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Expert Reviews 1 of 8
By Joe Wiesenfelder
May 11, 2005
My first drive of the redesigned Xterra was relatively brief, but it doesn't take much exposure to appreciate that it's a completely different and better vehicle in many of the important ways. When the model made its debut in 1999, it was a relatively old formula with a new and appealing face, and an appealing price to match. It was crude, rough around the edges and, I must admit, fun. The new generation retains the overall look and the intentionally stripped-down nature, though the price has taken a leap with the switch to a V-6 as the standard engine. Exterior & Styling Equipped with a tubular roof rack and bearing a stepped roofline, the new Xterra resembles the old when viewed in profile. The nose now looks like that of the Frontier midsize pickup truck, which in turn looks like the Titan full-size pickup, which looks not unlike the Pathfinder midsize sport utility vehicle. ... One person's family resemblance is another's boring uniformity. Draw your own conclusion. Here's a brief comparison of the previous and new Xterra generations:
Overall Length (in.)
Overall Width (in.)
Overall Height (in.)
Turning Diameter (ft.)
The Xterra comes in three trim levels: S, OR and SE, in order of price. OR stands for Off Road. The main differences in appearance are that the OR has bodyside moldings and the SE has tubular step rails. Both have front fog lights, unlike the S. The S and OR have different types of 16-inch alloy wheels, and the SE's are 17-inchers. Ride & Handling Like the previous Xterra, the 2005 has body-on-frame construction. It's still a true truck, but it's a truck in the way the current Ford Explorer and Chevrolet TrailBlazer are trucks. The previous generations of all three models were in the old style basically pickup trucks with full cabins attached. The new ones are much more refined and designed from the start as SUVs with an eye toward comfort and stability.
Like the Frontier, the Xterra shares its platform with the company's larger Titan and Armada SUV, so its stance is now wider. Its track, the distance between the left and right wheels, is up to 61.8 inches, front and rear, from 60.0 inches and 59.3 inches in the previous model. This might seem like a small amount, but in the overall geometry of the vehicle, it's substantial. The wheelbase also has grown from 104.3 inches to 106.3 inches. These changes increase stability in turns and improve the ride comfort.
Out on the road, the Xterra is more isolated from pavement disruptions and more controlled and exhibits considerably less shudder in the structure. As for the handling, I took turns at angles and speeds that I'm sure would have put the previous Xterra upside down. In trucks with high centers of gravity, automakers tend to specify standard tires with less grip as a way to prevent rollovers. As a result of the changes, the new tires are grippier.
The S and SE trim levels have BFGoodrich Long Trail T/A all-season tires. On the S they're rated P265/70R16 (tire codes). On the SE they're P265/65R17. On the OR they're still all-season but they're optimized for offroad use. The P265/75R16 rating represents 16-inch wheels and higher sidewalls; this is common for offroad tires as the sidewalls help absorb the offroad terrain. While offroad tires' more aggressive tread patterns often result in more on-road noise, the Xterra OR's sounded about the same to me as the others. The OR also has firmer shock absorbers from Bilstein, so if you value comfort, stick with the S or SE.
The Xterra joins a growing number of SUVs in offering an electronic stability system, which Nissan calls VSA, Vehicle Stability Assist. While it's currently available with the automatic transmission, it won't be teamed with the manual until late in the model year. Be sure to check with your dealer. Going & Stopping The big news in this area is the employment of a single, 4.0-liter V-6 engine in place of three options in the previous generation: a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, a 3.3-liter V-6 and a supercharged version of that V-6. Shared with the Frontier, the new one is an enlarged version of the 3.5-liter V-6 used in almost every Nissan and Infiniti. It's simply a great engine. The 4.0-liter generates 265 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 284 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. (I won't give the old figures because they're not relevant in a totally new and heavier architecture.)
Also new is a six-speed manual in place of the old five. It's standard on the S and OR. Standard on the SE is a five-speed automatic that's optional on the other two trims, for $800 on the S and $1,000 on the OR. The new engine's generous torque combines with the manual transmission's extra gear to create a quick launch. The conventional center console provides for a short gearshift, especially when compared to the early Xterra's floor-mounted lever. There are plenty of gear choices no matter the task at hand.
