Now that the Xterra has been for sale a few years, Nissan has decided to freshen up the appearance to more closely mimic the stand-out styling of the Frontier pickup. The Xterra has always boasted rugged, chunky exterior styling, but the front end treatment lacked the edgy quality of the rest of the car. Now a more aggressive looking front fascia adorns the Xterra complete with round, almost oval shaped headlights, and a honeycomb type grille. The 2002 Xterra is much more in keeping with how one might expect an off-road capable SUV to look.
The interior has a sportier look as well; separate round, backlit gauges and a slightly more stylish center dash give the Xterra’s interior a youthful look.
The Xterra is now available with a supercharged V6 making 210 hp. This a welcome addition as the normally aspirated V6 in the Xterra and Frontier makes a barely adequate 170 hp. The supercharged engine in the Xterra is a first in its class.
The main advantage the Xterra has over its competition is size. Nissan calls the Xterra a “compact SUV” and it is the least expensive SUV offered by Nissan with prices starting at $18,000 for a 4-cylinder 4x2. However similar in price, the Xterra’s interior and exterior dimensions literally dwarf the Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4, Land Rover Freelander, and Subaru Forester. Only the Hyundai Santa Fe comes close in terms of interior volume and overall size. Physically, the Xterra is more similar to mid-size SUVs like the Toyota Highlander or 4 Runner than any compact SUV.
Cargo room in the Xterra is plentiful, fold the split rear seats down and there is even more room. Rear seats fold down easily, but do not fold all the way flat, a feature most other vehicles in this class have. If you still can’t fit all your gear inside, the Xterra’s sizable roof rack can accommodate almost anything. The Xterra seems purpose built for exterior mounted, aftermarket travel containers.
With the rear seats folded up, there is more than adequate room for adult passengers. Although there is plenty of leg room, there seems to be precious little foot space. Nissan uses a type of “theatre seating” wherein the rear passengers sit slightly higher than the front seat occupants. It’s a great idea, but an unintended consequence is that rear seat passengers cannot get their feet to slide under the front seats. Therefore the back seat feels more cramped than it really is. Front and rear seats are average in comfort – many Nissan cars and truck have comfortable and pleasant seating positions, this is true of the Xterra as well. Rear seats do not recline, but seem to be in a permanent partial reclining position. Some passengers like this, others thought it felt odd.
The Xterra also has the competition beat when it comes to towing capacity. An SUV based on a truck rather than a car may not offer a smooth ride, but boy can it tow. With a towing capacity of 3500 lbs., the SE S/C Xterra can out-tow virtually every vehicle in its class with the exception of the Jeep Liberty. In many cases the Xterra is able to handle from 1500 to 2800 lbs more than other SUVs like the Ford Escape and Hyundai Santa Fe.
If you must have 3500 lbs towing capacity AND the ability to traverse rugged terrain, the Nissan Xterra has you covered. But if you want a decent handling, drivable family vehicle with a civilized ride, then scratch the Xterra off your shopping list. The Xterra is a body-on-frame vehicle – in short, it is a truck. Most body-on-frame vehicles are not known for their refined highway manners, but the Xterra is probably the worst of the worst. Chevrolet’s Tahoe and Suburban utilize body-on-frame construction and the ride on those vehicles is actually quite pleasant.
Even the smallest of pot-hole or uneven pavement upset the Xterra’s ride. This truck squirms and shakes and shimmies like nobody’s business. This is true at both low speeds and higher speeds. A 15mph trip down an alley (in less than average condition) resulted in so much teeth clattering shake I almost returned home to get another car. I drive every test vehicle down this same alley, and never have I experienced so much discomfort.
Everytime I drove this truck I couldn’t help but think of the old 60s song “Like I do.” “Nobody can do the Shake; Like I do. Nobody can do the Shimmy; Like I do. Nobody can do the boogaloo; Like I do…” And that is exactly what Xterra is capable of, it can shake and shimmy and bump and jostle like no other car I know. Even the lowly Suzuki Vitara feels a tad bit more stable.
All this shaking and bouncing revealed several interior squeaks and rattles. When unoccupied,the passenger seat-back vibrates back and forth terribly.
