2005 Nissan Xterra Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
January 2, 2005


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Nissan’s Xterra, introduced in 1999, was an instant hit with younger, active folks. Still alone and unique in the market, the Xterra fills a purpose similar to that of the old International Scout, the original Ford Bronco, and the Jeep Cherokee. It’s in the category of trucks that looks good dirty. It makes no claims to be a family SUV — no third-row seats, no drop-down DVD player, no leather seats, no power liftgate. Just a simple but very distinctive sport-utility that can get you and your gear through a rough trail. So, we wondered, does the all-new Xterra keep it real?

Like the rest of Nissan’s truck lineup, the Xterra has been completely redesigned on the F-Alpha platform, first used on the new Titan full-size pickup and now used on the Armada, Pathfinder, and Frontier pickup and SUV models. It includes a fully boxed steel frame underneath, with most of the mechanical components tucked inside the frame.

New engine has the guts

The former Xterra had a very distinctive design, but it never had a lot of power to boast. Now, the rather inadequate base four-cylinder engine is gone from the lineup, and the only engine available on the Xterra is a much more powerful 265-hp, 4.0-liter V-6.

The new V-6 is related to Nissan’s VQ engine family that powers many of its products, but here it’s tuned for truck duty. It has an aluminum block and heads, with variable valve timing, variable induction, and a high-capacity exhaust. With 284 lb-ft of torque, it’s not working hard at all in routine driving, and with greater efficiency it should get one or two mpg better than the old V-6, according to Nissan officials.

2005 Nissan Xterra

2005 Nissan Xterra

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A six-speed manual is standard, replacing the five-speed manual of the outgoing Xterra that just couldn’t handle the new engine’s torque. Nissan officials told us that it’s essentially the same six-speed offered on Nissan/Infiniti’s rear-wheel-drive cars, like the Z350 and the G35, but with a different linkage and takeoff for the transfer case. The new six-speed doesn’t feel anything like the 350Z’s gearbox, because the throws are long and the linkage is looser, but it does shift easily through all the gates and the clutch takes up progressively.

Optional on all models is a five-speed automatic transmission, a version of the same transmission used on the full-size Titan pickup and Armada SUV. We drove both transmissions, and the automatic shifted smoothly and confidently, up and down, without the indecision that still seems to plagues some newer automatics. In the end I was very pleased with the automatic — and I’m a die-hard shift-it-myself driver.

The front suspension is now a multi-link (double A-arm) setup, which completely eliminates the need for strut towers and allowed designers to shorten the engine bay and allow for more cabin room and deeper footwells. In back, the suspension follows old-school truck tradition, with leaf springs. They’re underslung, which allows the shock towers to be located as far outside as possible, for a wider, more stable stance. Travel is comparable to coils, engineers on the project say.

This actually translates to a very nice, well controlled ride on the road, especially for a vehicle with such a short wheelbase, the ride is smooth and settled, rather than pitchy, and the leaf springs in back behave well unless you’re cornering over a bump or driving down a really pockmarked road.

Braking is also confident and straight, with none of the noticeable nosedive you might expect from a tall and (proportionately) short vehicle like this. Four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock and electronic brake distribution are standard on all Xterras.

Off-road friendly

Just looking at the Xterra’s profile and stance, it looks like a vehicle that would be extremely capable off-road, and a short trip onto a few rough trails gave all indications that it’s a truck that’s tough enough for more serious off-roading than just going up a two-track to the campsite. Maximum ground clearance is 9.5 inches, with an approach angle of 33.2 degrees and a departure angle of 29.4 degrees. Most critical mechanical components are tucked inside the area protected by the frame rails.

The manually shifted transfer case is now gone, in favor of one electronically controlled with a dash-mounted knob. The four-wheel-drive system is still a part-time, off-road-oriented one, with high and low ranges. Nissan is estimating that 58 percent of Xterras will be sold with four-wheel drive, compared with about 47 percent on the outgoing Xterra.

Several off-road-friendly electronic aids features otherwise only offered on pricier SUVs are optional on the Xterra. A VDC stability control system is optional on automatic models; Hill Descent Control (HDC) allows a slow, controlled descent down steep hills where there may only be limited traction; and Hill Start Assist allows a smooth start when pointing uphill during off-roading by smartly releasing the brakes in synchrony with the throttle. The VDC effectively includes an active-braking limited slip differential, but a real driver-selectable, “off-road grade” differential is included on Off-Road models. You can now use the starter to creep along in 4WD-low, to help in emergency situations or when off-roading.

Xterra is available in three different trim levels — S, SE, and Off Road — each with either two- or four-wheel drive. S models are simply equipped, with standard manual windows, manual outside mirrors, and 16-inch alloy wheels with a steel spare. SE models add more luxurious trim and appointments, plus fog lamps, five 17-inch tires and alloys, the first-aid kit, a leather-trimmed steering wheel with audio controls, a unique blue coarse-textured seat fabric, the aforementioned Rockford Fosgate sound system, and running boards. The Off Road model adds to the S 16-inch off-road wheels and tires, Bilstein shocks with off-road tuning, a locking diff (with 4x4), and skid plates. With automatic, it also includes Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist. Air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD player, a rear wiper/washer, and a full roof rack are standard on all models. Side airbags and roof-mounted curtain side bags are optional on all models.

