For a seeming eternity motoring writers have been guiding families away from medium SUV models and towards traditional wagons. They are always lighter, more compact on the outside yet roomier inside, with stronger performance, superior economy and more standard features for the equivalent spend – without exception.
Need an example?
Both the Honda CR-V and Nissan X-Trail are available in five-seat, front-wheel drive automatic versions from just over $30,000 plus on-road costs. But a Volkswagen Golf wagon will deliver all the greater virtues listed above for $29,990 driveaway.
As tested here, however, the Honda and Nissan each have a couple of tricks up their sleeves. The CR-V VTi-L and X-Trail ST-L are both priced between $38,000 and $39,000 plus on-road costs, and they offer something the Golf wagon or most other medium SUV rivals cannot – the inclusion of seven seats as standard.
The VTi-L and ST-L also happen to be among the roomiest and best-equipped medium SUV models for the price. Even without a third-row of seats, then, there could be reasons to choose between this duo if a ‘daggy’ wagon has been ruled out.
Honda CR-V VTi-L ($38,990 plus on-road costs)
- 140kW/240Nm 1.5-litre turbo 4cyl | automatic CVT
- Fuel use claimed: 7.3l/100km | tested: 8.8/100km
Nissan X-Trail ST-L ($38,090 plus on-road costs)
- 126kW/226Nm 2.5-litre petrol 4cyl | automatic CVT
- Fuel use claimed: 8.1l/100km | tested: 10.1l/100km
The fifth-generation Honda CR-V is the newest contender here, released in mid-2017 with a 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol-only range. The VTi-L is the only model grade available with seven seats, priced from $38,990 plus on-road costs.
Although the Nissan X-Trail is older, having been released in late 2013, this facelifted version has been freshly unveiled. A 2.5-litre non-turbo four-cylinder petrol engine remains the only option for both of the available seven-seat model grades, including the ST from $31,990 (plus orc) and ST-L, as tested here, from $38,090 (plus orc).
An automatic continuously-variable transmission (CVT) is standard on both Honda and Nissan seven-seaters, while all-wheel drive is not available. Forget off-roading, then, because this duo send power to the front wheels only.
Both also feature a stack of kit, including alloy wheels (18-inch Honda, 17in Nissan), auto on/off headlights, foglights, keyless auto-entry with push-button start, a touchscreen with satellite navigation, leather seats with front heating, and dual-zone climate control. Yet there are also several differences that separate this pair inside.
Honda asks $900 more from its buyer than Nissan does, and that should translate to extra equipment.
True to expectation, the CR-V VTi-L does add an electric tailgate, panoramic sunroof, auto on/off wipers, front and rear parking sensors, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity and an electrically adjustable passenger’s seat over the X-Trail ST-L (which in the latter case only gets power adjustment for the driver’s seat).
It further gets a side-mirror camera called LaneWatch, in lieu of its rival’s more traditional blind-spot monitor that illuminates an orange rectangle next to the applicable mirror, to communicate that a vehicle is in the lane next to the driver.
Despite this, the X-Trail ST-L also adds features unavailable in the CR-V VTi-L, such as a digital radio, a 360-degree (versus reverse-view) camera and a rear cross-traffic monitor that works to alert a driver of hidden cars when reversing out of tight spots.
Most critically of all, though, the Nissan adds a forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking (AEB) that its rival disappointingly reserves for its flagship model grade.
Safety systems such as AEB are, in a family car context, arguably more important than a sunroof and electric tailgate. But the Honda does delivers a final counter-point with curtain airbags that extend to the third-row, where its rival covers the front duo.
When the sixth and seventh seats are used, and if a side collision occurs, the CR-V will simply place occupants at significantly less risk of harm.
Appropriately for medium SUV models, let’s start in the third-row and boot area.
Seated out back, and it seems the X-Trail doesn’t use its larger body – 44mm longer, 31mm taller – to its advantage. It simply crimps knees and presses heads (or at least the cranium of this 178cm-tall tester) into the tailgate more than its rival does.