Rough roads are cause for concern as the Xterra often felt like it was “dog-tracking” or driving slightly sideways whenever uneven pavement or large dips were encountered. It’s difficult to keep in just one lane, and the steering is vague and incommunicative. I often felt like I was in danger due to the fact that the Xterra would rarely respond the way I expected. On straight, smooth roads the Xterra has a tendency to wander. Constant input to the steering wheel is needed to keep this truck on the straight and narrow.
The only plus in the handling department is the Xterra’s relatively small turning radius, this proved helpful in tight parking lots and garages.
Although the 210 hp is a welcome addition to the Xterra, the vehicle doesn’t seem to be able to effectively handle that much power. During hard acceleration, the Xterra would lift and twist and end up pointed in some direction I never intended. Even thought he Xterra is a rear-wheel drive vehicle, it felt like it was suffering from front-wheel drive torque-steer – as this is with the 4-wheel drive disengaged.
Acceleration is better than average, but lacks the brute force expected from a 3.3L, supercharged V6. The 6 does take a few seconds to catch its breath, but once the supercharger is really pumping, there is a noticeable surge forward that only seems to grow stronger as the revs climb higher. Maximum output is at 4800 RPM. There is bit of whine from the supercharger once it gets wound up, it’s hardly intrusive, but still noticeable. Even with the 210 hp, the S/C Xterra could still use a few more ponies, even the normally aspirated Altima 3.5 makes 30 more hp than the supercharged Xterra. Still, the supercharged Xterra offers more power than vehicles such as the Mazda Tribute V6, Hyundai Santa Fe V6, and Toyota RAV which is only available as a 4-cylinder. The much pricier Toyota Highlander with a V6 makes only 10 more hp but can cost thousands more when ordered with a few basic options.
Bringing the Xterra to stop is drama-free in most cases, but in panic stop situations, the Xterra nose-dives terribly. In heavy traffic, low speed short-stops are common. In this situation, the Xterra’s brakes feel touchy and the vehicle rocks back and forth once it comes to a full stop. Rear brakes are drum type – are they kidding with this thing? Who wants to pay as much as $27K for an SUV with drum brakes. I can understand it on the $18,000 4-cylinder version, but not on the supercharged 4x4.
Other problems with the Xterra included: outside window molding with excessive gaps, disconcerting rattle from under the vehicle when driving (even at low speeds) on rough pavement, excessive play in the steering, no vanity mirror on either passenger or driver side sunvisors, and a passenger's seat that squeaked constantly whenever it was unoccupied.
Finally, due to the Xterra’s weight (4229 lbs.) and its thirsty supercharged engine, fuel mileage is a miserable 15 mpg city / 18 mpg highway. This puts the S/C Xterra in league with a bigger V8 powered SUV like the Chevy Tahoe which makes 75 more horsepower. If you value fuel economy, opt for the Xterra XE with the 2.4L engine. I used a half tank of gas in just three days of normal commute driving. Yes the freeways in Los Angeles are crowded, but my office is 8 miles away from my home. Add a few side trips to the store or lunch and that still does not equal a half tank of fuel gone.
Overall, the 2002 Nissan Xterra XE S/C is a mixed bag, but the bottom line is that I simply can not recommend this car. Granted, it is a stellar off-road performer and can tow more weight than almost all others in its class, plus holds a bunch of cargo inside and on the hefty roof rack. But the shortcomings are just too much to overcome. A vehicle like the Land Rover Freelander has a lot of negative aspects to it as well, but at the end of the day, it is a car that most people could live with and enjoy.
A rugged, good looking truck, the Xterra is just that, a truck – and a sloppy one to boot. Car based SUVs offer superior comfort and drivability, but lack the Xterra’s truck like qualities – both good and bad. Expect retail pricing on the Xterra to start at $18,000 and run all the way up to $27,000 for a 4x4 SE supercharged V6. Anyone looking to spend $27,000 or more on an SUV should seriously consider the Nissan Pathfinder, Mazda Tribute, Toyota Highlander, or Chevy Tahoe. Unless you’re running the Paris – Dakar rally, skip the Xterra.
Amount Paid (US$):
2002Model and Options:
XE 4x4 S/C