Why mess with a winner?
by Sam Moses
Base Price (MSRP) $17,999
As Tested (MSRP) $23,876
Nissan's Xterra was a huge success when it was launched last year. It's not so much the engineering, but rather the style and the function-or maybe it's the marketing of that function.
Regardless, the Xterra is cool. It's cool to have a basket for your wetsuits on the roof rack, or an interior mountain bike rack; and it's cool to point out to people that you have these things. Xterra is retro at the same time it's a trendsetter: Its foundation is ruggedness, the foundation for the original SUV. This isn't a sedan in SUV cladding.
The Xterra concept has prevailed beyond Nissan's expectations and hopes; heck, it's still just catching on. About the only thing on the Xterra that's changed since its introduction last year is its prices, which has increased by $450 to $650 on some models.
Two Xterra models, XE and SE, are available.
The base 4x2 XE ($17,999) comes with a four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission. Four-cylinder models are only available with two-wheel drive. Nissan's 2.4-liter double overhead-cam four-cylinder engine is rated at 143-horsepower.
XE V6 models come with a 3.3-liter single overhead-cam V6 that produces 170 horsepower. A five-speed manual is standard, and a four-speed automatic is available ($1,000). Three option packages are available: Utility ($699), Power ($1299) and Sport $849).
SE models come standard with the V6 and the equipment included in the XE's option packages. 2001 SE models also come standard with 16-inch (instead of 15-inch) alloy wheels and P255/65R16 all-season radials.
With the base Xterra XE, don't expect much of what Nissan is so actively marketing-those outdoorsy options. While the ruggedness is inherent in the Xterra, all the really neat stuff is in the packages, and in extra-cost accessories beyond the packages: neoprene seat covers, interior two-bike rack, and a tow hitch. You might even have to go to work instead of skiing, to pay for the Xterra you really want, to take you skiing.
Even though the Xterra is no longer a novelty on the road, it still draws comments. Our test model came in one of the new 2001 colors, called Mineral Blue, an attractive grayish teal unanimously appreciated by spectators. Our test took place in the heart of Xterra territory: around Hood River, Oregon, a small town offering so much environment that it that draws kayakers, windsurfers, hikers, climbers, Alpine and Nordic skiers, mountain bikers, fishermen and horse people. The name Xterra signifies connection to the earth, which these pursuits certainly do. Sometimes face first.
The Xterra has visual distinction that says rugged. The thick tubular aluminum roof rack with black airfoil; matching step rails; stout fender flares; handsome alloy wheels; beefy charcoal grille and wraparound front bumper with big radiator vents and recessed halogen fog lights; vertical handles on the trailing edge of the rear doors; a two-tiered roof with a tall square back having a bulge in the tailgate for the first aid kit; and, if you crawl under the vehicle, you'll see skid plates under the engine and fuel tank.
Our own walkaround included a step up-and fall back. The tall, flat rear bumper with gripped surface makes a perfect stand for reaching the roof rack, but it's difficult to get up on, because there is no grab handle. If you're tall enough, you can hang onto the rear corner of the rack from the side of the vehicle and swing yourself up, but only rock climbers will love it. Considering the vehicle's hype about function, this is a significant if small oversight. Nissan says the Pathfinder is similar, and nobody ever complained. Maybe not, but Pathfinder owners carry groceries more often than kayaks.
In the same vein, the optional removable plastic gear basket at the front of the rack is an excellent idea (think of sloppy ski or hiking boots), but there's no net to cover it-that's another accessory you have to buy.
A new instrument panel is the most significant change in 2001. It is stylish, but ironically it's less functional than the old panel. And its style is a matter of individual taste. The instrument background is a striking shade of gunmetal, two shades actually, and looks slick. At night the numbers illuminate, but because they're outlined in white instead of being bold, they're difficult to read. The tachometer is new for 2001, stretching to 8000 rpm despite a power peak that comes at 4800; the redline begins at 6000, which makes you wonder if the big eight-grand tachometer is just an excuse to have a touch of flair on the panel, in the form of thick fluorescent red line.
The digital clock is positioned so it's virtually impossible to read in the sunlight, which is annoying, and little green lights indicating the air conditioning is on are so dim and tiny you simply don't know by looking, although the AC itself is very good.
