SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide
In the last year and a half of testing cars and trucks, only the Corvette and Prowler have caused a stir where ever I went and for reasons that are self explanatory. But a $22,000 sport ute causing a stir? Well it happened last week.
From the time the new Xterra was delivered, I was constantly bombarded with questions "what is that?" or "does it drive as good as it looks?" Or "too Cool!" It was like that for the weekend I spent in Lake Tahoe and the balance of the week in Placerville.
The Xterra, which means X for cross and terra for earth, is an SUV that has been derived from the very successful Frontier Pickup. From the front door forward it is basically a Frontier. The rear body is all new and what a great design. The focal points are the stepped roof line which creates theater seating for the rear seat passengers and the large diameter powdered coated aluminum roof rack with a special storage basket. But the rest of the lines from the massive Frontier styled front end to the large blistered wheel wheels all work to give the Xterra a rugged, ready to get down and dirty look. Even the second and third side windows are superbly integrated into the overall look. This is a great looking unit.
Underneath the trick body is a real truck. The frame is massive with a most imposing double wishbone independent suspension up front and huge torsion bars that aren't for sissies. Even the brackets that hold the oval knurled factory running boards are built with what appears to be quarter inch steel plates welded directly to the frame. Even the welds are massive. They must have got this stuff from an Army surplus sale of armor plate from Sherman tanks.
The rear suspension is a beefy live axle with leaf springs. But 4X4's are not supposed to deliver ride quality, they are suppose to be rough and tumble with comfort being secondary. Not the Xterra. On the highway, smooth in the operative word. No tar strip or expansion joint intrusion allowed. It swallowed up bumps like a hungry lion. The bigger the bump the better it handled it. Well controlled would be very accurate description.
On secondary paved roads like Tahoe Mountain that is chewed up every winter by the weather, the Xterra was remarkable. Bumps didn't upset it in the corners and the body was tight and absolutely rattle free. And this was a pre-production model not built as well as the factory trucks. Ponderosa Road was about a smooth as a sport ute could make it. The Xterra was firm but supple enough to take out most of the washboard while leaving my fillings in place and intact.
Handling was very sporty. Roads like Green Valley, Highway 89 on the west side of Lake Tahoe, Latrobe and Carson became passive when the Xterra became aggressive. Steering is power assisted recirculating ball that had superb on center feel with the right amount of road feel dialed in. I did notice some tire squeal and premature sliding, that I didn't notice in my day with the Xterra from three months ago. It may have to do with the seven thousand miles of punishment previously dished out upon this particular vehicle.
But legal speeds could be maintained in all but the tightest corners without upset, drifting or sliding. Twisties just enhance the fun of driving this SUV. The nimble, impressive handling was enhanced by the Xterra's tight 35.4 feet turning circle. The Xterra is more pleasure than seeing the look on Al Gore's face after drinking directly from the pristine, crystal clear headwaters waters of the Merced River when he realizes what a bear just did a quarter of a mile upstream.
Part of the Xterra's handling qualities are due to the copious amounts of rubber it puts on the road. The wheels are cast 7X15 inch alloys (optional as part of the Sport Package for $799) and are shod with huge 265/70 mud and snow rated tires.
The brakes are power front discs with drum rears with standard front and rear antilock. The feel was powerful and confident and stops were short, straight and sure.
Off road performance was excellent. The $799 Sport Package includes a limited slip rear axle which means going up dirt hills of 10% or more didn't require the use of four wheel drive which is engaged by a smaller lever next to the gear shift. Under more difficult circumstances of mud, wet dirt, snow or ice engaging the part time 4X4 system would be mandatory. It is a part time shift on the fly system. There is also a low range for extreme work. I previous drove the Xterra under conditions I wouldn't even want to walk (I would probably slip and fall) with precision and complete safety with side inclines of 25%. Spiderman would be impressed.
Even though the Xterra has an entry level price tag (more on that later), it is really a midsize SUV. It rides on a 104.3 inch wheelbase with an overall length and width of 178 by 70.4 inches. That puts it right in the middle of the midsize SUV competition.
On the inside are some of the most comfortable seats you will find. Upholstered in a heavy, durable cloth meant for abuse, the seat bolsters have just the right foam densities to keep your backside happy for hours. Nissan carried over the seat design of the wonderful Frontier which approaches easy chair comfort. If it isn't broken, please do not fix it. There is even a "shirt pocket" on the interior side of the right seat back for sun glasses or cell phone.
The rear seats sit on a pedestal about three inches above the front. With the pronounced raised roof line there is still an abundant amount of headroom with incredible visibility in all directions. There is plenty of legroom and comfort for two with reasonable comfort for three adults. To fold down the rear seat backs, the seat cushions have two easy to use releases and come complete free and can be placed just behind the front seat backs. Replacement is a literal snap.
The dash is right out of the Frontier. A large speedo and tach are flanked by a fuel gauge and temp gauge. The central dash holds the manual AC controls and sound system. The center console has the high mounted manual gearshift which looks very awkward at first, but has great ergonomics. There are three cupholders and an armrest storage console.
