New & Used Nissan Xterra: In Depth
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The Nissan Xterra is one of the few modern SUVs to have anything beyond all-weather traction in mind: it's a rugged utility vehicle that's perfectly at home off pavement, not a tall all-wheel-drive crossover wagon. It's a true sport-utility vehicle that shares underpinnings with the Nissan Frontier pickup.
As a result, the U.S.-built Xterra sacrifices a bit of on-road fluency, though it's capable of carrying up to five passengers in relative comfort. Its rivals are at this point limited to the various Jeep Wrangler models, with the Toyota FJ Cruiser having been recently discontinued.
MORE: Read our 2015 Nissan Xterra review
With its redesign in 2005, the Xterra carried over the looks of the previous version but grew somewhat larger with a chunky look to its front end and bulging fenders. It replaced the former model's rooftop air dam and rack with a stepped roof design, allowing higher stadium-style positioning of the rear seat for better headroom.
All concerns about power were addressed with the introduction of a 261-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6, which moves this truck well with the six-speed automatic or five-speed manual, and off-road ability was improved with even hardier underpinnings from the Frontier and Titan pickups.
The current Xterra isn't an ideal choice for those who plan to drive mostly on the road, as the solid axle and leaf springs in back aren't always the best for ride comfort, but overall the Xterra handles surprisingly well. Electronic aids including Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist work in concert with a serious truck-style part-time four-wheel-drive system (with high and low ranges) and help maintain poise in precarious situations. The Xterra also handles towing jobs fairly well—the V-6 having plenty of torque to haul a small boat, for instance.
The Xterra received a slight refresh for 2008, only including new wheels, seat materials, and other appearance details, and side airbags were added. Electronic stability control has been offered since the 2005 redesign. Although Xterra equipment remained quite basic, top SE models include standard Bluetooth and upgraded Rockford-Fosgate sound.
Feature changes have been minimal over several model years. The Xterra is offered in X, S, and PRO-4X models, with the latter being the pick for off-road junkies. That model gets additional skid plates, a locking differential (on 4x4 versions), Bilstein shock absorbers, and 16-inch off-road wheels wearing BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires. Contrast stitching and seat embroidery were added to the PRO-4X, along with auto headlamps, an outside temperature display, a navigation system with rearview monitor, and a Display Audio system with auxiliary input, satellite-radio capability, and a USB port.
For 2015, the Xterra S receives the NissanConnect system, which includes a 5.0-inch touch screen display and works with mobile apps. Other features include a USB port, iPod compatibility, Bluetooth phone, Bluetooth audio streaming, hands-free texting, and SiriusXM satellite capability.
The current Xterra is now over a decade old. This is because Nissan's Frontier pickup, the basis for the Xterra's architecture, has seen its life extended, waiting in line behind the larger Titan for major revisions. Once a new Frontier arrives in the next year or so, the Xterra is likely to receive a redo as well. It should retain its off-road capability while seeing improvements to power and efficiency, as well as convenience features.
Nissan Xterra history
The Xterra has kept the same basic styling theme and details since its introduction for 2000, but it's had two distinct iterations. The model has always been based on the Nissan Frontier pickup.
The first-generation Xterra looked tall and muscular, with a prominent roof rack and tubular side steps, high-mounted rear door handles, and a dark plastic grille and lower air dam, but it was a little more smoothly styled than the current version. In many ways, it resembled the more refined Nissan Pathfinder of its time.
That first Xterra offered a choice between two powertrains: a 143-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder in base models and a 170-hp, 3.3-liter V-6 as the optional engine. Both came with a choice of a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. Reviewers soon found out that the four-cylinder wasn't up to the task of moving this utility with much gusto, and the V-6 didn't fair too much better. A supercharged version of the V-6 was added in 2002, but even it could feel underpowered at highway speeds.
All first-generation Xterras shared a utilitarian, basic interior design. Some would call it cheap, as the trim itself was plasticky, but this no-frills approach was by design, as the Xterra was to be Nissan's rugged SUV offering, emphasizing capability over luxury or comfort. To this end, it included ceiling-mounted tie-down rings, available interior bike-carrying mounts, and other outdoor-life-enabling accessories, as well as a first-aid kit built into the tailgate.