David Motton

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Aesthetically and dynamically, the third-generation Nissan X-Trail is much more polished than its predecessors – but what tow car ability does it have?

Overview

Forget the chunky looks of the old Nissan X-Trail. The third generation looks more like a stretched Qashqai crossover. We tested the 2WD model at the Tow Car Awards 2015, and now we’ve spent time with the 4WD version. We’re driving the range-topping Tekna, which costs just over £31,000.

So, what tow car potential does the X-Trail have? It's powered by a 1.6-litre diesel engine, which is good for economy and emissions, but leaves the Nissan down on power compared with some rivals. Does it have enough poke for serious towing? We also want to see whether the X-Trail can rival the best mid-sized 4x4s for stability at speed, and if the cabin is practical enough for a demanding family on tour.

Towing

As you’d expect, the 4WD version of the Nissan X-Trail is heavier than the 2WD, which improves the matching ratio. Take the top-end of the weights Nissan quotes, add 75kg for the driver and you’ll have a kerbweight of 1680kg. That gives an 85% match figure of 1428kg. The legal towing limit is two tonnes for those with manual gearboxes; the auto’s limit drops to 1500kg.

We matched the Nissan to a Sprite Quattro EW with a Mass in Running Order of 1404kg and took to the road.

Our first impressions were positive. Despite the 1.6-litre engine’s modest power (128bhp) and torque (236lb ft), the X-Trail coped well with the twin-axle Sprite’s bulk. It held its speed on steep gradients and pulled up to motorway speeds without strain.

However, when you want punchy acceleration the best you can hope for is a gentle push. Our 30-60mph acceleration test took 16.3 seconds. That’s almost a second slower than the recently-reviewed Honda CR-V’s time while towing a much heavier van.

It would be an exaggeration to describe the Nissan as under-powered, but anyone towing with the X-Trail must accept steady performance as the downside to the car’s impressive economy and emissions.

Despite the Nissan’s modest muscle, the front tyres can be overwhelmed when pulling away briskly in two-wheel-drive mode. We found it better to leave the 4x4 system in its ‘auto’ setting, which automatically varies the power going to the front and rear axles.

Even in two-wheel drive the X-Trail coped easily with a hill start on a 1-in-10 slope. The electronic parking brake held car and caravan still without fuss, and released smoothly and automatically as we pulled away. The car towed to the top of the hill with little clutch slip. However, tackling the same slope in reverse caused a pungent burning smell from the clutch.

At motorway speeds, the X-Trail is a relaxed and stable tow car. Fairly soft suspension keeps the car from feeling as well tied-down as a Mazda CX-5 on bumpy roads, but we had no nervous moments when towing.

In the lane-change test, the X-Trail’s stability control system intervened early and at surprisingly low speeds, well before we felt the car was close to losing control. With the system turned off (not recommended in normal towing) we were able to push harder, although we could feel the van shoving on quicker runs.

If you need to brake to avoid an accident the Nissan should perform well. It stopped car and caravan from 30mph in 10.3m on a dry track. The initial response felt soft, but the stopping distance shows that there’s plenty of braking power when you push the pedal to the floor.

We enjoyed towing with the X-Trail, but a more powerful engine would make it better.

Everyday driving

Today’s Nissan X-Trail is a more refined and polished car to drive than the two previous generations. It may have lost some of its rugged character, but for most drivers the improved ride comfort and sophisticated manners more than compensate.

Without 1400kg of caravan to drag around, the 1.6-litre engine has an easier time. It pulls cleanly from low revs and, as long as you’re in no great hurry, acceleration is adequate. However, press-on drivers will prefer the power and torque of the Mazda CX-5, and its sharper responses on twists and turns.

The X-Trail’s suspension has been set up for a comfortable ride, smoothing away bumps, especially at low speeds. Drive more quickly and there’s lots of lean in corners, while body movements could be better controlled. A more easy-going approach suits the X-Trail more.

Light steering and a smooth clutch make low-speed manoeuvres easy, and standard-fit parking sensors and the rear-view camera compensate for the limited over-shoulder visibility.

Space

This generation of X-Trail is much improved inside. The first thing you notice is its standard of finish. Like the smaller Qashqai, the X-Trail’s cabin now looks much more upmarket.

