by Sam Moses
Back-to-basics SUV: Functional, tough and affordable.
Base Price $17,349
As Tested $24,556
It's ironic how things sometimes come full circle. For the last few years, the direction of SUV design has been toward car-like comfort and handling. But now, Nissan boasts that the main virtue of the new Xterra is that it travels back to SUV roots. Meaning, it's more truck-like. The marketing euphemism is "rugged." Considering the target market, rugged is good.
But reasonably priced is better. Intended buyers include kayakers, skiers, mountain bikers, climbers and windsurfers, people who have been known to place the spiritual value of outdoor recreation over the material rewards of career. Scheduling your career around, say, fresh powder isn't the quickest way to financial wealth so car payments need to be kept in check.
There are two Xterra models, XE and SE, and three option packages: Sport, Power and Utility.
The base $17,349 4x2 XE comes with the 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission. You can't get four-wheel drive with the four-banger. The optional 3.3-liter V6 raises the XE to $18,499, or $20,499 for the 4x4 XE.
The $22,549 two-wheel-drive SE comes standard with the V6. The 4x4 SE lists for $24,549. A four-speed automatic adds $1,000.
The base XE offers ruggedness, but not much else. All the really neat stuff is in the option packages and accessories: By adding packages you could create an XE virtually the same as an SE. But this quickly raises the price. A $999 XE Utility Package is needed for the roof rack, tubular step rails, first-aid kit, big tires, rear wipers and other goodies. Alloy wheels are $599. The SE comes with this stuff, but accessories such as the slick two-bike rack, the neoprene seat covers and tow hitch cost extra.
It was surprising how much attention our Xterra attracted. But maybe not, considering the test took place in and around Hood River, Oregon, a small town offering so much environment that it that draws kayakers, windsurfers, hikers, climbers, both Alpine and Nordic skiers, mountain bikers, fishermen and even cowboys. And on this week, coincidentally, it drew the XTERRA America Tour, an off-road triathlon series sponsored by Nissan to expose the Xterra. Actually, the triathlon came before the truck. Nissan liked the name-borne of earth, terrain, adventure-so they licensed the rights to use it. Lots of people walked around our Aztec Red machine (and even more would have noticed, had it been Solar Yellow). Nearly all of them thought it was cool.
The Xterra does have a rugged visual distinction. 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, and finally the two-tiered roof with a tall square back having a bulge in the tailgate for the first aid kit. If they had crawled underneath, they would have seen the skid plates (standard) 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. Kayakers will hate it. 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.
The cabin is relatively, appropriately, spartan. Blessedly simple switchgear: rotary knobs, not tiny buttons and digital displays, and no more of them than you need. The air conditioning is super, the six-speaker CD satisfying. The horn is tinny but strong -- it gets the job done, and makes a no-frills statement.
The manually adjusted driver's seating position feels right, in relation to the correctly sized leather-wrapped steering wheel (tilt is an option), which contains thumb buttons for cruise control. The cloth-only bucket seats fit well and provide good lumbar support; we made one five-hour freeway run with no aches. We also took Xterra windsurfing, and missed the cool accessory seat covers made of wetsuit material.
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 RAV4. 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. So, depending on circumstance, you either leave them in your garage or they become loose cargo of their own. At least they are featherweight. Nice cabin details (some standard, some optional) include solid cupholders, two power outlets, 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.
Thanks to high-tech sound insulation in places not normally insulated, Xterra is very quiet at freeway speeds, although with the throttle floored the SOHC six gets pretty loud. And, despite the airfoil's deflection of wind from the luggage rack, the interior hisses in the wind. The vehicle also sways at gusts, and leans in curves, not surprising given its height and boxiness: The Xterra 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 rear wiper/washer is an option, but it really is not an option.
The Xterra is very nimble at slower speeds, feeling lighter than its 4,130 pounds, which may be its friendliest trait. A close second is the straight-line ride, on the backs of 10 individually tuned dual-rate rubber chassis mounts--no harshness at all here. At the same time, the Frontier's ladder chassis is certainly strong. But the suspension takes bumps--including a great job on washboard gravel roads--much better than it takes dips, which deliver a drop-out-from-under-you feeling. And the side-to-side sway is serious over rutted and potholed dirt roads.
The front suspension is double wishbone, the rear has leaf springs with a solid axle, and the power steering is by recirculating ball. The steering lacks on-center feel. Driving in a straight line, you can (not that you would) twitch the steering wheel back and forth in an arc as much as 30 degrees, and you get no real direction change, only a quick little rocking. In a real circumstance on a curvy road, the effect is a slightly floaty, lagging turn-in. Of course, this might be tuned into the steering by design; this delayed response might actually be a comfort zone, to some.
Power-wise, the 170-horspower six, with 200 foot-pounds of torque at 2800 rpm, is, well, at 16 city and 19 highway miles per gallon, you might expect more acceleration, most noticeably on freeway on-ramps. It makes us wonder if the 16-valve DOHC four, with 143 horses and a five-speed pulling about 600 fewer pounds, and rated at 19 and 24 mpg, might not offer more value.
But the four-speed automatic transmission gets high marks, shifting up and down with complete smoothness, and its electronic calibration avoids hunting on hills. The four-wheel anti-lock brakes felt fine, although we thought that there might be discs at the rear, and they're still drums.
Irony brought us in, irony takes us out. Nissan built the Xterra because outdoor gearheads need racks, baskets, water-resistant seatcovers, first-aid kits. All of which are available in the aftermarket--cheaper and just as functional as Xterra accessories. (Well, maybe roof-mounted gear baskets with airfoils aren't buyable, but that's what plastic milk cartons are for.) But if you want a basic rugged SUV that's not cushy, tiny, expensive or a Cherokee, one that has the cachet of new and different yet is proven under the skin, then it's definitely worth exploring to see how much you can get of what you need, without defeating that low-cost purpose. Or, if the value to you is in being cool, go for it.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.