Pros: Roomy, high clearance, sturdy
Cons: Gutless 4Cyl engine, Lousy Ride
Spring has arrived along the Gulf Coast. I'm rolling west out of Houston along I-10 in a riot of color. Carpets of bluebonnets line the roadsides, as yet unsullied by the inevitable amateur photographers and those families in their finery. Here and there I spot clumps and clusters of primrose in pale pink evening gowns; brilliant yellow coreopsis and purple henbit lurk in the median as if embarrassed to pit their tiny flowers against the showy 'bonnets. In the shade of an overgrown fencerow I catch glimpses of the winy tones of a stand of claret cups; simple fuchsia heads like wineglasses waving on slender stems; and over yonder a prickly phalanx of California poppies has invaded from a nearby pasture, long, fuzzy dark green stems crowned by delicate white petals around a lotus-like core. On hillside and meadow alike, the Indian paintbrush nod wisely, shafts of color ranging from startling orange to fire-engine red waving contentedly in the humid breeze. Overhead a squadron of turkey buzzards circles lazily above some carrion buried in the tall grass, flying in a perfect missing-man formation.
As for me, I'm fighting a well-nigh uncontrollable urge to roar off the pavement, spraying mud left and right and sending battalions of Ladybird Johnson's legacy to their heavenly reward. As I resist the urge, I keep wondering: "Does Nissan install a testosterone dispenser as standard equipment in the Xterra?"
Is this the Ultimate Boy Toy?
Immediately on seeing your first Xterra you know that every inch of the vehicle breathes essence of (young) male, from the buffed, muscular body to the simple lines of the manly interior. The standard roof rack might as well be a backwards-billed baseball cap; that strange flat spot on the rear hatch is a precise analog for the perfect circle imprinted on ten million teenage boys' wallets. There's no question at all that Nissan aimed this vehicle, with laser targeting, at a youthful male market.
Unlike Honda and Toyota (among others) whose smallest SUVs ride on a car platform, Nissan has built the Xterra around the frame of its Frontier pickup. It's a meaty, beaty, big and bouncy bruiser of an SUV, positioned squarely to take over the Jeep Wrangler market from the sixteen-to-twenty-six age group. The brutish good looks of the Xterra - tall and slender, with a two-step roofline and what looks like an over-engineered roof rack - should serve it well in that market. The pot's sweetened by a passel of wild colors - who among us has yet to see a canary yellow model on the streets? - and a standard 100-watt stereo with CD, tinted windows, ABS, and anti-skid plates; also aimed to please. Throw in the optional first aid kit (it screams, "Xtreme Sportsman Here!"), 300-watt six-disc in-dash CD changer, and - the piece de resistance - the new-this-year 210-hp turbocharged V6 engine, and the teenage boy inside us will be in seventh heaven!
Not for Everybody?
The very features that make the Xterra boy-bait probably place serious limits on its popularity outside the target audience. With the disappearance of station wagons and the waning popularity of minivans, the SUV has become the new family cruiser for Sunday afternoon rides in the country. Families, however, tend to like their creature comforts: car-seat latches, two cupholders for every seat, DVD players that drop from the ceiling, six-way adjustable chairs, and -- above all - a cushiony ride. The Xterra is definitely not aimed at this crowd, neither its creature comforts nor its ride. You say you want a small SUV with a smooth, quiet ride? Have you tried the Toyota Highlander yet? 'Cause the Xterra's not what you're looking for!
The Driving Experience
I put about 450 miles on a four-wheel drive Xterra XE (the base trim level), with the stock four-speed automatic and 2.4-liter (140-hp) 4-cylinder power plant. If anybody cares, it was silver. Again, if anybody cares, I got about 18MPG for mainly highway driving... I engaged the shift-on-the-fly 4WD only for a trip down my driveway, though I probably could have used it a few times in downtown Houston's interminable road construction.
Handling is intended to be fun - and it is, as long as you're going fairly slowly. There's a reason all Nissan's commercials show the Xterra grinding up the countryside instead of rockin' down the highway. The Xterra turns on a relative dime at low speed, which can be a blessing in true off-road situations (or on Milam in downtown Houston). At higher speeds, the steering has a tendency to wander on smooth roads, especially if the surface is a tad slick; and its high profile gives the vehicle just a hint of tippiness through high-speed turns. The ride... what can you say about the ride... truck-like? bouncy? not unlike a Kenmore washing machine with an unbalanced load? Well, I said the Xterra's not intended for families, and if you're worried the kiddies'll get whiplash, this is one truck to avoid! Be prepared to buckle up firmly, for this truck can put you through the wringer on rough pavement.
