Prices start at RM129,900...
|[+ click to enlarge] |
In 1998, Nissan was entering its 5th year of huge losses and the economic crisis wreaking havoc in East Asia and ASEAN was just adding to the company’s problems. Somehow, a company which had once been a major global player in the automobile industry had slipped badly and was getting buried under a pile of debt said to be 2.1 trillion yen.
A major problem that had contributed to the losses was the product line which had grown mediocre during the 1990s, with a few exceptions mainly in the US market where Nissan USA had enough autonomy to control its own destiny to some extent.
Thus product planners in Nissan were under pressure to come up with better models which consumers really wanted, not what the company thought they wanted. The brand and company were respected but the products, though well engineered, just were not drawing people into the showrooms.
It was in this high-pressured environment that Masahiro Toi, who joined Nissan 21 years earlier as a test engineer, began to think about an entirely new kind of SUV. As a Chief Product Specialist, Mr Toi was tasked with the development of the new model as he had been working on the company’s 4WD models like the Terrano and Patrol since the beginning of the decade. Mr Toi was conscious of the fact that Nissan had a long history of building robust 4WDs as it offered the first one in 1951 and wanted to come up with something pioneering.
Looking at the market in the late 1990s, his team saw that the biggest growth was in the new generation of 4WDs like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Land Rover Freelander. Nissan had a similarly-sized model called the Terrano II which it sold in Japan (as the Mistral) and Europe but this model didn’t have the same sort of appeal because it was truck-based and the only engine available was a rather unimpressive diesel.
Intent on coming out with something which could truly challenge the CR-V and RAV4, Mr Toi decided that he would consult the customers much more extensively than had been done before. He wanted to know just what they really wanted and did not make too many assumptions and came up with three concepts as a starting point.
“We decided to make the customer a ‘partner’ in the development program for the new model and our product planners spoke to all kinds of people in Japan and overseas. We went to beaches, shopping malls, accessory shops and many other places to ask customers how they would like their vehicle and what features they needed and eventually, we had a good picture of how our new model should be,” he said.
In 1998, the pressure was intense and so only a limited time was allowed for Mr Toi and his team to get the model into production. The R&D budget, including costs related to manufacturing, was set at around RM1 billion and the launch date was tentatively planned for the fourth quarter of 2000.
One year later, Renault came into the picture as an alliance partner, taking a stake in the Japanese company and parachuting in Carlos Ghosn to stop the red ink and put Nissan back on the road to profitability. While the cost-cutting measures taken by Mr Ghosn have been well-documented and analysed, not that much has been said about the plans to rejuvenate the product line. However, it was declared that Nissan would introduce no less than 22 new models by the end of 2002 as part of the ‘Nissan Revival Plan’.
Having reorganized the global product plan and restructured product planning altogether by taking the best practices of Nissan and Renault, Mr Ghosn reviewed all the work in progress. He probably trashed some which lacked the ‘sparkle’ but the first one that did get his approval was the project which Mr Toi and his team presented, the model which would come to be known as the X-Trail when it was officially announced October 19 2000 (coincidentally Mr Toi’s birthday).
That Mr Toi’s product was spot-on in terms of concept and features was proven very quickly as the X-Trail quickly topped sales charts in Japan. It must have been very satisfying to see how the X-Trail has been extremely popular even though introductions of the new CR-V and Forester in the past 3 years did momentarily distract buyers, the X-Trail would climb back to the top again. Some 3,150 units have been sold each month in Japan on average and it has been the best-selling SUV there for two years in a row.
In the past 3 years, the X-Trail has been launched in many countries around the globe except the USA where another similar type of model called the XTerra (but based on a pick-up platform and having a wider body). It has been exceptionally well received and now this best-seller is in Malaysia and being a locally-assembled model, it doesn’t suffer the penalties of high import duties. This enables it to have prices that range from RM129,900 – RM148,800… which will surely force rivals to either tell their principals to stop sending CKD packs for the rest of the year or to start thinking about how to make their pricing more attractive!
