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PERFORMANCE | 7 out of 10
The 4.0L V-6 pulls strong at all altitudes and in virtually any gear
a real two-speed transfer case, though it is operated by a simple electronic switch rather than a manual gear selector
Steering is direct and decently weighted
The Xterra jumps off the line enthusiastically, with the V6 pulling consistently up to its 6,250-rpm redline.
five-speed automatic transmission's hesitance to downshift on demand
What's under the hood of the Xterra says a lot about its personality; the only engine offered in this true SUV is a 4.0-liter version of Nissan's familiar V-6. It makes 261 horsepower here, and it's strong and smooth, churning out plenty of accessible torque without the need to rev high.
Paired with either the five-speed automatic or standard six-speed manual transmission, the V-6 gives the Xterra plenty of zip off the line, with great drivability whether you're carefully crawling along a trail or towing a small trailer up a highway grade. Shift throws for the manual are quite long, and we tend to think that between the two transmissions, the automatic takes best advantage of the engine's passing power.
With an independent suspension in front and a solid rear axle in back, the 2013 Xterra drives like a truck, with a harsh and pitchy side on bumpy roads yet a reasonably smooth ride over most surfaces. Handling and body control are both better than you might think given the tall body and truck-derived underpinnings.
All 2013 Xterra models but the Off-Road trims are available with rear-wheel drive, but 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. It's a part-time, off-road-oriented 4x4 setup, with high and low ranges, but Hill Descent Control, Hill Start Assist, and the electronic stability control system all help keep it in check and make the most of its traction.
A strong, smooth V-6 and impressive off-road ability are the Xterra's specialties, while on-road handling is just good enough.