Exterior & Styling
If you like your SUV to look tough, the Xterra has toughness in spades. From its large grille, with its angular slats, to the flared fenders and stepped roofline, the Xterra offers a chiseled appearance (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 model).
With 9.5 inches of ground clearance and beefy P265/75R16 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires, the step up to the driver's seat of a 4x4 Off Road Xterra is significant. There's a roof rack — which features tubular side rails and can have the Xterra's signature covered storage bin — that most drivers will be able to reach by standing on the side sills. If you have wet or dirty gear you don't want to keep in the cabin, this bin is a handy solution.
Ride & Handling
The Xterra uses body-on-frame construction, but Nissan has done a good job of keeping the unpleasant characteristics of that design — like excessive bobbing over dips in the road — mostly in check. That said, the Xterra feels top heavy when cornering, and the stiff suspension tuning isn't ideal for a long road trip, which is what I did during part of my time with the Xterra.
During a near-600-mile drive from Chicago to Detroit and back, the Xterra was stable at highway speeds. I encountered some strong winds for part of the drive, but it was easy to maintain control. Though you can feel a slight shudder through the Xterra's structure over rough sections of pavement, the cabin is squeak-free. Steering response and precision is acceptable for a truck-based SUV, but feedback is limited.
Going & Stopping
The Xterra's standard 4.0-liter V-6 engine makes 261 horsepower and 281 pounds-feet of torque. This big V-6 is a strong performer; it can accelerate the Xterra with surprising quickness. When you floor it, however, the engine gets pretty loud. With an EPA estimate of 14/20 mpg city/highway for the four-wheel-drive automatic model I tested, gas mileage isn't one of the Xterra's strong suits, which is another reason why it's not well-suited to long drives.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard, and a five-speed automatic is optional. The automatic is a willing companion for the most part, delivering smooth shifts and quick kickdowns when necessary. The only driveline fault I noticed occurred when cruising at 40 mph or so; if you take your foot off the gas pedal and then accelerate again, a clunk can be heard near the rear axle when you step on the accelerator.
The Xterra's brake pedal feel is spongy and soft. Nevertheless, the brakes manage to slow the SUV without creating drama.
The cabin is definitely designed to accentuate the Xterra's image of an all-purpose, go-anywhere SUV — there aren't many frills to be found. Like the Dodge Nitro, the dash is made of hard plastic, but fit and finish is nicer despite a few large gaps between panels. The front of the cabin is roomy, too, and large numerals on the tachometer and speedometer help make the gauges easy to read.
The Xterra's fabric front bucket seats have firm cushioning, especially the backrests. That said, I wasn't sore after completing the drive from Chicago to Detroit, which is impressive considering my route took me over some deteriorated Midwest highways. The small storage area in front of the gear selector is nice for holding things like a cell phone, but it's finished in hard plastic that doesn't do a good job holding your belongings in place when cornering.
Backseat passengers have to contend with a small door opening when entering and exiting the SUV thanks to the intruding rear wheel well. Once situated, the rear bench seat is OK, thanks to a nicely reclined backrest, and headroom is plentiful. If only there were a little more legroom for adults.
Cargo & Towing
The Xterra's cargo area measures 35.2 cubic feet, which is a sizable amount of space. The Xterra's optional Easy Clean surface is less appealing; it doesn't do a good job holding unsecured luggage in place when you're driving, like a carpeted cargo floor can. A cargo floor rail system is available.
Folding the second-row bench seat nearly doubles the total cargo area to 65.7 cubic feet, but getting that much space requires flipping forward the second-row seat cushion and then folding down the backrest. While this does result in a flat floor — and the head restraints don't have to be removed and stored to fold the backrest — it's easy for the seat belts to get trapped underneath the bench seat when putting the seats back in place.
The Xterra's maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds when properly equipped, which is similar to other V-6-powered body-on-frame SUVs, like the Ford Explorer (5,395 pounds) and Toyota 4Runner (5,000 pounds).
Standard features include all-disc antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, an electronic stability system and active head restraints for the front seats. Side-impact and side curtain airbags are bundled together in an option package that's offered on all trim levels.
The Xterra received a Good overall score — the highest possible — in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests when equipped with the optional side-impact and side curtain airbags. Despite the fact that the Xterra has active head restraints — which are designed to decrease the chance of whiplash in a rear-end collision — the SUV received a Poor overall score in an IIHS rear crash test.
The Off Road trim level comes with its share of specialized features like Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist. It also has a locking rear differential, plus skid plates for the oil pan, gas tank and transfer case.
A Technology Package is optional for the Off Road trim and it includes a Rockford Fosgate audio system with a six-CD changer, an auxiliary input jack, steering-wheel stereo controls and a Bluetooth-based cell phone system. These features are standard in the top-of-the-line SE trim.
Xterra in the Market
Body-on-frame SUVs in general have fallen out of favor with consumers who've come to discover car-based crossovers and the more agreeable driving experience that comes with them. It's hard to fault the shift when you consider many buyers will never venture off-road with their vehicles.
There will always be some buyers who do take to the trails, though, and for these buyers there are vehicles like the Xterra. It won't be as comfortable on city or suburban streets as a crossover, but it's not harsh to the point that you'll regret your purchase.
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