Of all the vehicles in the Nissan Motor Philippines Inc. (NMPI) lineup, the X-Trail compact SUV carries an x-factor that is the envy of several makes. The fact that it has averages close to 200 units sold per month (according to NMPI market and product planning manager Raymond Tribdino) since its introduction in 2005 as a newly refurbished unit, coupled with the fact that it was named 'Best Compact SUV' in the first Car of the Year Awards in 2004, has made it a force to reckon with the relatively crowded compact SUV (sport utility vehicle) arena. Part-time four-wheel drive, close ties to the arguably best sports car Japan has produced (the 1998-2001 Nissan Skyline GT-R34), a lively QR25DE engine and an interesting (albeit unconventional) interior has made the vehicle a consistent topic in compact SUV debates.

With that in mind (and a need to haul a bevy of people to a Sunday baptism in Paranaque), the author decided that it would be a good time to test Nissan's current best seller.

Blazing a trail on the outside

An xamination of the X-Trail's xterior (pardon the pun, folks) shows an imposing front end similar to a 2000-2004 Subaru Forester, but is distinctly Nissan in character. The new grill shows the 'Nissan-ness' of the vehicle, showing a unique visual identity similar to its Sentra, Serena, Cefiro, Urvan and even its Patrol brethren. Honestly, the grill of our test unit looks better than the honeycomb grille of its predecessor. The new grille makes the vehicle seem sportier and much closer to its urban branding.

The 2005 X-Trail retains the headlights of the previous model, a big plus considering that even at the dim setting, the headlights provide enough light for the driver to see, even in the freakingly dark parts of Taft Avenue. The foglights aid immensely in seeing camouflaged road irregularities, especially when driving in really dark areas (such as the area of Taft Avenue from the MRT Taft station to the Vito Cruz intersection). The 2005 X-Trail also manages to maintain the polycarbonate front fenders of its predecessor; lean on them for awhile and then suddenly back off and the spot where you leaned upon instantly goes back to its original shape. Just don't try banging the fenders off of walls or other solidly constructed inanimate objects.

The baby fender mirror (located at the right front fender) helps a lot when it comes to parallel parking, going through crowded streets and long backing maneuvers in order to avoid scratching or even denting the unit's newly-designed, thick-spoked 16-inch rims (and perhaps the body of the vehicle). However, one has to make sure that one's eyesight is pretty good, for the lens of the baby fender mirror is quite small and can be tough to see at night.

The design of the X-Trail's grab handles are a great help, especially for frequent grocery shoppers and day trippers. A slight tug of the doors (whether underhand or overhand) and one is able to access the X-Trail's interior. However, opening the rear hatch is limited to the hatch door proper (located underneath a chrome stripe under the Nissan logo), for there is no way to open the hatch's glass partition separately from the door. This can be a hindrance to the grocery shopper or frequent hauler who has to carry two armloads in either hand or arm.

The X-Trail's Hyper Roof Rail is a great and welcome addition to the vehicle, for it helps in securing down objects lashed or tied to the unit's roofline. But for serious hauling, an aftermarket roof rack is recommended.

Comforts of home

Since the X-Trail was meant as a primarily urban vehicle, it is a given that the interior must not disappoint. After all, since Metro Manila is beginning to closely resemble a never ending gridlock of traffic, it is essential that a vehicle's interior must provide a lot of creature comforts so as not to bore both driver and fellow occupants. And this is where the X-Trail stomps the competition.

For starters, ingress and egress from the vehicle takes little effort, but ladies wearing skirts might have a hard time entering the vehicle. The author observed (while bringing five people to Paranaque for a baptism) that his skirt-wearing shotgun passenger had to plunk her derriere down on the seat (facing the door), hold the folds of her skirt down and simultaneously move her legs 90 degrees to her left. In contrast, the other passengers entered the vehicle normally, using their legs first and then the rest of their bodies.

The seats are comfortable, but the leather seatcovers should be replaced with moquette or fabric ones. Park your X-Trail in the open air at noon and one will definitely experience the toasting of buns, albeit those of the fleshy type. Not even the cold air of the X-Trail's airconditioning unit at full blast can dissipate the heat from the seats; the leather seatcovers really tend to retain a lot of heat especially during the summer months. And rear seating is only good for two to three average sized Filipinos; put four people in the rear seats (as the author did during the said Paranaque trip) and upper body movement among the rear passengers will be tight.

Upon entry into the X-Trail, one gets a commanding view of what's ahead, crucial during high speed maneuvers. The centrally located dashboard gauges require familiarization, but the fonts and diagrams are easy to read. And just like other Nissan vehicles, the backlights on the dashboard gauge fonts are always in amber. Only the gear indicators on the automatic transmission are backlit in green.

