Ok. Easy now. Gently feed the throttle, and let the car get up the slippery, muddy surface on what appears to be a 40 degree slope.
These were the thoughts going through my mind as I sat behind the wheel.
This wouldn't be a problem if I was driving an off-road modified pick up with extra ground clearance and mud tires. Instead, I'm in the driver's seat of the Nissan X-Trail. It's showroom stock. It's wearing regular road tires.
Welcome to the Nissan On/Off Road Experience.
A few weeks ago, we received an email from our friends at Nissan Motors Philippines that said they're organizing an off-road event in Angeles, Pampanga. I'm not that experienced at off-roading, but I've always found it ot be immense fun, so when they said they were holding an off-road event, they got an immediate yes.
Last Friday, we gathered at 5 in the morning at Nissan Quezon Avenue. At first we were behind the wheel of the Teana, undoubtedly one of the best in its class (if not the best) to ride in. The latest version, the 350XV, has a long, long list of features and standard kit, making for a very comfortable drive. I am curious, however, as to why they put the ottoman on the front passenger seat or why the rear passengers can't recline their backrests, but nevertheless, it's a very pleasant drive up to San Fernando, Pampanga.
We arrive at Nissan's dealership in San Fernando and settle in to wait for the rest of the participants. And just then, a white Land Rover Defender pulls up into the parking lot, and immediately I know who's going to be handling the off-road portion of the event: Beeboy Bargas. Along with his Landcraft 4x4 crew, Beeboy has been known to have hosted many off-road events... and most definitely not the Mickey Mouse kind of off-roading. In past drives, we've had to push the car's abilities and our bravery behind the wheel to take on challenging courses that have been laid out for us, and I'm very sure this will be nothing short of that.
Before we set off for the off-road course, we were given an in-depth briefing on the car we are going to use: the Nissan X-Trail. Launched as a first generation model back in 2001, the original Nissan X-Trail has become the standard for off-road going crossovers in the market. Now, however, we're getting the new 2nd generation model, and it now sports a long list of upgrades over the past model; upgrades that the event organizers promise us will get the cars through the challenging course.
Organizers were keen to point out the highly advanced 4WD drive train in the X-Trail, allowing the car to run on just two wheels or all four, with the option of going into a 4x4 low mode for the harder trails. They also pointed out the torque splits at the different drive modes, and highlighted the advantages of having a CVT instead of a conventional slushbox automatic; advantages that we will put to full use.
After a quick drive to Angeles, we get a glimpse of the course that we were to traverse in the X-Trail. Upon a quick inspection, I was very hesitant to try it. The ramps, ruts and other features of the track seem to be built for purpose-modified pick-up trucks, but they said the X-Trail can do it. We'll see then.
As it turns out, there is more to the off-road facility than just a slow-crawling off-road course. A quick drive shows a dirt rally cross course which, after taking on the inclines and ditches of the off-road track, will prove to be a bit of an adrenaline rush.
Our group was first on the rally track, and we get ready to take on the dirt at speed. Setting off from the line at full throttle, the X-Trail squirms a bit on the loose surface, then quickly composes itself; the torque split of the 4x4 version gives excellent traction.
The turns here are tight, and like a real rally route, there are numerous ditches, ruts, not to mention trees that litter way. To be quick, you have to avoid "railroading", or dropping the tires of the car into the ruts created by previous drivers, often prompting you to take unusually tight lines around the track. The surface really robs a lot of feel from the steering wheel, and you have to finesse the X-Trail quite a bit, paying close attention to what the tires are doing. Push too hard and you'll go off into a ditch, it's as simple as that. There's not much room for error, but the X-Trail in both 4x2 and 4x4 mode can handle it easily.
The guys at Landcraft say they're going to be developing the rallycross track for modified cars to attack, but in the meantime, I would not advise anything less than an X-Trail, owing to its ground clearance, to be able to take it on with confidence.
After completing the quick rallycross rounds, we headed back to the real off-road portion. Watching the others try to take it on only made my apprehension a bit worse, as the X-Trail seems to be faces with more than its road tires can chew. It was a timed contest, though unlike the rallycross section where the fastest driver wins, in the off-road course, its all about getting to the finish line in exactly 12 minutes. As an added twist, organizers have affixed a pitcher filled with water on the hood of the car, an extra objective being to return to the finish line with as much water as possible. Piece of cake... on a course that might as well have been constructed with falling artillery shells.
From the line, we set off as slowly and as gradually as possible. Time flies when you're having fun, but on an off-road course, time crawls... much like what we're doing now. The first ramp is definitely daunting in terms of angle and height. Oddly enough, the X-Trail traverses it much easier than I thought it would. This is owed to the fact that not only does Nissan's small crossover have a highly advanced 4x4 system, but it also has a CVT, or continuously variable transmission. Unlike a regular slushbox automatic transmission, the CVT applies continuous drive to the wheels as it never disengages when the shifter is in D. This gives steady drive all throughout the run, and adjusts the ratio as needed for the situation.
The course is more than just ramps and hills. There's the "elephant" course, called as such because it feels like you're driving behind an elephant's (deep) footprints. The water crossings (taken while at an oblique angle), the mud, and the jungle course really takes the challenge to the X-Trail, yet time and time again it pulls through.
It comes as a real surprise for me, especially since I'm very used to crossovers just doing basic, if not "Mickey Mouse" off-roading. The X-Trail has proven what it can really do, on a course that normally need modified rides to take on. And now, on the way back in the Teana, I can't wait to take on more challenging drives, roads or no roads, with the Nissan X-Trail.