafting... generally making politically correct attempts at suicide.

I cannot imagine Mr Alvares doing any of the above. He would use the X-Trail to commute and employ a driver to do the driving while at it. Alright, he might want to drive the car to church for Sunday morning bragging rights. Let's put the X-Trail through a Mr Alvares series of tests.

To begin with, the X-Trail looks good. It is a handsome machine that is well designed and well engineered from every angle. High-mounted headlamp units and the narrow three-piece grille make it look very tall.

But obviously it is not so tall since I, standing at 5'9", could easily get on my toes and see the top of the car. Taut flanks with very well defined and muscular wheel arches dominate the profile and the five-spoke wheels are simply the best to grace any Indian SUV yet.

At the rear, the X'Mas tree taillamp cluster looks spectacular but is certainly the only weak-link in the overall design only because every other car from the Indica to the CR-V has it these days. Another clever bit of design is the D-pillar that seems to hold and tuck the body panels together. Brilliant.

Mr Alvares would have commented: 'It does look a million rupees... but not two-and-a- half million.'

Nissan today is run by Renault and the genius of Carlos Ghosn can be seen inside the X-Trail at least in spirit. The design is so symmetrically clever that it can be used without any change for left and right hand side applications.

However austerity does not translate to boring here, far from that. The centre mounted instrument cluster may take time getting used to, but the centre console finished in a metallic tone looks sophisticated and is absolutely functional.

The texture of moulded plastic is of a very high quality and there are a total of eleven cubbyholes to choose from some of them neatly refrigerated by aircon vents. Talking of aircon vents, there is one facing the driver right where the instrument console would be in normal cars something everyone who drives this car in the height of summer, like I did, would appreciate.

The four-spoke steering wheel is just right to hold and ditto the ergonomically correct gear lever. Added points to the nicely contoured and electrically adjustable leather-clad seats that wouldn't have been badly off in, say, a sports car.

A quality jukebox with six-CD changer and six inbuilt speakers (the door mounted ones look really neat) complete the interior package. While it may only be slightly more spacious than the Honda CR-V and the Chevrolet Forester, the Nissan wins it when it comes to pampering its passengers. And I have not even mentioned the panoramic sunroof only the Maybach 62 has anything better. Enough said.

Mr Alvares' insight: 'Ah, leather, it is all nice and comfortable here though I care zilch for the music system... but my Qualis will take more people. Want to bet?'

Turn the key and you realise that what powers the X-Trail is a very advanced common-rail diesel engine advanced as in, there is no obtrusive diesel clatter even when the engine is fired up from cold.

Now that is something that even Mercedes diesel engines fail to do. There is only one engine homologated for India and that is a 2184cc unit that uses a variable nozzle turbocharger and a very large intercooler assembly.

Going through the gears is fun in this car, and despite a shift to go into second gear, it can do a 60 kph run in 5.46 seconds flat -- that is certainly petrol car territory. Third gear will hoist the speed to 100 kph in 10.2 seconds.

This third cog also was responsible for delivering an astonishing 9.94 seconds in our 80-120 kph passing speed tests. Quick it may be, but this diesel motor shows its true colours when cruising at a steady 80 kph with the gear lever resting in the sixth slot and the engine ticking away at a very leisurely 1500 rpm.

I loved driving the car on asphalt at these speeds knowing very well that added athleticity was just a few downshifts away. The engine develops an agreeable, well bred and refined 134 horses at 4000 rpm and all of 31.7 kgm of torque at barely 2000 clicks. We managed to see 175 kph on the speedo before running out of roads.

Mr Alvares' speak: 'I hate automatic gearboxes and this manual is good... and she moves. Ah, the surge of power... but who wants to give all that pleasure to the moron driver.'

Like the Honda CR-V, the X-Trail employs an electronically controlled all-wheel drive system. Yet unlike Honda, Nissan lets you control the procedure somewhat. A rotary dial, not unlike that in old Usha fans, lets you select 2WD, Auto and a Lock mode.

In the 2WD mode the car behaves like a front-wheel driven car and this might surprise those who have been brought up on traditional SUVs that direct power to the rear wheels by default.

In the Auto mode the 4WD controller takes over and sensors automatically detect the need for extra traction and distribute torque to the right set of wheels.

Now, instead of providing a very manly low-ratio option, Nissan has chosen to provide a Lock mode, which immediately provides a pre-set torque distribution ratio of 57:43 now we did test the car in lock mode and found it working splendidly (on bad roads but not in slush -- for that you need to wait for our annual 4WD slush-fest).

That however didn't prevent test drivers logging in statements such as 'a low-ratio option like in the Forester would have completed the X-Trail powertrain.'

So there, a very powerful and torquey engine mated to a well-slotted six-speed gearbox and an automatic four-wheel drive system. Faults? Well, the gear shifting is not as smooth as one would expect from a car so refined in every other parameter and a slightly heavy clutch and steering might raise a few eyebrows, especially of those who have driven petrol-powered soft-roaders.

Mr Alvares would say: 'Maybe it is safer to have all wheel drive. But tell me, are you getting old? Do you think anybody who has not gone senile would take it off-road?'

The X-Trail uses McPherson struts up front and a unique parallel-link strut setup at the rear for suspension duties. I found the ride quality absolutely brilliant and comparable to expensive luxury sedans.

The X-Trail had accompanied our fleet of test cars for a PET (performance evaluation track) test and some of us couldn't resist the temptation to run the Nissan through the PET-course. And since the track was meant for sedans it did show its weak side when it came to hard cornering.

And even more so when subjected to a series of simulated turns with spirited acceleration and reflex steering inputs thrown in. Body roll and pitching cannot be termed excessive but at speeds above 80 kph, the X-Trail demanded some stern corrective measures to finish the course in a respectable time and while at it, gave some splendid sideways action to the photographer. Trust me, a slaloming SUV is not exactly the picture of poise and control.

Mr Alvares' take: 'She is so smooth, better than the Mercedes C-Class... maybe I'll borrow the car from you and take my special friends for a drive? Oh so smooth, just like me, what say?

The Nissan X-Trail is certainly one of the best built cars that we have tested. You don't have to be JD Power and ask thousands of people to understand that the machine is well put together. And on top of that, it is powered by an engine that should win a few awards by itself. The problem area, as Mr Alvares would emphasise, is the price.

At the current price point it, unfortunately, has to compete with the likes of the Suzuki Vitara (with a V6 petrol engine) and the Hyundai Terracan (with a massive CRDi engine) and both these machines can dwarf the X-Trail in size alone.

Its real competitors are the CR-V and the Forester, and I have no hesitation to say that the X-Trail sets a new benchmark in that league. We hear Hyundai is now planning to introduce the Tucson -- a Rs 13-15 lakh SUV that is dimensionally comparable to the X-Trail and again featuring a common-rail diesel unit.

Perhaps Nissan should take a second look at their pricing strategy for India, and if they do that, expect the X-Trail to lead the soft-roader game in the country.

As for Mr Alvares, he still may not buy one for some time. Unfortunately for him, the X-Trail will not be available in white until its launch day in August.

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