By Chris Haak
In its first generation, the Nissan Xterra continued the body-on-frame, Hardbody/Frontier pickup-based tradition that the original Nissan Pathfinder began from 1986 through 1995. The Pathfinder then moved to a unibody architecture unrelated to the Frontier pickup and added comfort and convenience features, which created an opening below it in Nissan’s SUV lineup. The 2000 Frontier-based, body on frame Xterra filled that gap. Then in 2005, an all-new, larger, body on frame Pathfinder hit the market, and was again based on the Frontier pickup. Now in its second generation, the current Xterra also hit the market for the 2005 model year.
The Xterra is marketed as a back-to-basics, off-road-capable SUV. It’s certainly a traditional SUV, with a high ground clearance, aggressive, chunky styling, large tires, and a ladder frame. The original 2000 Xterra was marketed under the tagline, “Everything you need, nothing you don’t,” and its simple interior seems to echo that sentiment nine model years later. The problem is, the rest of the market has moved on to nicer interiors and additional luxury features in the meantime.
While the exterior of the Xterra isn’t as dramatically asymmetrical as the Nissan Cube is, the rear liftgate is certainly an odd feature, as it has a bulge on the left side of its exterior to accommodate the standard first-aid kit. The rear window then drops lower on its right side than on its left as it goes around the first-aid kit bulge. Another styling oddity is that the theater-style seating for the rear seat necessitates a raised roof; unlike with the Pathfinder’s styling, the top of the Xterra’s front and rear doors are not aligned; the bottom of the back doors’ windows also kicks upward in a sort of strange move toward the rear window. The stepped-up roof would look completely ridiculous if it didn’t have the gigantic roof rack, including a latching gear basket above the front passenger space. The fender flare were also a bit too much, as they protruded nearly three inches from the rest of the body.
I do like the new-for-2009 grille treatment, and the unpainted gray plastic doesn’t look bad with the dark gray paint (called “night armor” by the marketing folks at Nissan). The functional features on the Xterra’s exterior like the chunky roof rack and integrated step on the side of the rear bumper would probably make this vehicle more useful off-road, or at least for dirty, outdoor sports. For example, the cargo basket at the front of the roof could hold muddy boots or clothing.
When I first saw the MSRP of this Xterra, I was pleasantly surprised by how low the MSRP was. $28,220 including destination seemed to be a pretty reasonable price for a V6-powered, off-road-capable SUV, especially knowing that the 2009 Pathfinder SE 4×4 that I tested in October 2008 had a $39,310 MSRP. (That Pathfinder, while not the top-of-the-line LE model, had nearly every option available except for navigation and the optional V8 engine). The XTerra’s interior, however, it was easy to see where Nissan trimmed cost. The more expensive Pathfinder already has too much hard plastic scattered throughout the interior. The XTerra takes that phenomenon to new levels; the Pathfinder’s silver-rimmed gauges are black in the XTerra. The Pathfinder’s woven headliner is replaced by rough, fuzzy cardboard in the Xterra. The Pathfinder’s leather seating surfaces are cloth in the XTerra.
Other ways that Nissan trimmed content from the Pathfinder to hit the Xterra’s price point include unpainted bumpers, a shorter body that does not include the Pathfinder’s third-row seat, a Rockford Fosgate stereo instead of a Bose one, and a rear solid axle instead of the Pathfinder’s independent suspension. The Pathfinder SE may be $11,000 more expensive, but it felt worth it to me. When normalizing equipment levels using TrueDelta.com’s pricing tool, the Xterra is about $900 cheaper. My test vehicle, an Xterra S, had a $27,605 base price including destination, and only had the $500 X Gear Package (fog lights, roof rack crossbars, first aid kit, cargo net, gear basket) and the $115 floor mats. The Technology Package, normally a $1,300 add-on, was thrown in for free and includes the eight-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system, Bluetooth, steering wheel audio controls, and XM Satellite Radio. Nissan currently has a $3,000 rebate on the Pathfinder and a $2,000 rebate on the Xterra (both of which are factored into the TrueDelta pricing comparison above), without which the price differential would be less than $100 – meaning that you get $11,000 worth of additional features for your $11,000.
The Xterra’s 4.0 liter , 261-horsepower V6 pulled strongly and consistently throughout its operating range. It was refreshing to drive a vehicle without a CVT after several press vehicles in a row having them. Since Nissan doesn’t install CVTs in their trucks, the Xterra has a five-speed automatic that seemed to be reasonably intelligent, although it lacked the Pathfinder’s manual-shift feature in another cost-cutting move. I have two critiques of the engine – it is way too thirsty for its power and the size and weight of the vehicle, and it is somewhat noisy and harsh at higher engine speeds. The EPA rates the Xterra at 15 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway; these figures aren’t far from a V8-powered Chevrolet Suburban (14/20), but are actually better than the Xterra’s primary competitor, the Jeep Wrangler by one mpg in each test (15/19). I couldn’t tell my own fuel economy (it didn’t have the optional trip computer), but based on the trip odometer, fuel gauge readout, and my previous experience in owning a 2005 Pathfinder for two years, its economy was in the 17 mpg range. The Xterra has a far more powerful engine than the Wrangler does, and also a more refined interior, but the Wrangler’s powertrain is pure old tech, with a four-speed automatic and 210-horsepower 3.8 liter overhead-valve V6. By the way, the Wrangler is also $2,710 more expensive than the Xterra. And yet, the Wrangler is an off-roading legend, while the Xterra is still just an up-and-coming challenger to that title.
The short wheelbase of the Xterra shows up as a handicap in both a somewhat bouncy, choppy ride on anything other than a smooth surface, as well as less high-speed stability than I’d like to see in what is still a fairly large vehicle. I didn’t have the opportunity to take the Xterra off road into its natural environment, but the short overhangs, short wheelbase, large tires, and high ground clearance would all prove assets when the terrain got rough. My lower-end test vehicle was equipped with an electronic four wheel drive selector and had a low range on the transfer case, but did not come with hill descent control as is available in the Xterra and Pathfinder with the Off Road package.
If you like the looks of the Xterra (personally, I think it’s a little overdone) and don’t want frills such as leather seats, navigation, a power moonroof, and nicer interior trim, it’s a reasonable bargain for a tough, capable truck. If you do not plan to take your vehicle off-roading and plan to primarily use the XTerra to commute or trek kids to practice and school, you’d be better off with a more efficient and more comfortable crossover such as a Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox, or even a Mitsubishi Outlander. The Xterra’s design and engineering have too many compromises in favor of off-road prowess for me to recommend it as a daily driver for most folks, and particularly those with families, since a Honda Accord has about the same amount of passenger space (with a smaller cargo area, but 900 pounds less curb weight). Buying an Xterra as a family vehicle is like buying a Porsche 911 Turbo to drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or buying a pair of $5,000 John Lobb golf shoes to go mini golfing. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. That being said, it’d be a lot of fun to take off road to a campsite off the beaten path every few weekends by a young guy and his buddies.
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