While it is undeniable that Nissans have always been well built, reliable and economical cars, one of the problems in the past has been that they have also had the image of being ‘cheap’. In 1987, Tan Chong made an effort to lift Nissan’s image to a higher level with a new range of products. It has worked to some extent although there are still people who cannot forget the legendary Sunny and what it stood for – cheap, economical and reliable transportation.
So it is likely that some may look at the pricing of the X-Trail and think that the entry-level model at RM129,900 is a stripped down ‘el-cheapo’ version without the goodies that the more expensive versions will have. This is usually the case with some other companies but apparently, Tan Chong didn’t do it that way for the X-Trail.
“The prices are very attractive and competitive as you can see and basically what we told Nissan was that if they want to capture a good market share, they will need to give us the prices we recommend,” a Tan Chong source explained to AUTOWORLD.COM.MY.
The cheapest version is one of four available – two with a 2.0-litre engine and two with a 2.5-litre engine. The differences in prices are due to different accessories and interior features and not different mechanical specifications, which is very commendable. Other than the 500 cc difference in displacements between the two engines, all other drivetrain, suspension and safety features are identical.
The X-Trail is certainly a Nissan for the 21st century and apart from its great concept, it is also technically advanced in many ways, starting from the ‘heart’. The QR20DE/25DE 4-cylinder all-aluminium engines used are from a new family which started off powering the X-Trail in 2000 and are now used in a few other Nissans (including the current Altima in the US market). The cylinder head has four valves per cylinder, twin chain-driven overhead camshafts and the ‘in-thing’ these days – variable valve timing, which Nissan refers to as ‘CVTC’ (for Continuously Variable Timing Control). Enough has been written about variable valve timing so we won’t bore you again about this mechanism.
Both engines also have balance shafts to reduce inherent vibrations and throttle control is done electronically (what is popularly referred to as ‘by wire’). The intake manifold (aluminium in the QR20DE and resin in the QR25DE) is matched by dimensionally optimized exhaust manifolds with integrated catalytic converters. Fuel delivery is by sequential EFI while the sparks come from a Nissan Direct Ignition System.
The 500 cc difference between the 2488 cc QR25DE and 1998 cc QR20DE is achieved by changing the stroke while maintaining the same 89 mm bore. As a result, the bigger engine has a long 100 mm stroke which should make it a more torquey engine while the smaller engine us oversquare with a shorter 80.3 mm stroke.
Nissan engineers have a wealth of R&D experience to draw on when it comes to tuning engines for performance as the company has, at various periods, participated in the WRC and Le Mans races. So it’s hardly surprising to find the QR20DE producing a noteworthy 110 kW/150 ps at 6000 rpm with 200 Nm of torque at 4000 rpm, and the QR25DE delivering 132 kW/180 ps at the same peak rpm and 245 Nm of torque, also at 4000 rpm.
A 4-speed electronic automatic transmission is the only transmission available and because of the presence of the electronic throttle, interfacing of the engine and transmission is perfect because the computer can accurately determine from the throttle position what sort of response is required and execute the necessary shifts up or down smoothly. With the high torque, a lot of flexibility is available so there’s no need for special driving modes either. Besides having a lock-up clutch on overdrive, the E-Flow design of the transmission also reduces power losses significantly and enhances fuel economy.
Now let’s move on to one of the more brilliant areas of the X-Trail – the All Mode 4x4 System. According to Mr Toi, this electronic system is the first of its kind in this class of SUVs. The system was adapted from the 4WD system used in the powerful Skyline GT-R which can, in turn, trace its development back to the ATTESSA E-TS (Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All Electronic Torque Split) system that Nissan developed in the late 1980s.
With the X-Trail’s system, the operations are all electronically monitored and apart from wheel speed data, there is also data from a yaw rate sensor and g-sensor to give the computer a ‘3-dimensional’ view of what is happening to the vehicle at every moment, particularly when it comes to cornering. Because it works at the speed of electrons, response time is virtually instantaneous and in some ways, you could say that the system provides 4WD a split second before it is needed.
