SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide
Before the term "sport-utility vehicle" came into popular usage, and SUVs became the modern suburban equivalent of the station wagon, utility vehicles were unabashedly trucks, and based on a company's pickup. The trucks and their owners were rugged, capable of travelling miles on dirt roads or no roads, and eschewed luxury-car appointments like leather seats, wood trim, and gizmos galore.
Then utility vehicles became popular, and mainstream. The rough edges were filed off, luxury features were added, and yesterday's affordable backwoods-friendly truck became today's upscale suburban- oriented station wagon replacement. Case in point: the Nissan Pathfinder. The original Pathfinder was little more than a Nissan pickup with a built-in shell and a back seat. The current, second- generation Pathfinder is a refined vehicle with go-anywhere capabilities but aimed towards the majority of buyers -- people for whom "off-road" more likely means a tailgate party in a muddy stadium parking lot than a secret fishing spot miles from nowhere.
Nissan knows that there are plenty of potential customers who would have bought a Pathfinder ten years ago, but for whom the current Pathfinder is too upscale. So it has returned to the roots with the new Xterra.
The Xterra is unabashedly based on Nissan's 4x4 Frontier pickup, and looks the part. It's a 4-door, body-on-frame vehicle, available in 4x2 or 4x4 form with a choice of 2.4-liter 4-cylinder (2WD only) or 3.3-liter V6 engines. No leather, no wood, no navigation system except your map and compass -- just the basics.
I enjoyed my week with a top-of-the-line Xterra SE 4x4. It worked fine around town and in traffic, and was not too big to park. Unfortunately a too-busy schedule kept me from trying it out in the mountains, so I'll just have to get hold of another one later on and head for the hills. It looks to be perfect for the job, and my mountain bike fits in the back without a problem even without the optional inside bike rack.
APPEARANCE: With its raised rear roofline, the Nissan Xterra looks like a pickup with a built-in camper shell. It has no pretensions to luxury, but does have a contemporary rugged-outdoors look. It shares the headlights, front bumper, hood, and front doors of the Frontier, and the rest of the body panels are similar. No one will mistake it for a luxury car, and it looks best when covered with mud. The plastic- coated bumpers and grille add an aggressive look, as do the blister- style fender flares. The tubular running boards are convenient for access, and the tubular roof rack looks ready for safari. A cargo-carrier at the front of the rack does need to be removed if the sunroof is to be used, however.
COMFORT: The Xterra's interior can't be hosed clean -- Nissan didn't go that far back to the roots -- but its synthetic materials look to be tolerant of hard, dirty use. It's honest, functional, and very user- friendly. In SE trim, it's not at all basic, with power with power windows, mirrors, and doorlocks (with remote entry). The climate control system provides warm or cold air quickly, and a 6-speaker AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo entertains. Instruments are well-placed and readable; control knobs, buttons, and levers are large and well-marked. The front buckets are very comfortable and supportive, and the split- folding rear bench is mounted higher for visibility. The rear cushions can be removed in order to fold the seatback flat. Water landings, anyone? (Use 'em around the campfire, just don't forget them!) With the rear seat folded, the rear cargo area is long enough for a bicycle to fit easily -- no need to remove the front wheel -- or for shorter people to bivouac during camping trips. Back up front, attention is paid even to small details. The cupholders not only are designed for cups with handles, they have removable rubber inserts to help clean out the inevitable mess. This is a vehicle for people who seriously use their vehicles.
SAFETY: The Nissan Xterra has front and rear crumple zones, side- guard door beams, dual air bags, child-safety rear door locks, and three-point harnesses for outboard passengers.
ROADABILITY: Despite its back-to-basics intent, the Xterra is not a bad vehicle in the civilized part of the world. It's a truck, but a modern truck, so it has decent soundproofing, and a comfortable ride with very little bounciness. It doesn't vibrate eyeballs out of sockets, even on poor surfaces. The antilock disc/drum brakes stop well. It does have a high center of gravity, so don't expect it to corner like a 300ZX.
PERFORMANCE: With 170 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque in a 4,000-lb vehicle, don't expect acceleration like a 300ZX, either. But then, the Z-car is at a serious disadvantage in the dirt. The 3.3-liter V6- equipped Xterra does have very good low-speed power, important for pulling through mud, snow, or the everyday stoplight drag races. It's at no disadvantage around town. Acceleration at higher speeds is more leisurely, but acceptable. The engine is quiet in normal operation, but makes its presence known under hard acceleration. Hey -- this is a truck, and it is a truck that purposely is not overly civilized. Trucks have engines. The 4-speed automatic transmission, however, is as smooth, quiet, and unobtrusive as one in a luxury car. Four-wheel drive is engaged by a simple lever on the floor -- no electronic mechanisms to die at the wrong time.
CONCLUSIONS: Back to the basics is not a bad idea at all if it's back to basics in a Nissan Xterra.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 25,549 Price As Tested $ 26,069 Engine Type single overhead cam 12-valve V6 Engine Size 3.3 liters / 200 cu. in. Horsepower 170 @ 4,800 Torque (lb-ft) 200 @ 2,800 Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 104.3 in. / 178 in. Curb Weight 4,130 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 24.3 Fuel Capacity 19.4 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires 265/70 R15 BF Goodrich Long Trail Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone /solid axle with leaf springs Drivetrain front engine,on-demand four-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 15 / 19 / 17 0 to 60 mph 10.4 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 17.8 sec Towing capacity 5,000 lbs with automatic, OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination charge $ 520