EXPERT REVIEW

KansasCity.com's view

Rugged as a mountain bike. That’s the Nissan’s Xterra. Except this year it has been softened without losing its personality or usefulness.

Rugged yet comfortable seems to be the trend these days for SUVs as manufacturers strive to maintain functionality while reducing a vehicle’s truckness.

The Xterra was a key vehicle for Nissan when it was introduced in 1999. The second generation takes a slightly new direction. It looks similar, with large, flared fenders and a large tube roof rack that contains a lidded compartment. Fat tires and big wheels are counterpoints to the chunky exterior.

‘The changes in the new Xterra are evolutionary, though with a capital E,’said Mark McNabb, vice president and general manager. ‘For 2005, we’ve made key improvements in the areas customers want most – power, drivability, smoother on-road dynamics, more interior space and cargo versatility and, of course, greater off-road performance.’

Base prices start at $20,850, while the SE test vehicle started at $27,300. All are powered by Nissan’s new 4.0-liter V-6, which was derived from the 3.5-liter unit used in the Maxima, Altima, Murano and 350Z. It uses variable valve timing, Teflon-coated pistons, aluminum block and a timing chain, rather than a timing belt, for durability. Transmission choices include a five-speed automatic or a six-speed manual.

The V-6 produces 265 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque. The 4.0-liter is tuned for good midrange torque and power, which is what a truck needs. Fuel economy is rated at 16 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway.

The Xterra is built on the same frame and platform as the Frontier pickup and Pathfinder SUV. Called F-Alpha, the chassis is derived from the one designed for the full-size Titan pickup. The fully boxed ladder frame has a double-wishbone front suspension with stabilizer bar and solid axle leaf spring rear suspension. The ride is smoother than before, with less bounce and harshness.

Wind and road noise is reduced as well.

The wheelbase is 2 inches longer for greater interior room and a smoother ride. Width is up by 2.4 inches. The 74.9-inch height is only slightly greater than before. Overall length is nearly identical to last year’s because of less front overhang, and less front overhang enhances off-road maneuverability.

Inside, dimensional changes result in more backseat legroom and headroom. Shoulder room is up by 3.9 inches. The added interior space is very useful, especially when three people need to fit in the back seat.

The 60/40 split folding rear seat is joined by an available fold-down front passenger seat, which creates added utility for hauling long recreational gear. The center console has been enlarged, and the glove compartment is now a double deck design.

The cargo area has a plastic floor and 10 utility hooks, six on the floor and four on the ceiling and sides. The adjustable channel system in the cargo floor is similar in design to the track system in the Titan and Frontier pickups. Securing bike racks or other gear is easy with all the hooks. The tailgate has space for a built-in first-aid kit.

Available creature comforts include a premium 300-watt Rockford audio system with nine speakers, steering wheel controls, MP3 capability and satellite radio.

Price

The base price of the four-wheel-drive SE V-6 test vehicle was $27,300. Options included supplemental side-impact airbags with rollover protection, side molding, cabin filter, floor mats and the tow package. The sticker price was $29,420.

Warranty

Three years or 36,000 miles.

To get in touch with Tom Strongman, send e-mail to .com.

Engine: 4.0-liter, 265-hp V-6

Transmission: Automatic

Four-wheel drive

Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

Curb weight: 4,350 lbs.

Base prices: $27,300

As driven: $29,420

Mpg rating: 16 city, 21 hwy. At A Glance

Point: The new Xterra is more refined, yet it hasn’t lost its tough edge. The look is bold, the engine powerful and the interior bigger. Creature comforts have improved, too. Adjustable cargo tie-downs are very handy.

Counterpoint: Xterra’s height makes it hard to put items on top. Gas mileage is not great.

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