As the crossover’s structural asset is nominally one of greater height – the rearmost seats fitting more conveniently under a vaulted ceiling than they would in an otherwise similarly proportioned estate – the range-topping X-Trail ought to find itself well placed to make similar inroads into MPV territory.
Moreover, it takes but one look to see that no additional marketing budget will be required to convince customers which is the more stylish option.
Read the full Nissan X-Trail review
Compared with the Ford S-Max, Seat Alhambra and Peugeot 5008 – familiar and very decent MPVs all – the Nissan is visually striking in a way that simply isn’t achievable when you’re maximising interior space. Where the MPVs sprout embarrassed half-noses beneath their vast windscreens, the X-Trail has a proper bonnet – and a thrusting, frowning one at that.
As if to prove a point, it’s even more chiselled than the Hyundai Santa Fe brought along to provide direct competition. The Korean contestant has a hefty, almost American presence in the metal, and although it conveys the same pumped-up ruggedness so obviously denied to the frumpy MPVs, it’s not nearly as athletic as the younger X-Trail.
Emerging victorious from the image-measuring contest was one source of the Juke’s and Qashqai’s success, and Nissan’s rivals understate its importance at their peril.
But the halo model must do much more than simply walk the walk here; buyers of big MPVs are still fulfilling an obvious practical requirement, so the X-Trail’s ability to seat, satisfy and absorb a large family’s punishment is as fundamental to its appeal as making the Qashqai handle like a hatchback was.
As there are no Autocar-branded wife and offspring to deploy in such circumstances, we unboxed the next best thing – six grumpy, infantile and mostly overweight staffers – and subjected the assembled metal to some undignified real-world abuse.
First up, innards. The basic seven-seat formula is shared across all five vehicles: two up front, three in an adjustable second row and two behind, pulled up from the boot floor.
There are, however, notable differences in the user experience. It’s immediately apparent, after a quick round of jostling and knuckle scraping, that the Alhambra sets the bar here.
With a colossal 2919mm wheelbase (longer than that of a Mercedes E-class), it ought to, but the admiration for the way it fills out its well lit, dorm-like space was pronounced. With standard sliding doors and easy-fold seats, access to the third row is exceptional, too.
Adults fit in the rears of the 5008 and S-Max, too, although with some complaints in the case of the latter. In this company the minicabbing marvel feels its age now, its middle row refusing to flop obligingly out of the way while the third proves to be an old-fashioned perch with nowhere to abandon the elbows except on the cheap plastic of the rear arches.
At 285 litres, its boot is the biggest with seven aboard, but most of our passengers would rather have been sat in the newer, cleverer and better appointed Peugeot.
Read the full Peugeot 5008 review
In truth, no one was overly enamoured with the dingy poop decks of either crossover, but given the choice, the Santa Fe got the nod, mainly due to the superior legroom it offers.
The same modestly proportioned occupants reported first contact at the kneecaps aboard the X-Trail, making it the only car present which couldn’t seat seven adults without leaving fresh air between them and the upholstery in front.
It also earned demerits for not providing at least a standard 40/20/40 split-folding middle row (its 60/40 division leaving you with some heaving to do on the nearside) and, despite claims of ‘theatre-style’ seating, effectively making you sit on the floor while still having the ceiling upset your hair wax.
Nissan has said many buyers chose the now-defunct Qashqai+2 as much for the bigger boot as the extra seats. This time around those same people will have to be content with paying more for slightly less, because, with the jump seats lowered, the X-Trail’s £1750 premium buys a marginally smaller 445 litres of volume – just 15 litres more than the current Qashqai.
That makes it the smallest here by quite some margin, the Santa Fe being 71 litres more generous, although not looking it, right up to the 600-plus litres offered by all the MPVs (which all turn into 2000-litre-plus mobile lock-ups if you take the time to fold all the chairs).
Aside from the cleverness of their respective seating arrangements, the MPVs emerge from a practicality showdown with all the honours, partly because you get a physically bigger car for the same £30k.
The Ford, for example, is 128mm longer than the X-Trail and 54mm wider, while the Seat is actually 45mm taller than the Hyundai. You’d expect that difference, and any associated weight disparity, to play out differently on the road, and it does, although not necessarily in the Nissan’s favour.
The worst transgression, almost immediately apparent, is that the X-Trail, despite being the lightest car here at 1595kg (a full 368kg lighter than the Santa Fe), is also the slowest. We gently chided its 128bhp 1.6-litre diesel engine in last month’s road test, but, driven back to back with larger-capacity rivals, its limitations are brought into even starker focus.
Read the full Seat Alhambra review
Superior economy notwithstanding, an X-Trail owner has the right to feel aggrieved that a far paunchier Seat – no great mover itself in its lesser 138bhp 2.0 TDI format – is half a second quicker to 62mph, and feels it.
Further handicapping it in this instance is Nissan’s Xtronic automatic transmission, a CVT of such floundering antiquity that you feel moved to pity the one in five buyers who are likely to opt for it.
Traditional large crossover headway is amply demonstrated by the four-wheel-drive Santa Fe, which uses the healthy 311lb ft produced by its 2.2-litre engine to surge brawnily forward, seemingly without ever imposing a meeting between your right foot and the bulkhead.
It’s precisely the kind of magnanimous, muffled tug the X-Trail is incapable of, especially with the Nissan’s auto ’box ignoring your intentions and making straight for a predetermined racket instead, before cantering back to idle when you glumly return to a steady plod.
The response is somewhat better ‘stepped’ in Sport mode, but it still wilts in comparison with the obliging shifts of Ford’s dual-clutch automatic Powershift transmission or even the old-fangled slusher function of the 5008’s automatic.