The CR-V gives third-row riders extra under-thigh support and far greater legroom, plus enough headroom to keep occupants from hitting the roof (and certainly not glass, like it’s rival). In a very inspired move, four roof-mounted air vents are provided in addition to the duo on the back of the lower console (which its rival also gets).
With all seats up, the Honda still leaves 150 litres of luggage space behind its furthermost row, compared with the Nissan’s 135L. But the tables turn when the third-row is folded down – with 472L versus 550L volume, respectively.
That difference is mainly because the VTi-L’s third-row does not fold flat into the floor whereas the ST-L’s does. But the former also uniquely includes a full-size spare tyre under its carpet where the latter uses a space-saver less ideal for family road trips.
If things seem to-and-fro, bouquets-and-brickbats for each medium SUV so far, then finding an emphatic leader proves equally tough when moving forward in the cabin.
Highlights of the CR-V include a middle-row that can be moved further back for amazingly generous third, fourth and fifth passenger legroom, while two fast-charge USB ports are provided on the back of the centre console, along with large door bins.
The X-Trail affords markedly less middle-row legroom, but it responds with far greater headroom for those same passengers.
This tester could have donned an Akubra and still found air above, whereas its rival is sorely affected by both sunroof and air vents that leave hairline brushing roofline.
The differences are less dramatic – but still obvious – for driver and front passenger.
Being the newer model, the Honda very expectedly feels like the most premium contender by far, with soft-touch plastics, a tech-savvy full-colour driver display, soft mood lighting and perfectly damped controls and USB/glovebox/centre bin lids.
Its seats are also the firmest and most supportive here, but are still very comfortable.
What the Nissan shares is among the finest fit-and-finish experienced in a duo of contenders, in any comparison and at any price. These brands deserve their reputation for not merely a perception of quality, but genuine, long-lasting durability.
The ST-L’s design has also held up well over the years, while the simple ergonomics of its touchscreen and surrounding buttons actually trumps that of the newer but fiddlier system in its rival. It almost completes the instantly familiar, family-home feel to this older contender, with the loungechair-like soft front seats a finishing touch.
It may also be the more rounded of this duo in five-seat format, with a larger boot and greater headroom for passengers three to five. But ultimately the VTi-L delivers as the smarter seven seater thanks to its third-row space, air vents and airbag count.
ON THE ROAD
Sporting a savvy 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with 140kW of power and 240Nm of torque, it was fully expected that the new CR-V would eclipse its older rival on-road. Literally, though, it’s a case of not being so fast.
Nissan has used its 2.5-litre non-turbo four-cylinder petrol engine for decades, and it delivers just 126kW and 226Nm in this comparably heavy SUV. The greater deficit is that 4400rpm needs to be showing on the tachometer before maximum torque is delivered, compared with 2000rpm for its smaller, but turbocharged rival.
The Honda certainly delivers greater off-the-mark and straight-line acceleration. It also proved more economical on test, slurping 8.8 litres per 100 kilometres (up from its 7.3L/100km combined-cycle consumption claim), compared with 10.1L/100km for the non-turbo contender (also higher than its 8.1L/100km claim).
Where the X-Trail seizes the opportunity is with its automatic CVT. While these sliding-gear, abacus-like transmissions often get criticised for being too elastic and doughy in response, and for forcing the engine to drone at high revs when accelerating, the ‘X-Tronic’ CVT is a brilliant exception, suffering none of those traits.
The CR-V’s CVT, meanwhile, is frustrating. It simply works like a lightswitch – it raises revs when the driver adds throttle, but drops them instantly when the pedal is released – and that lack of intuition fails to get the best out of the perky engine.
The above-average Nissan CVT will detect a hill on a freeway and feed in engine revs instantly, without the driver having to add throttle; the below-average Honda unit allows speed to drop on hills unless the driver adds half-throttle, by comparison.
Weave through city backstreets and the superb X-Trail CVT will hold revs higher than idle in anticipation that the driver will soon again require response; where, by contrast, the CR-V CVT flounders at idle then takes ages to deliver required urgency.
