Salalah really is an eye-opener. Having spent an entire day there driving around in the all-new 2015 Nissan X-Trail, apparently we were witnessing the tail-end of rainy “khareef” season, which is when the desert sprouts enough greenery to rival European forests.
The old X-Trail wasn’t the best looker, even when it was new, all the way back in 2001. Its boxy styling fooled a lot of people into thinking it’s a true-blue offroader, but it was just another crossover. This new one is not trying to be anything it’s not, while improving on what it’s good at. It even looks like a contemporary crossover now.
Inside, there’s a modern dash layout with better materials. Gone are the central gauge-cluster and weirdly-placed storage cubbies moulded into the hard-plastic dash. The new one gets soft-touch surfaces on top of the dash and front door sills, while all armrests are generously padded and leatherette-upholstered, even in the versions with the cloth-trimmed seats, as was our test car.
Space is pretty good all-round except for the optional third-row seat, which is practically useless even for kids, unless the second row’s generous legroom is sacrificed by moving it forward. The boot is big with the third row out of the way.
It is, essentially, an easy car to drive. Clear forward sight-lines, a rear camera, light steering and the mildly-elevated ride height make for easy around-town puttering. Of course, we didn’t spend much time in civilisation, heading for the hills soon after leaving the Rotana resort where Nissan put us up. There was talk of lane-departure warning and other fancy tech, but word is most local dealers won’t bring in that package.
As we stared at the greenery while driving along, we noted that the ride is fairly smooth and outside noises are kept at bay reasonably well. Comfort levels are on par with the best ones in this class, we’d say. The lifeless steering also firms up as speeds increase, and handling is safely neutral, car-like even, if not exciting. Something called “active trace control” is standard, which apparently reduces understeer in corners by individually braking the wheels, but it works invisibly.
Less impressive was the engine. The 170 hp 2.5-litre motor has barely been tweaked over the old one, at least in terms of specs, and didn’t move the car with any sort of urgency with three admittedly-portly passengers in the car, and having to rev somewhat high keep going up hilly inclines as the rubber-bandy CVT made the engine sound strained.
Ironically, the much-maligned CVT automatic probably improved its performance compared to a standard auto gearbox, keeping the engine at the right revs without the hassle of hunting gears. It’s a strength that played wonderfully well on a few steep mountain roads that we climbed to reach some breathtaking views.
We also went up a few minor gravel inclines, where the car did well, and the difference between two-wheel-drive mode and the “auto” all-wheel-drive mode was clearly felt, as the loose-surface climb was handled with ease. Again, the CVT played well here, even if it still feels unnatural.
The new Nissan X-Trail is a very nice car, fitting perfectly where it’s supposed to. Without any outstanding features, it has its work cut out in an enormously competitive segment, where the Koreans are making waves with just-as-good build quality for attractive prices. The X-Trail itself is fairly competitive, falling somewhere between the Hyundai-Kia and the Toyota-Honda tag teams in terms of value for money, that too for a true-blue Japanese-built car.
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