The automatic also is impressive. There's nothing trucklike about the way it shifts in normal driving, and it does very well what many new transmissions seem to have sacrificed in the rush to add fifth and sixth gears you know, trivial things like going instantly when you step on the pedal, kicking down without undue lag and generally not calling attention to itself out of some deficiency or another.
All trim levels are available with either rear- or four-wheel drive, designated as 4x2 or 4x4. What? An offroad trim level with rear-wheel drive? Yes; Nissan understands that offroad mania is more about image than actual use. Having made that generalization, this maniac put the 4x4 to actual use, but I'll leave those details for the end of this report because it doesn't affect most of you. For the sake of inclement weather and the odd dirt road, all you have to know is that the four-wheel-drive system is part-time, which means it must be activated when needed and is not to be used on dry pavement without incurring driveline damage.
To ensure traction with both four- and rear-wheel drive, the standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS provide traction control, either standard or as an option, with the automatic transmission. (As with the stability system, the traction control won't be available with the manual until late in the model year, though the ABS is standard across the board from the start.)
If early EPA estimates are correct, the new Xterra is slightly more efficient than the previous generation's V-6 models. (The four-cylinder rated better by about 3 mpg average but made up just 4 percent of Xterras sold.)
EPA-Estimated Fuel Economy
Also note that the earlier Xterra's most powerful engine option called for premium gasoline. For all trim levels and equipment, the Xterra scores a respectable 6 out of a possible 10 (10 being best) for emissions in the EPA Green Vehicle Guide. The Inside The Xterra's occupant volume has grown from 71.3 cubic feet to 99.8 cubic feet partly from the new platform and partly because the occupants take over a bit more of the cargo space than in the previous generation. Headroom and legroom have increased between 1 and 2 inches in all seats, and the hip and shoulder room have grown by full inches except in the backseat where hip room is 6 inches narrower never a good move in the U.S.A.
Still a truck, the Xterra demands more work to get into than do car-based competitors. The tubular step rails, standard on the SE and optional on the S, help people of any size. The OR doesn't offer them because they decrease the ground clearance. As in the previous generation, the rear wheel well bites almost halfway into the rear door opening, so getting in is best accomplished by greyhounds, gymnasts and circus freaks.
The driver's seat is adjustable via two knobs on the side of the cushion. The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope. As in most SUVs, especially the higher ones, rear visibility is poor.
At 6 feet tall, I found the backseat decent but not especially comfortable, mostly because of the high floor, which raised my knees. Nissan notes that the OR gets unique backseat fabric. Safety The Xterra hasn't been crash-tested as of this review, but you might want to check out our Guide to Interpreting Crash Tests and Rollover Ratings when results become available. In terms of features, the standard offering is fair, including ABS, dual-stage front airbags and active head restraints for the front seats.
More advanced features are optional: The Supplemental Airbag Package includes side-impact torso airbags for the front occupants and side curtain-type airbags that cover the side windows of both seat rows in a side impact. The $700 package also includes a rollover sensor that deploys the curtains if it detects a rollover. Note: This does not stop a potential rollover, as some systems do. It simply activates the curtains for impact protection and to prevent occupant ejection. However, the stability system can prevent some of the conditions that lead to rollover. Xterra S buyers can add it to the airbag option for about $1,000. Remember that this system will arrive late in manual Xterras. Cargo & Towing The occupants get more space now, which has shrunk the cargo volume behind the backseat from 44.5 to 35.2 cubic feet. But with the standard 60/40-split, folding backseat lowered, the maximum cargo volume is just under 66.0 cubic feet, equal to the previous generation's. A folding front passenger seat is standard on the higher trim levels and optional on the S.
