2012 Nissan Xterra Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
February 15, 2012

If you have a lot of gear to haul to tough-to-reach places, the 2010 Nissan Xterra is a good choice for weekend adventurers.

You need only give a quick glance at the 2012 Nissan Xterra to understand its purpose. Nearly every aspect of its very cohesive, tough package is focused around off-road ruggedness and weekend-warrior utility. Simply put, the Xterra straddles a middle ground that gives off-road purists enough to work with, yet it has just enough daily comfort for those weekend warriors.

The Xterra's tall stance, externally mounted space, and prominent brush guards and skid plates (in its most focused Off-Road edition) overtly communicate that this is a serious trail vehicle. Inside, too, the 2012 Nissan Xterra looks rugged by most criteria, with tough upholstery, easy-to-clean cargo surfaces, extra storage spaces for gear, and tie-downs for gear.

The 2012 Xterra remains a throwback in some respects—to a time when most SUVs carried body-on-frame layouts that could be seen as shared with pickups. In that way, the Xterra keeps it simple, looking to the Frontier's platform and building some ruggedness onto its basics. A 261-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6 engine provides plenty of torque for off-roading or towing and works well with the smooth-shifting automatic transmission. With a solid axle and leaf springs in back, the Xterra can be pitchy on rough roads—even though it's pretty soft most of the time—but a multi-link setup in front helps keep handling up to par with most other vehicles in this class.

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All Xterras but those with the Off-Road package are available with rear-wheel drive. The available four-wheel-drive system is a part-time, off-road-oriented setup, with high and low ranges. Overall, the Xterra makes sense as a 4x4, as it offers 9.5 inches of ground clearance and an approach angle of more than 33 degrees. Those who plan to use the Xterra off-road, as it's intended, will want to go for the PRO-4X model, adds to the S model with 16-inch off-road wheels and tires, Bilstein shocks with off-road tuning, a locking differential (with 4x4), and skid plates.

If you want passenger comfort, the Nissan Xterra isn't the ideal choice; however the Xterra does give you space for hauling gear in to that remote trail head or launch point. A 60/40-split folding rear seat, a folding front passenger seat, a double-deck glove box, and a large center console, all add to the overall utility, with decent space for adults in the backseat and plenty of places to put stuff. On top of this, the front passenger seat can be folded forward to horizontal for very long items, and the Xterra makes it easy to fit cumbersome sports equipment and keep it secured during off-road adventures. Off-road purists who want to get muddy will like the simple surfaces and materials., too. There's enough room for adults, front and back, but none of the seats are all that supportive.

The Xterra is unremarkable within its class for safety, with less-than-top ratings in the IIHS rear impact and roof strength tests but 'good' results otherwise. Several features that are included with the optional stability control system, such as Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist, use electronics to help maintain poise in precarious situations.

There are no significant changes on the Xterra for 2012, and Nissan now offers it in three simplified trim levels: including X, S, and off-road-focused PRO-4X models. The S model now claims fog lights, roof-rack crossbars, and a gear basket as standard. PRO-4X models add 16-inch off-road wheels and tires, Bilstein shocks with off-road tuning, a locking differential (with 4x4), and skid plates, plus Rockford Fosgate premium audio with a subwoofer, steering-wheel audio controls, and XM satellite radio. An in-dash navigation system remains unavailable in the Xterra, but a Bluetooth hands-free phone setup is now standard.

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2012 Nissan Xterra

Styling

The Nissan Xterra goes for an appealing, trail-ready look outside; inside, it's a little wash-and-wear.

It can hardly be confused for an egg-shaped crossover vehicle. The Nissan Xterra proudly wears its serious devotion to off-road driving in just about every line on its body, and every surface on its dash and doors.

We love the Xterra's look. The high stance and bulging fenders are appropriate here, not silly add-ons meant for marketing appeal. The external spare tire and big tires are part of the look because they're a part of the Xterra's mission. Add on the skid plates and brush guards from the options list, and you have a rough-and-ready alternative to a Jeep Wrangler--and yet, something that's also relaxed and easygoing, a little more California beach off-roading than nutso Rubicon trail-carving.

Inside, too, the look is universally rugged, with tough-looking upholstery, easy-to-clean cargo surfaces, tie-downs, and extra storage spaces as part of the package.
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2012 Nissan Xterra

Performance

Strong six-cylinder power and great off-road capability are granted with the Nissan Xterra; on-road handling is decent.

There's only one engine offered in the Xterra, and it's a strong one. It's a 4.0-liter version of the company's mainstay six; in this application, it puts out 261 horsepower, which give the relatively lightweight Xterra considerable zip off the line. With either the five-speed automatic or the standard six-speed manual, the drivetrain has a well-sorted feel, set up ideally for the kind of low-speed grunt work its owners probably have in mind. We're particularly inclined toward the automatic here, since its gears are spaced a bit better to take advantage of the engine's adequate passing power.

Sophisticated isn't what you'd call the Xterra's suspension, but it's built with rugged driving in mind. It's an independent setup in front, with leaf springs and a solid rear axle in back, which creates dueling personalities. The Xterra rides quite smoothly most of the time, though it does have a split personality, showing a harsh and pitchy side on the bumpiest roads. Overall, it's by no means nimble, but it does better on the road than its tall appearance might suggest.