In other systems which provide drive to the rear wheels only when needed, the factor which activates the transfer of torque is the slippage of the front wheels. However, because this relies on mechanical sensors and hydraulic pumps, there would be a few revolutions of the wheels before there is actual power at the rear wheels. This means that response would occur after the event.
The All Mode system allows the vehicle to run in front-wheel drive when surface conditions offer good grip. If sensors tell the computer that slip is occurring, power is transmitted to the rear axles at a variable rate, depending on the conditions encountered. A centre clutch mounted just forward of the rear axle is electronically actuated to apportion to required torque between front and rear axles.
Apart from the full automatic mode, there is also a mode which limits drive to the front wheels only. This may seem unnecessary but Mr Toi said that drivers who understand all-wheel drive systems will appreciate the extra option of not having 4WD when it is not necessary.
“Between 2WD mode and Auto 4x4 mode, there is a very slight difference in consumption because there may be times when the system will send power to the rear axle due to some momentary slip. This can have an effect on fuel consumption and drivers may feel that they can save fuel by driving only in 2WD mode in town and when conditions are dry,” he explained.
“However, it is no problem to leave the system in Auto mode as this will be useful for those who want the stability offered by a 4WD system. By being able to respond quickly, the system can overcome understeer or oversteer which is good for driving safety,” he added.
In certain very difficult conditions, eg very slippery mud, letting the computer do the work just may not work (it could get confused…) so the driver can ‘take over’ by hitting the ‘LOCK’ button on the dashboard. This is the equivalent of a locked differential and splits torque in a very specific ratio of 57% to the front axle and 43% to the rear axle. This mode is only meant for extreme situations and not supposed to be used in normal conditions so when the road speed passes a certain level, the system automatically goes back to Auto mode.
The suspension system for the X-Trail is surprisingly straightforward: MacPherson struts up front supported by subframes and independent dual parallel links at the rear, also with subframe mounting. The subframes help to isolate vibrations and road shocks and additional insulation enhances this NVH reduction.
The suspension system has been lightened a bit by using aluminium for the transverse links. The geometry is such that the rear wheel centre trajectory will move backwards on compression, rather than forward. Though light, the suspension is still robust enough for off-road usage and has a long stroke to provide a comfortable ride claimed to be benchmarked against some high-end passenger cars.
The X-Trail 2.0 has 15-inch alloy wheels while the 2.5-litre version has them an inch bigger in diameter. Dual-purpose Dunlops are fitted, the smaller engined version having 215/70 while the bigger one gets 215/65.
It is praiseworthy to see that Tan Chong has not tried to save money in the brake department as all versions, including the cheapest, get the same high-performance brake system comprising 4-channel/5-sensor ABS with Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist (BA). EBD adjusts braking forces between front and rear wheels according to the load carried to ensure stable and optimized braking while BA comes in during emergency braking to boost pressure for more stopping power. BA was developed when it was found that many drivers just do not apply maximum force when they are braking in an emergency, thus not making full use of the braking capability. The system detects the way the brake pedal is depressed and if it meets ‘emergency braking’ parameters, then there is an automatic boost in pressure.
The suspension set-up, All Mode 4WD and superior brake system help stop the X-Trail in a hurry and according to Mr Toi, the stopping distance is 40.5 metres from 100 km/h – a distance which he said is comparable to a BMW 3-Series. That’s impressive! Incidentally, the parking brake is a drum-in-disc design which ensure more positive locking; with disc brake parking brakes, you usually have to pull quite hard.
If the X-Trail can’t get stopped in time to avoid an accident, the chances are that the occupants will still have a high chance of survival without serious injuries. The monocoque bodyshell has Zone Body Construction, a Nissan structural concept which absorbs and dissipates impact energy from any direction. The superiority of the structure has been confirmed by the independent EuroNCAP crash test program where the X-Trail scored 4 stars (out of a maximum of 5 stars) in frontal and side impact rating.