The upside of Nissan’s downsizing is that it leads the pack in efficiency. At 135g/km, it is 11g/km cleaner than the second-best Alhambra on CO2 emissions and its 55.4mpg is 5mpg better on combined economy.
But that’s not much in the long run and, given that the lighter six-speed manual version only managed a 45mpg average during its road test, probably nothing to write home about. There’s a similar issue in the handling department, where the X-Trail fails to turn its lower weight and superior agility into a consistent advantage.
All too often, swapping between cars over the same stretch of road served to illustrate how clattery and brittle the X-Trail’s secondary ride can sometimes be.
All the MPVs, as well as the Santa Fe, make isolating their occupants from this kind of disturbance a priority; the Nissan prefers to chew its way noisily over seemingly insignificant obstacles.
The problem seems as much one of refinement as it is hardware tuning and is less notable when driven in solitude. But five minutes spent oleaginously steamrollering a broken surface flat in the S-Max, or else minding it only intermittently from inside the Santa Fe’s heaving cocoon, is a devilishly quick way of finding fault with the X-Trail’s relative cabin comfort.
Read the full Hyundai Santa Fe review
Get more determined with it and, aside from gritting your teeth at the gearbox, the car responds effectively enough. Its steering has none of the Ford’s springy feedback or the 5008’s surprisingly wrist-flickable positivity, but its resistance is well measured.
Accuracy, then, is not a problem, and there’s good consistency of grip once the front-drive X-Trail has settled on its line – something it does more quickly than the near two-tonne Hyundai. What it pointedly lacks, however, is the Santa Fe’s knack for doing swift without the workmanlike strain.
The Nissan makes no dynamic virtue of its size and engages your interest only by virtue of its general competence, not character, while the Hyundai goes some way to reproducing that momentous and sybaritic sense of heft that makes machines like the Land Rover Discovery so memorable to drive.
Read the full Ford S-Max review
A subjective quibble, perhaps, but one meaningful enough in our book to see the X-Trail finish at the bottom of our recommendation.
In many respects, Nissan has delivered the larger crossover we expected of it. This new model is handsome, decently priced, cheap to run and easy to use, but it’s a makeweight choice in most ways imaginable, and that comes to the fore in this company.
That its final row of seats can only be had as a £700 option says most of what you need to know about the X-Trail’s capabilities as a shifter of seven. Better in five-seat, mid-spec guise, and certainly in manually geared format, it ought to be good enough to tempt people out of Qashqai+2s – but not their people carriers.
Here, the true MPVs fill out the rest of the running order. It would actually be plausible to argue them into any position thereafter, given that the 5008 is the best value (and possibly the cleverest, thanks to its interior’s remarkable exploitation of a smaller overall size), the S-Max is the most pleasurable to drive (still) and the Alhambra remains job-done ginormous.
In fact, let’s leave them as they are there, because by focusing on their respective strengths, it serves to highlight why the Santa Fe, by a nose, might just be better.
Certainly, as we’ve seen, it isn’t the most spacious, visually arresting or affordable option. You’ll get more in the MPVs and probably get more noticed in the X-Trail. As a seven-seater, it’s functional rather than absolutely first rate. Yet the more you drive it, the more it works its way under your skin.
The bases for big car usage are conveniently well covered, and in a way that doesn’t entirely zap them of their charm. You appreciate that it’s large enough for the dog or burly enough not to look silly full of blokes, and that it fills the driveway with a gratifying, purposeful presence.
It’s a gulp of the crossover kool-aid, no doubt, and big and sickly enough to almost make you wistful for the Grand Tourneo’s image-free persona. But the Hyundai has the all-wheel-drive functionality and heavyweight charisma to fill out its borrowed cargo shorts, and unless you’re in the habit of carrying six-footers in the boot, it’s the big ’un we’d currently recommend.
Read Autocar's previous comparison - BMW M4 versus M235i and Alpina B4 Biturbo
Hyundai Santa Fe Premium
Price £31,220; 0-62mph 9.8sec; Top speed 118mph; Economy 46.3mpg; CO2 159g/km; Kerb weight 1963kg; Engine 4 cyls, 2199cc, turbodiesel; Installation front, transverse, 4WD; Power 194bhp at 3800rpm; Torque 311lb ft at 1800-2500rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual
Peugeot 5008 Allure
Price £26,415; 0-62mph 10.5sec; Top speed 118mph; Economy 49.6mpg; CO2 149g/km; Kerb weight 1619kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1997cc, turbodiesel; Installation Front, transverse, FWD; Power 163bhp at 3750rpm; Torque 251lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox 6-speed automatic
Ford S-Max Titanium X Sport
Price £31,720; 0-62mph 10.2sec; Top speed 125mph; Economy 49.6mpg; CO2 149g/km; Kerb weight 1689kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1997cc, turbodiesel; Installation Front, transverse, FWD; Power 161bhp at 3750rpm; Torque 251lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
Seat Alhambra SE
Price £27,510; 0-62mph 10.9sec; Top speed 120mph; Economy 50.4mpg; CO2 146g/km; Kerb weight 1822kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1968cc, turbodiesel; Installation Front, transverse, FWD; Power 138bhp at 4200rpm; Torque 236lb ft at 1750-2500rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual
Nissan X-Trail Tekna
Price £30,645; 0-62mph 11.4sec; Top speed 112mph; Economy 55.4mpg; CO2 135g/km; Kerb weight 1595kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1598cc, turbodiesel; Installation Front, transverse, FWD; Power 128bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 236lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox CVT
Get the latest car news, reviews and galleries from Autocar direct to your inbox every week. Enter your email address below: