For 2005, Canadians get their first look at the Nissan X-Trail. The compact SUV has been on sale in Japan since 2000; it’s currently unavailable in the U.S., where buyers tend to prefer larger SUVs.

The X-Trail is available in front-wheel-drive or with an “All-Mode” active torque distribution management system; both FWD and AWD models come in a choice of three trim lines.

The AWD system allows drivers to select 2WD, which keeps power to the front wheels for maximum fuel economy; “Auto”, which engages the automatic system for more traction on slippery roads; and “Lock”, which locks the system into 50/50 for off-road or deep snow under 30 km/h. Even in 2WD, though, the system will route power to the rear wheels on quick acceleration if it slips; the button promises more driver control than the vehicle is willing to relinquish. Front-wheel-drive models have a “Snow Mode” switch, which retards engine power to maximize traction under slippery conditions.

Front-wheel-drive and the top-line AWD versions come exclusively with a four-speed automatic; the lower- and midrange AWD models come with a five-speed manual that can be optioned to the autobox.

All X-Trails are powered by a 2.5-litre inline four-cylinder; other notable features include four-wheel discs with ABS, electronic brake distribution and brake assist, polyurethane front fenders, a rear seat pass-through in the 60/40 folding seats, and a fibreglass-reinforced plastic luggage compartment floorboard that’s easily removed for washing. The much-heralded “heater-cooler” cupholders aren’t quite as fancy as they sound; the twin holders, mounted somewhat awkwardly on the outside corners of the dash, have vent ducts running to them. If you’ve got the heater or air conditioning on, the warm or cold air flows around your cup. It’s nice, but it doesn’t actually heat or refrigerate your drink, as implied. A console storage box has the same feature.

The boxy X-Trail works quite well; the powerplant is gutsy and smooth, and gives the little truck enough energy to hold its own. The steering isn’t as sharp as it could be, and the centrally-mounted instrument cluster just shouldn’t be. The power window switch is so far down on the dash that it’s all but inaccessible. A sunroof, standard on SE and LE models, is so big it almost feels like you’re opening up a convertible. (The down side is that you can’t use a floor-to-ceiling aftermarket cargo divider, like that intended to keep pets confined to the rear.) The seating position, while tall for good visibility, isn’t quite square with the wheel. The X-Trail’s box-on-box styling is definitely a departure from the swoopy lines found on Nissan’s other offerings.

The base XE features air conditioning, power windows, heated power mirrors, cruise control, cloth seats, leather-wrapped wheel, power locks with keyless entry, CD player with six speakers, 16-inch steel wheels, privacy glass, and fixed intermittent wipers. In FWD it has an automatic transmission; in AWD, the base is a five-speed manual.

The mid-line SE adds the electric sunroof, six-CD player, heated cloth seats, 16-inch alloy wheels, variable intermittent wipers and fog lights. Like the XE, the FWD comes with the automatic, while the AWD starts with the five-speed.

The top-line LE comes in AWD only and adds climate control, leather interior, power-adjustable driver’s seat, leather-wrapped gearshift knob and rear spoiler.

The compact SUV market is a huge one in Canada, and the X-Trail enters a crowded one, with a number of competitors. The Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage have a lower starting price, but fewer standard features; the Toyota RAV4 has full-time 4WD but less cargo space. The Ford Escape has almost the same cargo area, but its lower base price doesn’t include air or an automatic; the Honda CR-V’s base model does come with air but with a standard, for $2,300 over the X-Trail’s starting price.

The X-Trail is built in Kyushu, Japan.

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