The rear of the Xterra has lots of nooks and crannies, including space for a factory first aid kit. There are interior tie down hooks all over the place and a factory interior bike rack option which holds at least two bikes.
Power is by the a 2.4L DOHC, 16 valve inline four or a 3.3L SOHC, 12 valve V-6. The four puts out 143 hp at 5,200 rpm and 154 lbs-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Adequate but the V-6 is the only way to go in a 4X4. It is right out of the Frontier packing a 170 hp at 4,800 rpm and 200 lbs-ft of torque at a basement low of 2,800 rpm.
My vehicle had the five speed manual which is very well suited to the characteristics of the V-6 (and four for that matter). It pulls strongly from 1,500 rpm in the lower gears and from 2,000 in the higher gears, even up hills all thanks to the low rpm-high torque grunt of the V-6 powerplant. It knock off 0-60 in 10.58 seconds (I did have one run at 9.95 back up by a 10.29). I was expecting the Xterra to be a little quicker, but as my test vehicle was a pre production model with 7,000 very hard miles, a production model should produce better times. Passing times averaged a respectable 6.65 seconds on the level and the hill climb slowed that time to 12.6 seconds. I was still able to effectuate several passes going up Highway 50 (using passing lanes only for overtaking cars and trucks traveling well under the speed limit).
Being miserly on fuel is not the rule for SUV's, but the Xterra knows no rules. In 800 miles of hard driving, it averaged 17.5 mpg. The EPA rates the Xterra 5 speed manual V-6 at 16/18 city/highway and the four speed auto at 15/19 mpg. With a 19.4 gallon fuel tank forays into the unknown will provide plenty of return reserve. I prefer the flexibility and performance of the 5 speed over the automatic.
Cruising on the highway was very smooth. You can forget that this is a rugged 4X4 SUV because it rides like a sedan. Even with the engine spinning 3,050 rpm at 70 mph, it is mechanically quiet with little intrusion from wind and road noise. The ride is well controlled and bumps are swallowed whole by the long travel suspension.
Now for the best news of all and that's affordability. The new Xterra is priced to sell. The base price for the XE V-6 4X4 five speed manual is $20,499 plus $520 for destination.
There are three packages available, the sport package which includes alloys, fogs, tow hooks and limited slip axle for $799 (a must have), the utility package which includes the luggage rack, step rails, bigger tires, six ceiling tie clips tilt, first aid kit and some other stuff for $999 (also a must have, what's an Xterra without the neat luggage rack) and finally the power package at $1,299 which give you cruise, power windows, locks, remote entry, alarm and a little nicer interior treatment. Of the power options which my test vehicle did not have, I would have liked power door locks and cruise, but I could live with roll up windows as this is definitely not a vehicle for wimps. The reason I mentioned nothing about AC or the sound system is because its standard and so is a single play CD, skid plates, front and rear stabilizer bars. Pretty nice.
The upscale SE model comes with all of the above and a little nicer upholstery and stickers for $25,549 plus destination. There are no other factory options other than floor mats ($79), mud guards ($59) and a tow hitch at $349. Ditto for the XE as well except alloys can be purchased separately for $599 but for an extra $200 the limited slip ( a must) fogs and tow hooks can be had as well.
The four speed automatic will add $1,000 and a base 4X2 with the four banger starts at a lowly $17,349.
Get over to Shingle Springs Nissan, Subaru and Kia and check out this Xterra. Bring your kayak and camping gear. Put your bikes on the inside rack and then make like Lewis and Clark and cover new unchartered territory. All in a day's fun, which is what the Xterra is all about.
SPECIFICATIONS Price $17,869 to about $26,000 Engine 2.4L DOHC, 16 valve, 143 hp @ 5,200 rpm Inline four 154 lbs-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm Redline: 5,900 3.3L, SOHC, 12 valve 170 hp @ 4,800 rpm V-6 200 lbs-ft of torque @ 2,800 rpm Redline: 6,100 Transmissions 5 speed manual 4 speed automatic Transfer Case, Part time four wheel drive with low range (2.020 ratio) Configuration Front longitudinal engine, rear wheel drive, four wheel drive Dimensions Wheelbase 104.3 inches Length 178.0 inches Width 70.4 inches Height 69.6 inches/74.3 inches with roof rack Weight 4,042 pounds (SE) Ground clearance 8.4 inches Tow capacity 3,500 pounds manual/5,000 pounds automatic Fuel Capacity 19.4 gallons Turning Circle 35.4 feet PERFORMANCE 0-60 10.5 seconds 50-70 6.65 seconds 50-70 uphill 12.6 seconds Top Speed 100 plus, but definitely more comfortable in the 70 mph range. If speed is the desire, buy a new Maxima and rent Laguna Seca or Sears Point Fuel Economy EPA 16/18 city/highway. Expect about 17-18 in El Dorado County and 18-20 on the highway