HOLLISTER HILLS, Calif. — Four-wheel-drive expert Daphne Greene, of Ross, California, motions me to come forward, with an extended arm and cupped hand. I apply gentle pressure to the Xterra’s throttle and low-range gearing deftly powers this all-new SUV across the gully and up the steep incline at a slow crawl. Her face is serious as she gestures first right, and then left.
Tight steering and capable tires allow me to nimbly traverse the angled sidehill. Now, through one of the most difficult stretches of this rigorous off-road vehicle recreational park, there are smiles for all. Especially for Nissan’s latest entry into the 4x4 market: the brand-new Nissan Xterra.
Although the venerable Nissan Pathfinder became the import SUV of choice during the late 1980s and early '90s, this Japanese automaker has suffered falling market share ever since, especially in the SUV and light truck segment. If Nissan North America plans to survive in today's SUV-crazed climate, it needs to sell a vehicle even more successful than its original hit.
2000 Nissan Xterra 2
Base Xterras have four-cylinder engines, two-wheel drive, and five-speed manual gearboxes: a V-6, four-wheel drive, and an automatic are available.
According to the company, the all-new Xterra will be just what the doctor ordered. Available in June 1999 as a 2000 model, this full-fledged sport-utility vehicle isn't a conformist. While the industry is shifting to vehicles that drive like cars yet carry a truckload of gear (witness, for example, the success of Subaru's Outback, Mercedes' M-Class, and the array of car-based mini-utes), the Xterra is proud of its trucklike character and doesn't try to hide it.
2000 Nissan Xterra
Showing off its truck heritage
Nissan isn't sheepish either, almost boasting about the fact that the Xterra is based largely on the Frontier pickup platform. Building an SUV from a truck frame has been the secret to Ford's success in the market. The process keeps production costs down, often at the expense of poor on-road manners and fuel economy — then again, these days no one seems to mind.
In the roughest conditions — the sort that the typical driver will never actually experience — Xterra's body-on-frame construction is an advantage over its car-based competitors, a fact that Nissan is playing up, both in its marketing and styling divisions. Xterra sports an aggressive, angular form, even though the new SUV shares its headlights, hood, and front doors with the more conservative Frontier. The secret lies in relatively inexpensive bolted-on enhancements, including a matte-black grille, broad-shouldered front fenders, charcoal lower body cladding, and optional over-sized tubular roof rack and running boards.
To be fair, Xterra's ruggedness wasn't merely born in the design studio. Skid plates for the engine and fuel tank are standard equipment, and the available four-wheel-drive is of the part-time, no-frills variety. A low range for off-roading and towing (of up to 5000 pounds) is provided. Even in 2WD form, the ride height and heavy-duty suspension of the 4x4 is retained. This Japanese truck is, by all accounts, a serious off-road machine.
Underhood choices include the same 143-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder and 170-hp, 3.3-liter V-6 powerplants currently available in the company's Frontier pickup, producing 154 and 200 pound-feet of torque, respectively. Unless fuel economy is of the utmost importance — it is quite good with the four-cylinder — opt for the V-6; four-wheel-drive models come only with the larger engine. Both manual and automatic transmissions are available.
The SUV’s country cousin
Both on pavement and off, Xterra drives much like its Frontier brother, which is to say, quite well. It's certainly more trucklike than some of the best-handling SUVs on the market, with its basic double wishbones at the front wheels and live axle in the rear, but vibration and harshness are kept to a minimum, thanks to good damping and well-chosen bushings between the body and frame. Braking and steering are aided by four-wheel ABS and power-assisted steering gear as standard equipment on all models.
2000 Nissan Xterra
Inside, there's room for five. The focus is on utility, with various-sized storage pockets throughout the cabin. Leather seats, wood trim, and other luxuries are not offered, though an AM/FM/cassette is standard equipment, with in-dash and six-disc CD players as optional equipment. Front-seat passengers get cloth-covered buckets, while the rear bench (which splits 50/50) offers back-seat passengers a good view and exceptional headroom thanks to the stadium-style height and stepped roofline. Ten tie-down hooks on the ceiling and floor and dual interior mountain bike mounts are clever, thoughtful touches, while the small bulge in the tailgate accommodates a first-aid kit or other emergency gear.
Two trim levels in eight exterior colors are offered. Options include power windows and door locks, fog lights, a limited-slip differential, and an array of accessories, from neoprene seat covers to bike racks, safari basket, and GPS navigation system.
The Xterra lineup will start at under $17,500 (4-cyl. XE) whereas a fully equipped SE model — which is projected at 10 percent of the model mix — will cost just over $25,000.
The Xterra is something of a gamble, but one that could pay off handsomely. While other companies are scrambling to make their SUVs more carlike and less austere, Nissan is betting that it can fill a void in the market with the back-to-basics and eye-catching Xterra. For its sake, we hope the gamble works.
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