Look more closely and you spot some clever design touches, too, such as the air-conditioned cupholders, which keep drinks cool. The vents can be closed so hot drinks stay warm.

There’s a good range of adjustment for the seat and wheel, so it’s easy enough to get comfortable. The sunroof does steal a little headroom, but it’s only really an issue for tall drivers who set the seat high.

There’s plenty of space in the second row, although legroom isn’t quite as generous as you’d find in a Honda CR-V. However, a passenger who is more than six-feet tall can fit behind an equally tall driver. With only a slight hump for the transmission tunnel there’s enough room for three passengers seated abreast. We’re pleased to see air vents between the front seats to keep passengers comfortable.

As standard, the X-Trail is a five-seater, but for £800 Nissan fits a third row of seats. On the face of it this is a useful option, but legroom is so tight that even small children will feel cramped.

More space can be found by sliding the middle bench forward, but shifting it far enough to make the third row comfortable will take space from the other passengers.

That third row also reduces boot space, even when seats six and seven are lowered (445 litres rather than 550 litres). Unless you absolutely must have the flexibility of two more seats, we’d save the money.

With the middle row folded, Nissan quotes a maximum capacity of 1982 litres, better than just about any estate car.

The X-Trail is roomy and well-made, but we’d think carefully before paying for the third row.

Running costs

At £31,345, the range-topping X-Trail Tekna isn’t cheap, but What Car? magazine’s research suggests £28,828 is a more realistic transaction price. If you can do without a few bells and whistles, the mechanically similar Acenta models cost £26,955 before any haggling.

If you do stretch to Tekna specification, there’s no shortage of standard kit. Bi-LED headlights, leather upholstery, heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control, sat-nav, a DAB digital radio and a panoramic sunroof are all standard. High-tech safety aids include High Beam Assist (which automatically dips the headlights at night if a car comes the other way), Lane Departure Warning, and Forward Emergency Braking, which can apply the brakes if the driver fails to do so.

For a four-wheel drive, the X-Trail should prove cheap to run. The official combined economy figure is 52.3mpg for the top two spec levels, which come with 19in alloys. The more affordable trim levels have 17in alloys and run an extra mile on every gallon.

You’d be right to treat official fuel figures with care, but we were impressed by the X-Trail’s frugal performance on tow. On a mix of A-roads and motorways, it achieved 30.7mpg.

After three years and 36,000 miles on the road the X-Trail should be worth 47% of the original price, according to What Car?’s experts.

If we were spending our own money we’d look lower down the range, but even the high-spec Tekna models make a sound buy and should prove cheap to run.

Technical specs

Engine size1598 cc
Kerbweight1680 kg
85% KW1428 kg
Towball limit100 kg
Maximum towing limit2000 kg
Power128.0 bhp
Torque236.0 lb ft
Official MPG52.3 mpg
CO2139 g/km
30-60mph16.3 seconds
30-0mph10.3 m

Verdict

The X-Trail is a very practical family SUV. While it’s stretched as a seven-seater, the standard five-seat model has lots of space. The cabin is well made and boasts clever touches, such as air-conditioned cupholders.

From the driver’s seat, it is a much better-rounded car than the previous generation. Ride comfort is a strength, even on tall 19in alloys, and while it isn’t happy to be pushed hard, in normal driving its easy-going character and refined manners make for relaxed journeys.

The running costs should be low for a 4x4, thanks to the efficient engine and two-wheel-drive mode. Strong resale values help make it a sound buy.

The trouble is, choose from lower down the range and you can enjoy plenty of standard kit and the same 4x4 drivetrain at a much lower price. Despite Tekna’s long list of high-tech features, that’s what we’d do if we were signing the order form.

There’s also the X-Trail’s modest performance when towing to consider. It’s just the right side of underpowered, but we’d rate the Nissan higher if it had a bit more poke. Most rivals will accelerate harder with a caravan in tow; a Honda CR-V has more pulling power, and the 175PS Mazda CX-5 is in a different league in terms of overtaking punch. A Kia Sorento is considerably more powerful and much heavier.

Even so, if you can live with steady acceleration or have a relatively light caravan, the X-Trail is a very appealing and practical car.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Ride comfort is good
  • Running costs should be reasonably low
  • It has clever design touches, such as air-conditioned cupholders

Cons

  • The engine lacks overtaking punch
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