I’d never seen a trail like it. After a couple days of melting snow, the mud at the Summit Point Raceway off-road course was soupy and slick, and deep as a moat in places. The rocks looked like boulders, right there in the middle of what was laughingly called a ‘road,’ and the ruts seemed deep enough for small children to get trapped in. An off-road novice, I’d have never dared attempt it, even in an H2. But the Nissan PR folks insisted the new Xterra was up to the challenge–and as it turns out, they were right.
As they should have been. As far as their lineup goes, the Xterra is the SUV for the hard-core. Much like Toyota’s 4Runner, the Xterra is actually superfluous when viewed from a size-and-segment standpoint. With a similar footprint to the crossover Murano (or the Highlander in Toyota’s case), the Xterra exists only to cater to that small segment of the market that actually takes their SUVs far off the beaten track.
During a break, Nissan showed us several new commercials for the new Xterra. If there were such a term as “EXTREEEME ADVERTISING!,” it would apply here. The general idea is that if you’re a high-energy, rough-and-ready sort of individual, you’ll go visit http://www.newX.com and get yourself an EXTREEEME! Xterra. The EXTREEEME! commercials feature outdoors images and loud rock music to drive the point home. The concept actually turned out to be pretty predictable, but nonetheless, we found it to be, somehow, EXTREEME!ly appealing.
“Research shows 25-30% of Xterra owners take theirs off-road,” according to Xterra Product Planner Jeff Ceccacci. That’s quite a few ticks higher than the average SUV’s stats–but even of those, only a few venture into the kind of muck we did at the 2005 model’s introduction last week. The Xterra is built to handle paths that make most soft-roaders tremble, especially when ordered with the Off-Road package. Available this month, the ’05 Xterra improves upon its predecessor with more room, more power, and more EXTREEEME! utility.
It starts with the powertrain. The beating heart of every ’05 Xterra is the excellent and ubiquitous V6 that lurks under all of Nissan’s best products these days. Displacing four liters and making 265 horses in this application, this motor gives the ground-pounder some serious get-up-and-go. High-tech airflow features include continuous variable intake valve timing and a variable induction system. The 7.3 second, zero-to-sixty time actually does qualify for the “EXTREEEME!” descriptor. With 284 lb./ft. of torque, it’s gutsy and an enjoyable drive on pavement–there’s none of the typical SUV ‘utility-for-performance’ compromise here.
Transmission options include a six-speed manual and a five-speed automatic. While we generally enjoy stick-shifts in our testers, Nissan’s slushbox is no penalty here. With the benefit of removing distracting shifting duties, it’s actually the better choice for off-road adventures, especially with the extra electronic aids.
The Off-Road model is as EXTREEEME! as the Xterra gets. Fog lamps, Bilstein shocks and skid plates are standard. There’s an electronic rear locking differential, and all four wheels feature limited-slip action. Hill Descent Control (HDC) and Hill Start Assist (HSA) are two computer-controlled systems aimed at off-road prowess. The latter holds the Xterra in place on steep hills; the former maintains a comfortable speed when descending steep hills, without brake or throttle inputs from the driver. All Xterras have clean underbodies, with nothing hanging down beneath the frame to get caught up on off-road obstacles. For the same reason, the Off-Road option deletes the side running boards–judging just from our trail experience, they don’t fare well in the rough stuff.
The suspension is set up for rock-hopping. The front setup consists of a double-wishbone and a stabilizer bar. Out back you’ll find basic leaf springs with another sway bar. Nissan’s F-Alpha platform, with a fully boxed frame, gives the Xterra a solid foundation to build upon. Strategically-placed high tensile-strength steel adds to torsional rigidity. The generous 9.5 inches of ground clearance is great when the tarmac’s in the rear-view mirror, but doesn’t bode well for on-road performance. However, the Xterra holds its own here as well, bringing to the table road manners that are easily the equal of many crossover SUVs. Unavoidable in a vehicle meant to handle rough terrain, there is some bounce and a little roughness evident on smoother roads, but it doesn’t get under your skin. We’ve tested many worse SUVs, many far less capable, and in general find the Xterra to be a decent compromise.
Three different wheel-and-tire combos grace the Xterra, depending on trim level. Base models wear 16″ shoes, while the high-end Xterra boasts 265-65 tires on 17″ rims.
With aerodynamics comparable to the sleekest of suburban subdivisions, the Xterra does exhibit some wind noise and suffer some drag. It’s a distinctive look, however–the new model carries on Xterra characteristics like the kicked roof, asymmetrical backlight, the extruded rear panel, etc.–and it practically smells of ruggedness. The new, corporate ‘Nissan face,’ seen on most all new Nissan trucks today, is aggressive. Muscularly flared fenders complete the look, and the satin-finish roof-rack (with the integrated ‘dirty-stuff bin’) bespeak utility as well. There are steps molded into the rear bumper to aid access to the rack, augmenting the ‘form-over-function’ design. Surprising for a vehicle this tall, the Xterra boasts a three-star rating in NHTSA’s static rollover test. Other specific test results were not available, but we’re assured that, like the previous model, they’re all “very good.” All told, the Xterra is as extreme visually as it is in the minds of the marketing department flaks.
Inside isn’t what you’d expect. Not quite the ‘hose-it-out-and-wipe-it-down’ Spartan cave we predicted, it’s actually pretty nice. Controls are heavy-duty and straightforward. Grab handles spout from what seems to be every available surface–not for show, either, as this reporter discovered as a passenger during one off-road run with a trail expert. Room is increased in just about every dimension for the ’05 model. The optional Rockford Fosgate stereo system can be combined with either XM or Sirius satellite radio systems. The choice is yours-depending, I guess, on how you feel about Howard Stern. That stereo is also compatible with MP3 CDs, although an external input (for Ipods or what have you) is at least a year away. ‘Stadium-style’ raised rear seats and a double-decker glovebox are neat features, as are the door-mounted bottle holders and the available fold-flat front seat. (Actually, the nifty folding seat is standard on the Off-Road and SE grade Xterras, as is a first aid kit that fits neatly in the rear-door hump.) Generally, seats are comfortable up front, and moderately so in back; although not particularly supportive. In back, you’ll find the easy-clean surface treatment you’d expect; useful for carrying dirty items. The rear cargo area’s two ‘Utilitrak’ channels have moveable tie-down points, and several other hooks are scattered around the bay for utility’s sake. Bottom line: while entirely functional, the Xterra’s interior is probably the least ‘extreme’ aspect of this Nissan.
Pricing starts at an EXTREEEMELY! appealing $20,800–but that’s for the base ‘S’ model in two-wheel-drive, manual form. The top-level 4WD SE runs $27,300. Several option packages exist as well, including a recommended $1,000 safety package with added curtain airbags and Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC). The uplevel stereo is $900, and satellite radio is another $400. The utility package adds another $600 or so, depending on model, bringing the step rails, VDC, the folding seat, the first aid kit and a cargo net.
On the off-road course At Summit Point–often used by military personnel in lifted Jeeps for rough-terrain training–the Xterra proved its ruggedness and poor-weather capability. On nearby roads, the Nissan proved its utility as a commuter as well. Inside, it proved to be a comfortable and roomy environment, as well. If you’re the kind of buyer who needs an SUV’s utility, but still relishes a quick blast down the tarmac–and enjoy a quick jaunt down a rough trail or two, well, the Xterra might just be your vehicle. An all-in-all decent truck, it competes well in its segment, and is surely worth a good, hard look. “Everything you need, and nothing you don’t” is the slogan, and it’s apt. Apt, um, to the EXTREEEME!