Edaran Tan Chong Motor (ETCM) officially unveiled the new Nissan Livina X-Gear yesterday, while also giving the media a chance to sample the new crossover in a drive from KL to Penang and back. If you missed yesterday’s launch post, click here to view it.

In a nutshell, the X-Gear is a five-door version of the Grand Livina that we’re familiar with, decked with SUV style bodywork. While it’s shorter and has one less row of seats, the five-seater X-Gear shares the same wheelbase and tracks as the Grand Livina. Offered in a single spec – 1.6-litre auto – ETCM is pitching it as a spacious alternative to typical B-segment hatchbacks such as the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Honda Jazz and Suzuki Swift.

Read the review after the jump.

I started the first half of the journey from KL to Ipoh at the back seat. Headroom and legroom is very generous in the X-Gear, allowing me to file the launch story in relative comfort. By the way, the legroom pic from yesterday’s post was taken on the move – the driver was around my height (170-175 cm) and that was his correct driving position.

Note that ‘correct driving position’ is backrest upright with elbows and knees slightly bent, not fully stretched, boy racer style. This is what we’ve learned from various driver training sessions by professionals, and not simply plucked from the sky.

In any case, I’d say that legroom is very good in the X-Gear, and there’s also room for feet to tuck below the front seat.

One significant change in the cabin is the deletion of the rear air con vent of the Grand Livina (GL), replaced by a cupholder that can transform into two. The central strip vent on the dashboard that’s supposed to direct air to the rearmost sections of the GL has also been omitted.

This rationale for this is that the X-Gear’s shorter cabin length doesn’t require the GL’s extra vents. Anyway, it’s not a crime for a two-row car below RM100k to not have rear blowers, and I didn’t miss them.

After lunch in Ipoh, it was my turn behind the wheel. The driver’s work area is instantly familiar, although things like the silver dial faces and black dashboard/interior (both introduced with the recently facelifted GL) lift the ambiance for yours truly. The headlining isn’t in black, so it’s not too dark.

The ‘Tartan’ fabric works well to break the monotony. Things like seat height adjustment and steering reach adjustment/audio controls remain on the wish list, though. I also found the wing mirrors to be on the small side, but maybe it’s just me.

With 105 PS and no VVT, the engine looks poor on paper. The auto ‘box is also just a four speeder. But the X-Gear driving experience is far from lethargic. A sensitive and responsive throttle plays its part, and the gearbox, while not possessing the silkiest change, is fault free in perceptiveness.

If it doesn’t compute, let’s just say that sometimes bare figures don’t tell the full story, and making the most of what you’ve got is important. For instance, I’d rather have the Vios’ good response over the City’s 11 PS, 4 Nm and extra gear ratio paper advantage.

The X-Gear revs freely and willingly, but it does get quite vocal in the second half of the rev range. If you’re wondering, the sound is more buzzy bee than sweet honey! So it’s a good thing that the X-Gear is doing around 2,700 rpm at 110 km/h, which is decent for a four speeder. Acceleration feels stronger than the Grand Livina 1.6, which is logical since it’s 105 kg lighter.

I pushed hard between Jelapang and Sungai Perak since the won’t be many curves after that stretch. The X-Gear’s EPS steering is light and easy to steer, but not very grounded and assuring at high speeds. This is quite a tall car with high ground clearance, and the body moves around quite abit at high speeds (above our highway limit) and when overtaking trucks. A more planted feel for high speed cruising wouldn’t go amiss, but bear in mind that we were driving way harder than most X-Gear owners will.

Handling and grip wise, it doesn’t fare too bad. The X-Gear is nimble when cornered hard, and held its line with determination in the S bends down the hill, despite the comfort biased Continental rubber. Carving corners isn’t what it’s made for, but given a choice between this and the (non Impul) Latio on B roads, I’ll have the X-Gear, which is quite a surprising discovery.

What’s more surprising is the ride comfort on offer. Perhaps it’s my bad memory, but I don’t remember the Grand Livina riding so well. Bumps, potholes, ridges and bad roads were absorbed very well – no thumping and harsh landings, the well damped X-Gear didn’t feel like a small Japanese car at all, to be honest! Definitely more compliant than the Latio, too. This quality makes the X-Gear a good urban vehicle.

Later, ETCM revealed that spring and damper rates are different compared to the Grand Livina. They are softer, since the X-Gear is a lighter car, and doesn’t need to be tuned to accommodate the bigger loads of the GL.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the X-Gear rides softer than the GL, just that this is the most optimum setting for the car. Whatever it is, it works. This is no flash in the pan actually; the X-Trail is one of the better riding SUVs in its class.

To sum it up, the good ride comfort and easily accessible performance are big plus points for the X-Gear, along with the generous rear legroom and boot volume. It’s not the best equipped car around, though, and keen drivers are much better served in a Fiesta or Swift. However, those cars don’t double up as family transport very well, something the X-Gear excels in. Can’t have it all, so it all depends on one’s priorities.

The X-Gear will never outsell the Grand Livina, but is sure to give B-segment car buyers some good food for thought.