The little four-banger had great difficulty shoving around the Xterra's 4300-pound carcass, with lousy acceleration and a great deal of noise. Under acceleration, the engine howls like a lovesick hyena; even at a steady speed the poor baby sounds like a rhino with a bellyache - that's assuming you can hear it over the abundant road noise and the howl of the wind in the roof rack (fairing or no, it's darned noisy). The automatic transmission spent about as much time hunting for the proper gear as it did performing quietly. This is definitely not the proper configuration for a truck this size and weight - purchasers are well advised to at least spring for the 170-horse V6 (which is also rumored to be gutless) if not the turbo version.
The driving position is high - heck, everything is high, including the cargo bed, which hits this 5'11" guy right at Gluteus maximus level (I'd hate to have to load anything heavy into an Xterra). Although you're up there with a good all-around view of the road, the 2002 model updates include a 2-inch bulge on the hood (to make room for the optional turbocharged V6) that cut down on my front view; it's probably even worse for shorter drivers. My rental came equipped with step bars and lots of grab handles to help the less nimble clamber aboard. In a bit of inspired styling (form over function, I 'spect), the rear door handles are mounted high on the door behind the window - let's see your average six-year-old operate those!
Critter Comforts and Car-Driver Interface
The stock six-speaker AM/FM/CD player (no tape) puts out above-average sound, but the climate-control system seemed just a little overwhelmed at times - and summer's still a long way off! Nissan has gone all-out to give the cockpit a kicky look, including retro-looking climate-control knobs (straight off a 1930s gas stove) and bizarre little three-LED indicator lights. The triple-headed instrument panel (derivative of the PT Cruiser if you ask me) has good sight lines so you can notice that Nissan - being different again - uses an italic typeface on the gauges. The parking brake is mounted beneath the dashboard on the left side - those of you who've had ACL surgery are forewarned, the left knee has to approach shoulder level to operate it. The brake release, though, is at the right side of the steering wheel. Why? Don't ask me...
Seating is mediocre at best; the padding a bit sparse for these old bones (but then again, I'm about twice the target age). Headroom is great all around, plus the cargo area is advertised as the largest in its class - and I believe it. The cargo area comes with a tonneau cover for hiding the contents; it seemed pretty flimsy and rather awkward to use. Part of the reason the rear sill is so high is a full-size spare mounted beneath the frame (at least Nissan doesn't stick you with a rolling donut).
There are numerous cubbyholes - several of probably useless size and placement - on the insides of the doors and around the console, plus a large locking glove compartment. A single power port graces the dashboard - mine didn't work, by the way - and there's a second inside a generous console compartment. Two cupholders are molded into the console, their removable rubber boots make 'em large enough for a 1-litre bottle. I wonder, though, how many of the boots get lost?
Also standard on all models are power windows and locks (another irritant - no keyhole on the passenger door), remote keyless entry, and cruise control.
This baby is in no way intended to compete with luxury SUVs like the Lexus / BMW / Mercedes crowd; nor is it a competitor for the small-family dollar with the likes of the CRV / RAV4 / VUE. It's designed for and aimed at that subset of the market that actually gets off the pavement once in a while - as is abundantly clear from Nissan's advertising. The truck frame gives the Xterra good towing capability, but the tradeoff is an uncomfortable ride at highway speeds. Handling is good at lower speeds, mediocre on the highway.
The stock 4-cylinder engine and automatic transmission are a waste of your time. Given the weight of the truck, it amazes me that Nissan would even offer a four, especially when competing head-to-head with the peppy 3.7L V6 in the Jeep Liberty.
Nissan as a company has a good reputation for reliability; in its third model year the Xterra also appears to be holding up well. I should note that my rental - which was delivered with 10K miles on the clock - had already had a couple of plastic parts break, though, and the dashboard power port was on the fritz. Many of the plastic parts seemed pretty cheesy. Still, Datsun / Nissan has put out durable, long-lasting trucks for decades.
This is in no way a family car, unless your family consists entirely of adolescent males. The washing-machine ride and amenity-poor interior are a dead giveaway that SUV isn't intended for hauling around groceries; it's built to carry mountain bikes and snowboards and get them where they can be used. You can get into a base-level model Xterra on the cheap, though getting 4WD and enough power to get out of your own way requires significantly more outlay of cash.
For the class of cars it represents, the stock 4WD is at best average. That gutless four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission pairing are downers, particularly given the unimpressive gas mileage for the four. Upgrading to the stock V6 is apparently marginally better, though reviewers are waxing rapturous over the potential of the V6 turbo.
The ride is awful, but that's the hallmark of a truck-based SUV. You buy these things 'cause you want to get off the beaten path, not because you need something "classy" to drive to opening night at the Met. It's better suited to hauling - either in the cargo bay or on a trailer - than it is to elegance.
Based on my driving experience and the potential of the V6, I rate the Xterra a provisional four stars. Be forewarned, though, that your driving experience can be diminished by that doggy four-cylinder engine, so the four-cylinder version only gets three. Fair enough?