The placement of the three middle aircon vents, the aircon controls and the hazard light button at the lower portion of the center dashboard seem a bit unusual, but can be chalked up to familiarization. However, the aircon controls and the hazard button are placed at near-thigh level, forcing the first-time driver to take a look down at the lower portion of the center dashboard and making the driver lose (albeit temporarily) focus on the road. But the airconditioning is typical Nissan - whether at the lowest or highest blower setting, there is always fresh COLD (like Arctic cold) air coming from the ventsPerhaps the best feature of the X-Trail's interior is its various (and numerous) places to store bric-a-brac and liquids. Canals within the four doors, around the emergency brake (e-brake) handle and the center console behind the e-brake are more than enough to accommodate all kinds of odd stuff. Cupholders for the front occupants can be found in two pull-tab plastic recesses sandwiched between underneath the defogger vents close to the A-pillars and the depressions on top of the rightmost and leftmost aircon vents. And the two drink coolers flanking the JVC 2-DIN MP3-ready head unit may have been designed to cool only canned drinks, but are handy when an occupant needs cold drinks in less than five minutes. Just about the only thing that needs improvement in the liquid storage department is the need for better placement of the rear occupant cupholders. The author found out that cupholders for the rear passengers are nonexistent.

Luggage storage for the X-Trail is pretty decent; the author observed that the unit can swallow two medium sized maletas and a big balikbayan box. And there's still room for the (significantly downsized) spare tire; simply lift a latch at the end of the luggage area and pull upward.

The twisty roads of Mount Famy in Laguna provided opportunities to test the extent of the SUV's handling, grip, suspension and steering capabilities. Attempt hard cornering and the unit pitches like crazy; by this point one experiences heavy understeer. This forces you to brake early and apply the gas once you straighten the steering wheel. Steering feel is a bit heavy, but not as heavy as in the Volvo V50. And despite the bouncy presence of over-inflated tires on all four wheels, the X-Trail's aluminum front transverse links, trapezoidal rear struts and long stroking shock absorbers provided a very comfortable, sedan-like ride, which worked in unison to stabilize the SUV's ride, whether on tarmac or on gravel.

Exceptional performance

The sprawling asphalt roads of Laguna and Rizal and Batangas' Star Tollway provide excellent opportunities to test tarmac acceleration, braking and top speed. NMPI did well to retain the efficient and lively QR series engines, which provide 180 PS (for the 2.5-liter version) or 150 PS (for the two-liter version). The engine capabilities came into play especially when overtaking slow vehicles on the tarmac roads of Calamba and Los Baños, while the opportunity for prolonged 120-150 kph acceleration blasts came on the Star Tollway and the roads through Pila, Pangil and Pakil (Laguna) and Teresa/Antipolo (Rizal). On the other hand, the deceleration capabilities came into play whenever schoolkids or pedestrians would cross the road, grabbing hard even at the slightest prod of the brake pedal. And the author also observed the X-Trail reach a top speed of 172-173 kph on the Star Tollway and achieve a 10.22 kms/liter consumption rate on four days of mixed (half city, half highway) driving.

When it came to real-world (read: gravel only) off-road conditions, The X-Trail's 'All-Mode Four Wheel Drive' system provided no letup. Used in the 4x4 variants, the system in Auto Mode features a 'no-slip on start-ups' technology, which gives the X-Trail power on all four wheels when the accelerator pedal is depressed. All one has to do is press the 'Auto' button on the left side of the center dashboard console to activate four-wheel-drive (the equivalent of '4H' on an off-road vehicle) and 'Lock' to activate all-mode four wheel drive (the equivalent of '4L' on an off-road vehicle). Just like any vehicle with shift-on-the-fly 4x4 capabilities, the four-wheel-drive button can be activated at speed, provided speed is at 25-35 kph. On the other hand, the vehicle must be at rest and on neutral before pushing lock button. If four-wheel drive is not needed the X-Trail's computer system disengages four-wheel drive, a smooth transition for an SUV.

The hyper roof rail is a great driving aid in heavy fog, in cruising dark provincial roads, scary-looking urban areas (such as New Manila's Balete Drive) or challenging off-road conditions. NMPI claims that the roof rail's lights provide as much 30% more forward illumination and are angled in such a way that drivers of vehicles from the opposing lane are not blinded nor distracted by glare. The roof rail's lights helped immensely in near-pitch-black dark urban streets, giving the driver enough time to stop, look and act or react accordingly to what is in front. The problem is that in order to turn on the roof rail lights, one has to switch the headlights to the bright setting AND turn on a rather hard-to-find switch that's located under the leftmost aircon vent. And the roof rail lights, as the author observed during one trip through some of Pasay City's crowded streets, can be blinding to oncoming tricycle drivers and motorcyclists. In fact most tricycle drivers that encountered the X-Trail head-on (and with the roof rail lights activated) had to pull over and shield their eyes from the lights' glare.

Despite a few quirks, the 2005 Nissan X-Trail is one truly 'xceptional' vehicle, a most definite (e)xample of the return-to-contender status of NMPI and Nissan as a global company. Just looking at NMPI's claimed sales charts and the accolades it has garnered makes it a strong contender in the competitive compact SUV arena.