First drive: Nissan X-Trail

Nissan is in trouble. 

Sales are down 40 percent year-to-date, with the hot small-car segment shunning the disappointing Pulsar, adding to the mountains of unsold Micras, Almeras, Altimas and Muranos stinking out holding yards throughout Australia.

Nissan needs a saviour and the redesigned – and far less gawky – T32-series X-Trail may just be the one.

From $27,990 for the ST FWD with a 106kW/200Nm 2.0-litre manual, it sashays straight into the medium SUV heartland dominated by the Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester.

Most buyers will stretch to the ultra-competitive ST 2.5L CVT auto from $30,490.

Either way, both offer a generous list of standard features (17-inch alloys, rear camera, six airbags, keyless start, Bluetooth streaming and telephony, and cruise control).

A part-time three-mode AWD system is a circa-$3500 option on all auto models.

Vastly improved packaging puts every rival on notice, thanks to a 75mm-longer wheelbase and 30mm increase in width stretch.

That created enough room for a kids-only third row seat (a $1090 option on the ST and mid-range ST-L autos), as well as more rear-seat legroom on a theatre-style 40/20/40 split-fold bench that slides and reclines.

A cool compartmentalised multi-level cargo area is included on five-seater X-Trails, while an electric-opening tailgate and lane-departure and blind-spot warning tech make their debut on the flagship Ti AWD (from $44,680).

Nissan has also banished the bitsy boxy dash for a quality flowing item with brilliantly clear instruments (including a digital speedo at last), superb ventilation and acres of storage.

Some of the lower-edge plastics feel cheap and the foot-operated park brake is a 50s throwback, but overall the X-Trail’s cabin is a serious step up from before.

Boasting front cupholders with cooling/heating and a 360-degree bird’s-eye view camera on ST-L and up, it is clear that Nissan has been thinking about how families use their SUVs.

Built on an all-new platform with MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear end, the latest X-Trail is also a much-improved driving proposition.

The carryover 126kW/226Nm 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine has long been a strong but vocal unit, providing lively and lusty acceleration.

However, the CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) is new and very good. Behaving more like a regular torque-converter auto, it delivers smooth and linear upshifts with minimal droning.

Just as impressive is the X-Trail’s newfound steering response. Combined with less body lean, it handles with a composure and confidence lacking in previous models.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a driver’s SUV, for stodgy understeer remains the name of the game. Likewise there’s not much steering feedback, the suspension feels firm on the Ti’s 18-inch wheel set-up and there’s still some road-noise intrusion.

Better, but far from being the segment best, the latest X-Trail’s real advances lay in its appearance, slicker interior, brilliant packaging and improved driveability.

Nissan X-Trail ST CVT

Plus: Packaging, styling, practicality, value, CVT response and efficiency, seven-seat availability
Minus: Engine noise, jittery ride on 18s, road-noise intrusion, understeer, foot-operated park brake
Engine: 2488cc inline 4
Max power: 126kW @ 6000rpm
Max torque: 226Nm @ 4400rpm
Transmission: 7-speed CVT auto
0-100km/h: 12.2sec
Avg L/100km: 8.1
Price: From $30,490
On sale: Now

Click here to read the full range review of the Nissan X-Trail 

Sign up here to receive the latest round-up of Wheels news, reviews and video highlights straight to your inbox each week.

Want free access to 5 years of Wheels archive content? Sign up now!