Pros: Rugged, off-road capability; versatile interior

Cons: Trucklike performance

The Nissan Xterra made its debut in 2000 at the height of the American 4x4 SUV craze, with strong utility credentials: it's built on the F-Alpha truck platform shared with the full-size Nissan Titan pickup and the larger Armada SUV. Now in its second generation, the Xterra remains a truck-based SUV and has not been switched over to a car-based platform, as has, for example, the Ford Explorer.

The Xterra is offered in three models: X, S and PRO-4X. Nissan offers only one engine, a 4.0-liter V6 that can be mated to either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. The Xterra is available in four- and rear-wheel-drive versions.

For 2012, Nissan has added two new exterior colors to the Xterra lineup: Metallic Blue and Brilliant Silver.

Comfort & Utility

The interior of the Xterra has been designed to provide "everything you need and nothing you don't." Aimed at customers with active lifestyles, the Xterra has enough room for five adults with ample legroom, headroom and cargo space. The rear seat bottom cushions are removable, and the rear seatbacks fold down in a 60/40 split to provide further storage space. The standard cloth seats are solid, as is the rest of the simple interior. Materials are mostly strong plastic; it may not be the best-looking material, but it's stout and resilient.

In the rear, Nissan has installed 10 cargo area utility hooks that can hold up to 110 pounds. There's a built-in first aid kit back there, too, and an optional adjustable channel system in the cargo floor. Standard interior features include sporty reclining front bucket seats, a footrest, dual front and rear 20-ounce cupholders, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, remote keyless entry and cruise control with steering-wheel-mounted controls.

Technology

The 2012 Xterra also offers a range of advanced technologies including Bluetooth XM Satellite radio (XM subscription required and sold separately) and an eight-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system with subwoofer.

Nissan is focusing on capability and sport with the Xterra, so it's less technologically advanced than other SUVs currently on the market. After all, when owners are hauling snowboards up to the mountain, surfboards to the coast or mountain bikes out to the country, are they really focused on getting lane departure warning systems?

Performance & Fuel Economy

The only engine on the 2012 Xterra is a 4.0-liter V6 producing 261 horsepower and 281 lb-ft of torque. Mated to the V6 is either a six-speed manual or an electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission. The 2012 Xterra is rated at 16 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway.

Four-by-four models feature a part-time four-wheel-drive system with 2WD/4HI/4LO modes and an electronically controlled transfer case. Xterra PRO-4X models have two advanced off-road technologies: Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist as well as an electronic locking rear differential.

Safety

The 2012 Xterra has been fitted with driver, passenger, side impact and curtain side impact/rollover supplemental airbags. The Xterra also incorporates an energy-absorbing steering column, zone body construction with front and rear crumple zones, side door-guard beams, a shifter interlock system, vehicle dynamic control with traction control and a tire pressure monitoring system.

Driving Impressions

As truck-based SUVs begin to go the way of the buffalo, the Xterra becomes more and more distinctive because of its off-road capability and driving characteristics. When the Xterra was launched 12 years ago, it wasn't much different from most other SUVs on the market with its fuel-thirsty V6 and a pickup-truck ladder frame underneath. Now, however, even the Ford Explorer has adopted a softer, more comfortable unibody car-based platform. While these new carlike SUVs are more comfortable on the road, they don't allow for as many extreme off-road capable features.

For better or worse, the Xterra is very much a truck. The stiffness in the chassis and suspension is easily felt over speed bumps and during cornering. These make the Xterra ideal for remote adventure locations, but they also make daily driving harsher. This isn't to say the Xterra doesn't drive well: it does, but when compared with similarly built SUVs. When compared with the comfort of 2012 Explorer, for example, it's another story.

The driving position is a bit uncomfortable for tall drivers, as the seats are small, short, firm and low in the cabin. Youthful drivers will find little to dislike about the utilitarian cabin of the Xterra, but many older drivers will find long drives tiring due to the Xterra's all-around solid construction.

Fuel economy, as in most trucks, isn't fabulous. But the Xterra easily makes up for sacrifices in driving comfort and fuel economy with its utility and capability. The 4x4 Xterra can conquer most road conditions a driver could throw at it, and it does it with poise. For customers who need a sturdy SUV that can haul their gear to remote parts of the globe, few can meet the challenge as well as the Xterra.

Other Cars to Consider

Toyota FJ Cruiser - At a base price of $26,115 for a 4x2 model, the FJ Cruiser is one of the few remaining SUVs aimed at buyers who need off-road capability more than they need interior space and passenger capacity. With only two doors and three windshield wipers, the FJ Cruiser is in a class of its own.

Jeep Wrangler - Starting at $22,045, the Wrangler is one of the most iconic and affordable SUVs currently on the market. Recently Jeep fitted the Wrangler with the new Chrysler Pentastar V6, which has totally transformed its drivability. Couple its new engine with its legendary off-road capabilities, and it's no wonder the Wrangler has such long-term appeal.

Honda Pilot - With a base price of $28,470, the Pilot is a bit more expensive than the Xterra. But for that money, customers get a more family-friendly and plusher interior. Also built on the same platform as the Honda Ridgeline pickup, the Pilot is technically truck based. However, unlike the Xterra, the two-wheel-drive Pilot has front-, not rear-wheel drive.

AutoTrader Recommends

We like virtually every Xterra model. If your main interest is in a true hard-core off-roader, we recommend you steer toward the Wrangler or the FJ Cruiser instead. But if you want a distinctive, youthful, simple SUV, we say go for the Xterra's base X model with 4x4 for $26,940. If you can handle it, we recommend the six-speed manual, too. Manual transmissions are rare in American vehicles these days, especially in SUVs. We feel the manual, however, really brings the Xterra alive.

author photo

Nick Jaynes developed a passion for writing about cars working his way through Journalism School as a Volvo mechanic. When he's not writing, Nick can be seen hosting the popular automotive web-show DownForce Motoring. In his free-time, Nick collects vintage cars, trucks, and motorcycles.

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