The console layout is very tidy and handsome, appropriately spartan. A new CD changer holds six CDs, which can be selected with the six radio station buttons. There are two cool buttons for the four-way flashers and rear window defogger, rectangular and totally flat on the face of the aluminum-looking panel. The heater controls are three big switches with wings. There are front and rear auxiliary DC outlets in addition to the cigarette lighter, and big fixed cupholders front and rear. Cruise control and radio controls are located on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, with wide spokes located at 3, 9, 5 and 7 o'clock. The whole padded center is the horn, the best and safest operation because of quick access. The horn is tinny but strong, a no-frills statement.
The bucket seats fit well and provide good lumbar support; we made one five-hour freeway run with no aches. We also took the Xterra windsurfing, and missed the cool accessory seat covers made of wetsuit material. Other nice available cabin details include the side window demisters and rear heat ducts, smart storage crannies, as many as 10 cargo hooks on floor and ceiling, and a strap on the tailgate to close it from the inside.
The roof is raised over the rear seats to allow for their elevation, which is good because with a nice view through the windshield, back-seat passengers might not notice how little legroom exists-an inch less than the smaller Toyota RAV 4. Because it's built on the Frontier pickup truck platform, Xterra's engineers must have been challenged to squeeze everything in, while providing the good 65.6 cubic feet of cargo space. When the 50-50 rear seatbacks are folded down, the seat bottoms must be removed, or else the front seats must be jammed impossibly close to the dash. So, depending on circumstance, you either leave them in your garage or they become loose cargo of their own. At least they're featherweight.
Thanks to high-tech sound insulation in places not normally insulated, Xterra is very quiet at freeway speeds. However, floor the throttle and the single-cam V6 gets pretty loud. And the luggage rack hisses in the wind. The Xterra sways at gusts and leans in curves, not surprising given its height and boxy shape; it is taller and longer than a Jeep Cherokee. That big vertical rear window provides excellent visibility, but it gathers dust and dirt like crazy. The optional rear wiper/washer is optional, but should be considered standard equipment for anyone who drives in anything less than perfect conditions on a dry road. (It comes standard on SE, but is part of a $599 Utility Package on XE.)
The front suspension is double wishbone; the rear is leaf springs with a solid axle. Power steering is by recirculating ball. The Xterra is nimble at slower speeds, feeling lighter than its 4130 pounds, and it actually steers more easily than the 2001 Frontier pickup, which comes with lower profile tires. At higher speeds there is a slight lag in the steering from the on-center position, but the straight-line ride is very nice. The chassis rides on the backs of 10 individually tuned dual-rate rubber chassis mounts, so there's no harshness there at all. At the same time, the Frontier's ladder chassis is certainly strong. The suspension takes bumps well; it sometimes has a bit more trouble with dips, which can be felt in the pit of your stomach similar to the feeling from a fast-stopping elevator. The suspension does a great job on washboard gravel roads. In corners, there's less sway than you might expect given the high center of gravity, but the head toss is significant over rutted and potholed dirt roads. Our test vehicle was a 4WD XE, so it came with 15-inch wheels. Get the optional limited-slip rear differential if you drive off road for the increased traction it provides.
Our 170-horsepower V6 was challenged to smartly drag the 4WD Xterra's body weight of 4130 pounds. We haven't tested an Xterra with the little twin-cam 143-horsepower four-cylinder engine, but guess that it must be downright burdened. Maximum torque of 154 foot-pounds for the four-cylinder engine comes at 4000 rpm versus peak torque of 200 foot-pounds for the V6 at just 2800 rpm-and lower is better for accelerating up steep hills or pulling away from an intersection. But if you really want an Xterra that honks, then look for the 210-horsepower supercharged version that should arrive in dealerships this spring (2001). Now we're talking SUV.
Nissan's four-speed automatic transmission shifts up and down very smoothly, and its electronic calibration avoids hunting on hills-as long as you're not in overdrive. The four-wheel antilock brakes are big enough, although rear disc brakes would be a welcome upgrade from the rear drum brakes. The drums are understandable, however, because the Xterra is built on the Frontier platform, and the pickup is perfectly fine with rear drums.
The Nissan Xterra is a solid contender in the nuts-and-bolts department. It's highly functional and a winner in the style department. The decision is in the details. You have to look at the things that make it distinctive, look at the price, and decide how much value you place on being cool.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.