All four Xterra models are available in four-wheel drive, and all but the Off-Road edition are available with rear-wheel drive. The Xterra makes a lot of sense as a 4x4, as it offers 9.5 inches of ground clearance and an approach angle of more than 33 degrees. The available four-wheel-drive system is a part-time, off-road-oriented setup, with high and low ranges. Additionally, several features that are included with the optional stability control system, such as Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist, use electronics to help maintain poise in precarious situations.

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2012 Nissan Xterra

Comfort & Quality

The Xterra's versatile interior makes it a great weekend warrior--and the tough, grainy plastic trim doesn't look out of place here.

It's no family truckster--the Nissan Xterra is a weekend warrior, mostly for two dudes with a lot of gear and mud on the brain.

The Xterra's packaging aims for the hardcore crowd, giving up some comfort for all-around usefulness. Head and leg room from the front seats are good, as is visibility, but the seats aren't as supportive as you'd find in, say, a Murano. The back seat is where things tighten up considerably. The bench is split to fold down to expand cargo area, and it's probably the best, highest use, since there's not as much space as in other SUVs except maybe the four-door Jeep Wrangler.

Nissan's found some clever ways to make the Xterra's interior more useful and flexible--more of a Swiss Army knife. There's a double glovebox, a large center console, and a generous 35 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat up—expandable to nearly 66 cubic feet with it folded forward. On top of this, the front passenger seat can be folded forward to horizontal for very long items, and the Xterra makes it easy to fit cumbersome sports equipment and keep it secured during off-road adventures.

We've often made note of the thrifty plastics found inside the Xterra and its bandmate, the Frontier pickup. In these vehicles, we don't mind it so much--they're utility vehicles, in this case with the emphasis on sport. And for the record, mud is easier to wash off plastic than it is from leather. And overall, while the interior is quieter than those experienced with off-road-capable vehicles might expect tire noise can still be an issue on the highway in PRO-4X models.

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2012 Nissan Xterra

Safety

Safety scores aren't great, and there's not much in the way of add-on protection in the Nissan Xterra.

Sport-utility vehicles tend to do well in crash tests because of their strong frames, but the Nissan Xterra falls somewhat shy of expectations.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't tested the current Xterra since it changed up its ratings and criteria, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has. The latter rates the Xterra as "good" in front and side impacts, but calls it only "acceptable" for roof strength and "marginal" for rear-impact safety. For a vehicle intended to trundle over some difficult terrain, the roof-crush score in particular is worth considering when it comes time to buy.

Standard safety equipment includes front active head restraints, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, stability control, and side-curtain airbags. Automatic-transmission Xterras also include Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist. Off-roaders will require the skid plates of the PRO-4X edition, but on-road drivers will miss newer features like parking sensors and rearview cameras.
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2012 Nissan Xterra

Features

The Nissan Xterra's well-equipped for an off-roader, but navigation will come down to your smartphone or Rand McNally.

Nissan's streamlined the way it equips the Xterra, as it approaches the end of its life cycle. That means a trio of well-outfitted SUVs that don't offer much in the way of optional equipment.

The lineup includes Xterra X, S, and PRO-4X models. The basic edition has power windows, locks, and mirrors; air conditioning; an AM/FM/CD player; and cruise control. The Xterra S gets crossbars for a roof rack; a gear basket; and fog lights. The PRO-4X, the off-road specialist-within-a-specialist, gets skid plates, a locking differential (on 4x4 versions), Bilstein shocks, and 16-inch off-road wheels and tires.

An in-dash navigation system remains unavailable in the Xterra, but a Bluetooth hands-free phone setup is standard, and PRO-4X models include a Rockford Fosgate premium audio system with auxiliary input, an in-dash 6-CD changer, 8 speakers, a subwoofer, steering wheel audio controls, and XM Satellite Radio.
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2012 Nissan Xterra

Fuel Economy

The Xterra's gas mileage will remind you just how far some of today's lighter, leaner crossovers have come.

Gas mileage may not be your first priority when shopping for a truly rugged SUV with outstanding off-road capability, but it's an issue if you're driving long distances off-road and on. The Nissan Xterra will disappoint in either case.

It's a stark reminder of how much gas you'll save by switching to a more efficient crossover vehicle, if that suits your needs. Take a Ford Edge with a turbocharged four-cylinder, for example--it's rated at 30 mpg highway by the EPA. The tough-as-nails Xterra? At best, the EPA rates two-wheel-drive models at 16/22 mpg. Add on four-wheel drive, and it earns EPA numbers of 20 mpg highway, and as low as 15 mpg for automatic-equipped versions.

Considering its mediocre fuel economy numbers, the Xterra is neither very fuel-efficient nor very green. And if you have passengers more often than cargo, there are plenty of far better, more carlike options.

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2012 Nissan Xterra 4WD 4-Door Automatic X

I'm so in love with my 2012 Xterra!!!!

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I'm a big fan of SUVs and I won't drive anything but one. I've been through a; 01 Lexus 300RX, 94 and 12 Jeep, 08 pathfinder, 95 4runner. And now I have 2012 Nissan Xterra. I love the style, the sound of the... + More »
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