Flashy roof rack improved

On the original Xterra, a step was built into the roof so that enough space for back-seat passengers could be provided over the Frontier pickup frame beneath. The step also gave the Xterra a design cue that made it easy to recognize in a crowded parking lot. But it brought a disadvantage: It was a sore thumb in the wind tunnel. Especially combined with the cargo rack and sunroof, wind noise could get quite excessive on the highway. Smart designers of the new Xterra found a way to keep the recognizable humpback and the flashy luggage rack by adding a new solid deflector at the front that doubles as a gear basket, with a latching door. It directs airflow away from the notch area of the roof, making it much quieter at speed. The difference is very noticeable, as this was one of the glaring issues with the outgoing version. Highway cruising is now very hushed. Primarily because of the packaging constraints of the deflector and roof shape, a sunroof is now no longer offered.

Another carryover design cue is the little rectangular bulbous area in the back hatch, where an available full first-aid kit resides on the inside. A new and thoughtful design element is the step on the side near the rear bumper to help load the roof area. Product designers found that current users of the Xterra would typically stand on the top of the tire when loading and tying down cargo to the roof rack (which is already about 6’3” high), so the step was added to make it easier and safer to access.

Dimensions are up slightly outside and inside, to now best describe it as on the small side of mid-size. The new Xterra is an inch taller and about the same length as the old version, but the wheelbase is two inches longer, which translates to slightly shorter overhangs. It’s nearly two and a half inches wider, too. Inside, rear occupants benefit the most, with an inch more legroom, two inches more headroom, and significantly more shoulder room than last year’s Xterra. The back seat wouldn’t be a favored choice for adults on a long trip — more due to its short cushions than a lack of space — but it’s fine for trips around town.

But it’s likely that most Xterra drivers will seldom use the back seat. Rather, they’ll have it folded forward, free for cargo like climbing gear or hiking backpacks. The interior can be quite accommodating overall for various combinations of cargo and passengers. Before, as with many vehicles with folding seats, if you folded the back seats forward you couldn’t recline the front seats. Now you can completely remove the lower back-seat cushion if needed — rather than flip it forward as before — so that the front seat has its normal range of adjustability and the back seat is completely flat for cargo at the same time.

The front passenger seat can fold forward to a horizontal surface that cargo can be set across. A dual-compartment glovebox, large center console, and other cubby holes provide plenty of storage space for small items.

Cubbies and tie-downs

In back, the space is extremely convenient and configurable. It has the same Utili-Trak cargo system as the Titan pickup, allowing tie-down points to slide back and forth along the left and right side of the cargo area. There are a total of ten hooks in the cargo area, and the floor ones are capable of securing up to 110 pounds. The interior has an Easy Clean cargo-area surface that can be easily sponged off.

A 300-watt, nine-speaker Rockford-Fosgate Audio system is optional on all models. It includes speed-sensitive volume adjustment and steering-wheel-mounted controls, and it’s satellite radio ready and MP3 compatible. It doesn’t, however, have an input jack for external audio players like the iPod, though we were told it’s on the way for next year.

Xterras are assembled in Smyrna, Tennessee, and engines are made by a nearby Nissan plant in Decherd, Tennessee.

What made the original Xterra such a great idea is that its price tag was actually affordable by the people who would most use such a vehicle to its ability. Although the Xterra was seeing odd popularity, demographics-wise, as a vehicle for urban women, my guess is that average Xterra owners take their vehicles off-road far more often than owners of Range Rovers, X5s, or other high-end SUVs, even though those higher-end vehicles are very off-road capable.

Nissan has a strong handle on this corner of the market — there really isn’t anything quite like the Xterra, even from brands who did this so well in the past. Many shoppers will find the Jeep Wrangler a little too hard and crude for the commute; the Jeep Liberty is a little more of a family vehicle, which is what seems to discredit it among these shoppers; and the base Toyota 4Runner is very appealing but costs quite a lot more. But my honest summation, which sounds shamefully similar to marketing-speak, is: If you’re a rough-and-ready, outdoors-centric weekend warrior and on a budget, you can’t do much better than this.


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2005 Nissan Xterra SE 4x4
Base price:
$27,000 (est.)
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6, 265 hp/284 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 178.7 x 72.8 x 74.9 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Curb weight: 4350 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): N/A
Safety equipment: Anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes, stability control system, tire pressure monitor, side curtain airbags, seat-mounted side-impact airbags
Major standard equipment: Power windows, locks, and mirrors; keyless entry, air conditioning, cruise control; front fog lamps; roof rack with gear basket; Rockford Fosgate AM/FM/CD system with six-disc changer
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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