The difference between two of the ‘same’ automatics couldn’t be more stark.
Where both drivetrains come together is with their ultimate lack of refinement, though, with far too much growl and buzzing entering the cabins of what should be hushed family cars.
Astonishingly, though, the older and thirstier 2.5-litre/CVT combination really does deliver superior driveability to the spritelier, efficient 1.5-litre turbo/CVT.
As with its softer seats and slower performance, the less youthful ST-L also feels cushier in its suspension and more relaxed in its dynamics on the road.
The Nissan’s steering possesses no weight on the centre position, and it remains fluffy as the wheel is turned. Its movement is so slow that this medium SUV often feels more like a ponderous large SUV, which is disappointing.
Its suspension mostly delivers pleasant plushness, while bypassing the squirmy sogginess of older X-Trails, though its handling is not terrific. The ST-L simply feels more like an old Labrador, rolling over when cornering, rather than a peppy puppy.
The greater problem is that the new VTi-L simply does all of the above a lot better.
The new CR-V oozes sophistication in its steering and ride quality. Perhaps its suspension doesn’t iron out small imperfections quite as well, but it causes less head-toss for passengers. The way the Honda keeps its body level over bumps, yet always remains compliant, is a brilliant balance that will keep back-seat bubs asleep.
Steering that is more consistently light-to-mid weighted, and requires less arm twirling when navigating tight streets, also helps the newer contender feels smaller than it is.
It still isn’t as dynamic, for example, as a five-seat-only Mazda CX-5 that remains absolutely the pick of the medium SUV segment, but it is more than competent, with adequately responsive and mildly enjoyable, if not sharp movement through bends.
And while it’s also noisier for road roar than the X-Trail, it remains – CVT response aside – the demonstrably more sophisticated of this pair on the road.
Off the road, meanwhile, and both medium SUVs will find their way into service centres more frequently than expected, due to six-month or 10,000km intervals.
The VTi-L-grade Honda is more expensive, with 10 services to 100,000km costing $295 each, plus another $65 for a cabin pollen filter every two years or 30,000km, $54 for brake fluid per three years, $168 for CVT fluid per three years or 40,000km, $55 for an air cleaner per 60,000km, and $271 for spark plus at 100,000km.
The total average cost, therefore, is $363 per service over five years, though a buyer will also be covered for warranty over that entire period and for unlimited kilometres.
The ST-L-specification Nissan will on average ask for $326.20 for each of its services over the same period, inclusive of two brake fluid changes and other items, however its warranty extends only to three years or 100,000km.
Honda’s new CR-V wins this sub-$40,000 seven-seat medium SUV comparison test – however, not by the margin expected of a brand new contender.
The VTi-L scales loftier heights, with luxurious appointments, a semi-premium dashboard and vast middle-row legroom combined with a still-roomy third row. Its performance and economy ratio is excellent, and its suspension is sophisticated. Yet with a staggered boot in five-seat mode, with sunroof-affected middle-row headroom, and with missing AEB and absent CVT response, it dips to lower points than its rival.
Meanwhile Nissan’s older X-Trail is more mature and consistent in its execution. It treads just above average in all areas, never shining brightly beyond the basics, but also satisfying to a decent degree across all disciplines – although it still lacks the broader virtues and depth of appeal of its rival. It could be the better five-seater here, though it isn’t the better seven seater given the lack of airbags for the third row.
Also, if only five seats are needed then a CR-V VTi-S asks $33,290 (plus orc). It only misses sensors, leather, electrically adjustable/heated seats, and auto on/off wipers, all for $5700 less. A five-seat X-Trail ST-L, meanwhile, asks $36,590 (plus orc), and even with the same kit as the seven seater tested here, it isn’t as good value.
Five seats or seven, then, the Honda bests the Nissan – if only by a nose.
Honda CR-V VTi-L – 4.0 stars
Nissan X-Trail ST-L – 3.5 stars