Of course, a strong cabin structure only protects the occupants from the external impact forces but inside the cabin, to prevent them from injuries, there are airbags at the front and the front seatbelts are fitted with load-tensioners to moderate the forces on the body. Renault has done a lot of advanced study into this aspect and quietly likely, Nissan has been able to use that information for its models too. Rear passengers also get seatbelts which, hopefully, more people use on a regular basis.
As mentioned earlier, in the development of the X-Trail, all kinds of customers were consulted and their needs were noted. In particular, the needs of those who typically spent weekends at the beach or enjoying other forms of recreation were carefully documented and every effort was made to satisfy those requirements.
The result is a cabin that is one of the most thoughtfully designed around, with a very high level of user-friendliness. If you thought Land Rovers had clever storage compartments, the X-Trail will impress you even more!
Take, for example, the two compartments which are in the centre part of the dashboard and sized to accommodate standard drink cans (not the tall and narrow Pokka or Nescafe types but the typical ones). The two compartments are connected to the ventilation ducts so that cold air can blow into them and keep the cans cool. Brilliant! And when you do want to drink from those cans, circular frames slide out from the corners of the dashboard to hold them.
There are also cupholders for the rear occupants – two on the flip side of the centre console box cover and another two which can be detached (they are attached by a velcro strip) from their position at floor level. The console box design is also a clever one with a multi-functional cover – flip it flat backwards and it serves as a tray and drinkholder for the rear occupants and there’s another flap with a cardholder and penholder. And behind the rear centre armrest are two small trays for odds and ends. It’s really amazing how the designers thought of all these places to install storage compartments.
The dashboard is a simple design with the meter package mounted in the centre (the meters angled a bit towards the driver), following current trends but it should also be noted that the X-Trail came out in 2000. Placing the meters in the centre not only makes for easier viewing but it also simplifies assembly of lefthand drive and righthand drive variants. Much of the dashboard design for both variants can be the same, reducing manufacturing costs, and it is just a matter of flipping the steering column on one side or the other and then fitting a glovebox on the other side. The designers decided that since there was an empty space in front of the steering wheel, they might as well not waste it and added a useful storage compartment there.
Upholstery comes in two types, depending on whether it’s the Comfort version or Luxury version. The Comfort version has fabric while the Luxury version has leather (2-tone). The Luxury version also gets some additional luxury features in the cabin like wood trim, a 2DIN audio head unit and an automatic air-conditioning system.
Moving further back, the boot area is claimed to be the largest in its class with a length of 1003 mm. And with at least six ways you can configure the cabin seating, it is possible to carry two bicycles or a long surfboard. The hole behind the rear centre armrest allows extra-long objects to be accommodated and when you fold the rear backrests down, the go completely flat so you get a really long cargo area.
But the interior designers didn’t stop there because they knew from discussions with customers that one of the hassles about carrying bicycles or surfboards is that you get all the sand and dirt in the cabin, and it’s a real pain to vacuum out. So what they have done is to make the resin floor panel (dimpled for grip) detachable and you can hose it down outside. A simple idea and yet no one has thought of doing it until now.
Finally, a word about the styling. Depending on what your idea of a SUV is, the X-Trail’s bodystyle (which has a Cd of 0.37) can either be ‘authentic’ or more of a stationwagon sort of look. It stands tall with 200 mm under the floorpan but the 1675 mm overall height is not actually too tall. Depending on the version, there are additional accessories fitted such as a sump guard and roof spoiler to add to the sporty or rugged image. Incidentally, the front fenders are of a polymer material and not steel so that they will not get ‘bruised’ when some inconsiderate parker opens his or her car door into your X-Trail.
By now, you will probably be impressed by what the X-Trail is all about and what it offers. Purely on specifications and features, it can be considered ‘mouth-watering’ and more so when you look at the sort of pricetag attached to it. Of course, there’s also the driving part that needs to be assessed and if you come back to this website on Sunday, we’ll give you the test-drive report on the X-Trail 2.5. If you can’t wait, then head down to a Edaran Tan Chong Motor showroom and try one out yourself.