''What's the point then?'' was a friend's direct response upon learning that the Nissan X-Trail I was about to drive home at the end of an evening family visit was a two- rather than four-wheel-drive variant.
Sleet showers had scudded across Dunedin's skies earlier that day, and it was now so cold that the rain that had fallen beforehand had turned to ice, so his comment resonated with me at the time. It continued to do so over the next few days with the car, since that time included some savage frost to contend with.
To be piloting a vehicle that looked like a four-wheel drive, but had none of the traction advantages was the oddest of feelings in such conditions.
Yet aside from making me more cautious when venturing out, the absence of four-wheel drive did not impact on my motoring week in the least.
Long-term it would have for sure; an enjoyment of some of the more remote areas of our provincial hinterland and a love of skiing combine to ensure that genuine four-by-four capability would be mandatory in any SUV purchase for my family.
Yet for others, four-wheel drive really isn't needed in their SUV motoring life: even here in the deep South, many owners of such vehicles rarely, if ever, venture off the beaten track.
This in turn explains why the once unthinkable combination of sports utility without four-wheel drive is increasingly commonplace.
Among those that rival the X-Trail, think of Kia, with its recently updated Sportage, Toyota with the market-leading RAV-4, Honda with the latest CR-V, the Holden Captiva, and Hyundai iX35; for each of these SUV ranges, two-wheel drive as well as four-wheel drive variants are now on offer.
The two-wheel-drives are invariably cheaper and lighter, as a quite expensive 4WD driveline is completely dispensed with. They are generally more fuel efficient too, primarily because there is less power loss along the way in a two-wheel-drive system.
The X-Trail joined this 2WD/4WD blended family in its previous second-generation guise.
A two-wheel-drive option continues within the recently released third-generation X-Trail family too.
Using an underlying platform shared with Renault, the third generation X-Trail signals its softer path with rounded rather than chunky exterior styling. There's a less rugged feel to the interior too, with soft-touch surfaces more evident than before.
The entry point to the new X-Trail range is the ST 2WD. It is priced at $39,990, uses 8.1 litres of fuel per 100km on the standard economy cycle, and tips the scales at 1516kg.
Its four-paw equivalent, the ST 4WD, lists at $42,490, uses .2/100km more fuel, and weighs 10kg more.
Not much of a weight change you might think, but there is a reason for that too; unlike its 4WD siblings, and just about every rival in its class, the 2WD version of the latest X-Trail features a third row of seats.
Those rear seats have smaller children in mind, but are handy to have if carrying pre-teens is a regular occurence. Moving forward, the middle seating row is nicely sized and, like the two bucket seats up front, adjust fore and aft as well as for rake. They fold flat too, and have a centre armrest that pops down to reveal a handy load-through capability (OK, even for a 2WD, let's call it a ski-flap).
One answer to my friend's ''What's the point?'' question is that midsized sport utilities - whether you are older or have littlies in car seats - are far easier to get in and out of than a conventional low-slung car; doubly so in the case of the latest X-Trail thanks to rear doors that open extra wide.
Another is that a 2WD SUV offers precisely the same commanding driving position as its 4WD counterpart; part of the appeal of that driving position is that it is reassuring but, to be frank, on roads increasingly populated by wider, taller vehicles, that high driving position is, quite simply, better.
A further relevant reality is that modern traction control and stability electronics enable modern two-wheel-drives to handle slippery conditions with much more assurance than their predecessors; so, the need to have 4WD available for those few occasions when there's a little snow or ice is not as necessary as it once was.
Apart from that third row of seats, interior equipment levels between the two ST variants are identical. This means that a rear-view camera, keyless entry and start, Bluetooth connectivity and cruise control all come as standard, along with a six-speaker sound system, trip computer and single-zone air conditioning. A colour centre display screen is the primary interface for vital comfort and convenience functions, among which the seamless Bluetooth audio interface was a hands-down winner on test.
Driveline aside, 2WD and 4WD X-Trail variants are mechanically the same: there's a familiar (from the old X-Trail) 2.5-litre four-pot petrol engine placing 126kW of power and 226Nm of torque at the disposal of a (new for this model) seven-speed constantly variable transmission.
Performance-wise, I'd prefer a conventional auto to the X-Trail's continuously variable transmission, but the reality is that Nissan has invested a lot in CVT over the past decade, and so now has a CVT commitment that runs deep.
Towing capacity, which is limited to 1500kg, is one casualty of the CVT approach. The test car also irritated on occasion for being hesitant off the mark. Otherwise, unless one tries to drive the X-Trail flat-out, the CVT acquits itself well enough.
The 2.5-litre engine is tried and true, delivering adequate pep with a solid midrange, but with relatively little to thrill at the upper extremes of the rev range. On one hand, it's fit for purpose in a vehicle of this type, but on the other it doesn't do much to advance the appeal of the latest X-Trail over its predecessor.
That task, in a dynamic sense, is entrusted to the vehicle's new platform and some fancy technology under the skin, aimed at improving the way the third-generation X-Trail rides and handles. This includes an active damping system that adjusts the suspension to cope with changing surfaces, electronically controlled engine braking, and a system called trace control, which brakes the individual wheels as necessary to reduce understeer.
Testing the car across a range of roads, I was impressed by the impact these items - along with the underlying enhancements of a new platform - ave on handling and refinement.
Most obviously, the latest X-Trail cossets its occupants from imperfections in the road even more effectively than before. This pleasing improvement is accompanied by reduced levels of road noise and wind roar. Its on-road handling is sharper too, with body roll and understeer better contained.
None of this transforms the X-Trail into a sports car, but it is, by class standards, a pleasant, engaging steer.
Consider these improvements in conjunction with the fresh styling and equipment gains - including that third row of seats - and the latest X-Trail 2WD is appreciably better than the model it replaces.
It needs to be too, to compete in a market segment full of talented rivals, most of which include the same dollar savings offered by a two-wheel-drive choice.
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