WHEN the Nissan X-Trail arrived about 13 years ago it was one of just a few compact SUVs treading a new path between family wagon and full-on four-wheel-drive. It was pretty good, and certainly good enough to be a top seller.
Now almost every brand has a small-to-midsize soft roader desperately trying to catch the attention of car buyers. Being just good is no longer good enough.
Nissan's answer to the problem has been to gentrify the X-Trail. It appears to have reasoned "off-road" was only ever a small part of the compact SUV equation, so making the X-Trail better as a day-to-day driver would be the key to staying ahead of the pack. Looking where most compact SUVs end up, it is hard to argue with the logic.
The new X-Trail has a less boxy, less tough-looking and more streamlined appearance compared with its predecessor.
That impression is magnified once inside. Nissan has completely upped its game in terms of the look, feel and lay-out of its interiors. We were impressed with the Pathfinder and we are impressed with the X-Trail. Our test vehicle was the entry level ST 4x4 and, apart from the obligatory base model cloth seats, it has a premium feel which easily eclipses any X-Trail that has come before. While lacking the upgraded audio-infotainment system and automatic climate control of the mid-level ST-L, we found it functional and attractive.
The most basic X-Trail is two-wheel-drive with a six-speed manual and a 2.0-litre engine. Every other version - two-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive - has a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine with 126kW peak power and 226Nm of torque, and a continuously variable CVT automatic. The 2.5-litre-CVT combo feels smooth and efficient, and would be worth the price premium over the 2.0 for the transmission alone.
Most of our time in the X-Trail was spent around Ballarat, which is realistically its natural habitat despite the off-road pretensions. In that environment it has jetted into the top division in its class, passing a couple of its most obvious rivals. There is a distinct lack of jiggle on most surfaces and it is among the most car-like SUVs we've driven this year.
The country roads out past Brown Hill and Kirks Reservoir confirmed our impressions of the Nissan, as did a quick spin on some muddy unsealed roads.
The X-Trail has also lost little of its versatility in terms of cargo capacity, with seats that fold easily to create plenty of space when not carting back seat passengers.
About the only downside we can see is, in refining the compact SUV, the new Nissan has less of that slightly rugged character we've come to associate with the X-Trail badge. But that's a small price to pay for being better.
Your local dealer is Peter Stevens Nissan: 5336 8777
Nissan X-Trail ST
ENGINE: 2.5-litre petrol four
POWER: 126kW at 6000 revs
TORQUE: 226Nm at 4400 revs
TRANSMISSION: continuously variable auto
DRIVE: all-wheel-drive with lock mode
FUEL: petrol, 8.3-l/100km combined cycle (ADR81/02)
BRAKES: ventilated discs front and rear, with stability control, ABS and brake assist
FEATURES: rear-view camera, Bluetooth connectivity, keyless entry with push-button start, warmed and cooled cupholders, 17-inch alloy wheels
ANCAP SAFETY RATING: not yet tested
PRICE (RRP): $33,980
AS TESTED: $33,980 plus on roads
OTHERS TO CONSIDER
HONDA CR-V AWD: from $32,790
MAZDA CX-5 AWD: from $32,880
MITSUBISHI OUTLANDER AWD: from $32,990
TOYOTA RAV4 AWD: from $34,690