Mr Alvares is a lawyer – ‘been one from time immemorial,’ according to him. I know that is good enough reason to stay away from him. But I don’t, since, one, he is my neighbour, two, touch wood, I am not one of his clients and three, he loves cars – especially those I bring home. He has always owned two cars at the same time, ideally one petrol and the other diesel. And he prefers 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, turn on the wipers instead of the indicators, brake spontaneously and violently with the left leg if the car has an auto ‘box, nearly miss the apartment block’s gates, make remarks that have me sit up and notice and then 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 could have been the perfect replacement for Mr Alvares’ trusty Qualis. He would have certainly laughed out loud 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 the ideal 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 these. He would probably use the X-Trail to commute, while employing a chauffeur to do the driving. All right, 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 feet and 9 inches, can easily stand on tiptoe 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. Behind, the Xmas tree tail-lamp clusters look spectacular but are 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, far from that. The centrally 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 the moulded plastic is of a very high quality and there are a total of eleven cubby-holes 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. Add points for the nicely contoured and electrically adjustable leather-clad seats which 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 when it comes to pampering its passengers. And I have not even mentioned the panoramic sunroof – only the Maybach 62 has anything better. ‘Nuff 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. Care to bet?’ Shift_X-power
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 now homologated for India and that is a 2184cc unit that uses a variable nozzle turbocharger and a very large ram-fed intercooler assembly. Going through the gears is fun in this car, and despite a shift into second gear, it can do 60 kph in 5.46 seconds flat – that is certainly petrol car territory. Third gear will hoist the speedo to 100 kph in 10.2 seconds. 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 fully that added athleticity was just a downshift 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. And a surprisingly economical 14 kpl in our combined city/highway testing schedule.Mr Alvares-speak: ‘I hate automatic gearboxes and this manual is good... and she moves. Ah, the surge of power... but who would want to give all the 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 2WD, the machine behaves like a front-wheel driver 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. Sensors automatically detect the need for extra traction and distribute torque to the correct wheels at the right time.
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’ll need to wait for our annual 4WD slush-fest). That however that 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 again more comparable to expensive luxury sedans than SUVs. 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 comes 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?’ Shift_X-conclusion
The Nissan X-Trail is certainly one of the best built cars that we have ever 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 all by itself. The problem area, as Mr Alvares would emphasise, is the price. At the current price point, the X-Trail, 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 in saying 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, 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.
For more info on the X-trail, call Rahul Nair at Aquest Auto Pvt Ltd on (022)22076296
Godzilla. That’s what they call Nismo-tuned Nissan Skyline GTRs which make 1000 horsepower and rule the ‘drifting’ and street-racing scene in Japan. For me, the last-generation (R34-spec) Skyline GTR, even though it’s no longer produced, is up there – it’s the last word in over-the-top, wild-eyed performance. It’s God. And that, right away, made driving the X-Trail special. You see, this SUV’s 4WD driveline is loosely based on the GTR’s. A rather tenuous connection, but it’s there all right.
Stylewise, I find the X-Trail somewhat similar to the Chevrolet Forester. Riding on 16-inch, 5-spoke alloys, this estate-SUV crossover certainly is handsome – it’s nice and angular and sharp.
Most X-Trails will probably not see extreme off-roading and will not be driven to too many surfing/ river-rafting championships. But even if you do want all that action-man stuff, the X-Trail should be more than capable. Also, unlike most SUVs, whose handling feels ponderous, the X-Trail feels tight and composed. I hustled it around a few corners at speed, and there is little roll or wallow to speak of.
Bottomline is, it isn’t as quick as petrol-powered Vitaras and CR-Vs, but unless you’ve been playing too much Need for Speed – Underground on your office PC, you’re unlikely to feel the need for more grunt. Power delivery is solid, stable and uninterrupted and the ‘Trail’s dCi engine feels unburstable. Should be fairly economical also.
The X-Trail’s good fun to drive, is supremely practical, boasts of great build quality and looks good while at it. If Nissan can get the pricing right in India, this could be the SUV to buy.