Though the truck is all-new, the backseat-folding procedure is pretty old, in a bad way. The seat cushions must be flipped forward and the head restraints removed before the backrests will fold flat. Aside from being more work than the latest, one-step folding seats, the Xterra arrangement makes it very easy to fold the cushion down on top of the seat belt buckles. If passengers don't find 'em, they won't use 'em, and that's a safety concern.
Rather than carpeted, the cargo floor and folding seatbacks are plastic for ease of cleaning. The floor itself raises to reveal storage compartments. A cubby on the left side wall accommodates a jug of, say, antifreeze.
Towing is one advantage the Xterra has over its car-based competitors. Its maximum trailer weight is 5,000 pounds. Its payload ranges from 1,004 pounds to 1,138 pounds depending on the trim level and equipment.
The Xterra's signature roof rack is standard. Again it incorporates a so-called gear basket near the front, behind an air dam. Intended for wet or dirty items, such as swimsuits or other garments that I'm told active people wear, the basket now has a rigid cover and a latch, though it doesn't lock. A step molded in the rear bumper is the same height as the rear tire, which facilitates reaching and loading the rack. Note that the gear basket, though unique, is what prohibits a moonroof. Off Road A modest course comprising rocks, side slopes, steep uphill climbs and one dramatic downhill drop illustrated the offroad hardware. Here I drove the Xterra OR with an automatic. The 4x4 models have settings for 2WD, 4H (four-wheel high) and 4LO (four-wheel with the transfer case's low gear engaged). I ran in 4LO. Most of the progress was uneventful, but there was some drama when scrambling over the smooth-rock pile as the four-wheel traction control reacted to stop the wheelspin. This type of system almost always results in some rocking, regardless of the model. The Xterra four-wheel drive's offroad throttle progression helped: When in low gear, it makes the accelerator less sensitive, which prevents the herky-jerky routine.
I didn't drive off-road in the manual, which doesn't yet offer the traction control. It bears noting that this version has a clutch interlock override switch on the dashboard that allows you to start the engine without depressing the clutch. (In offroad situations, sometimes the safest move when stopping is to turn off the engine with the transmission in gear. The switch lets you start again where depressing the clutch would disconnect the driveline and possibly allow the truck to roll.)
My vehicle didn't have this feature, but being the Off Road trim, its optional automatic transmission came with two features recently offered only on expensive SUVs: Hill Start Assist and Hill Descent Control. HSA prevents the truck from rolling backward on an incline when you take your foot off the brake. HDC automatically eases the truck down a steep drop by modulating the antilock brakes. It keeps the nose pointed straight down and prevents skidding. It worked beautifully when I took the plunge down the hill. Off-roading is becoming a little too easy.
The Xterra's ground clearance starts at 8.3 inches for the S and SE trims but goes as high as 9.5 inches on the step-rail-free OR 4x4, which also comes with skid plates as standard equipment. Though its ground clearance is one-tenth of an inch lower than the previous generation's, the 2005 model's offroading geometry is better by a degree or two, as reflected in the table above. Xterra in the Market The redesigned Xterra comes along at a time when gas prices are high and look like they won't be coming down anytime soon. Though it's no less fuel efficient than the previous model, it's still less fuel efficient than the new car-based SUVs that are gaining popularity. If the fuel prices and trends persist, truck-based SUVs will continue to fall out of favor as the poseurs flee the category. Trucks will not die out, however, and I suspect the Xterra is one of the models that will live on.
Image was the driving force behind the SUV craze, and the Xterra is strong on image. Nissan succeeded where others failed at attracting active young people those who want their rides to be tough, not just to look that way (whether they're used to tow, haul or tackle tough terrain or not). It's the common truck-based SUV, the minivan alternative that I think is in big trouble. Now that there's an alternative to the minivan alternative the crossover or car-based SUV or wagon the true trucks will still appeal to those who need them or don't care as much about efficiency and refinement.
The new Xterra is as spare, simple and rough as buyers want it to be, yet much more modern and refined than it used to be. I'm among many auto writers who've scratched their heads through the whole truck-as-people-mover craze. That said, if I were interested in a real truck-based SUV, I'd definitely be drawn to this one.