EXPERT REVIEW

Orlando Sentinel's view

If nothing else, Nissan has stayed true to its vision for this all-new, second-generation 2005 Nissan Xterra. While so many other midsize sport utes have gone soft, the Xterra remains solidly truck-based and rugged as ever. Whether you think that’s a good thing depends on the value you place on “rugged” versus “comfortable.”

Not that the Xterra is uncomfortable, it’s just that plenty of car-based SUVs, such as the Toyota Highlander and Honda CR-V and Pilot, are designed knowing full well that the owners aren’t much interested in off-roading. There’s a fairly high probability that a lot of Xterra owners aren’t either, but they at least want to look as if they are ready to tackle the Rubicon Trail, should the need arise.

The ’05 Xterra is built on a modified platform shared by the full-size Titan pickup truck and Armada SUV, as well as the Pathfinder and Infiniti QX56 SUVs. The Xterra is closest to the Pathfinder, which is different from the Xterra mostly in that the Pathfinder offers a third row of seating, and the Xterra doesn’t. The Pathfinder also has a smoother-riding independent rear suspension, while the Xterra sticks with the ol’ solid axle.

Both the Xterra and Pathfinder are powered by a 4.0-liter V-6. In the Xterra, it has 265 horsepower. It’s an enormous improvement over the previous Xterra’s tepid V-6 — in fact, those 265 horses are 26 more than the Ford Explorer’s 4.6-liter V-8, and the Nissan V-6 even has more torque than Ford’s V-8. Mated to the five-speed automatic transmission, there’s nothing not to like about the Xterra’s powertrain. Towing capacity, at 5,000 pounds, is the minimum needed to be considered really useful.

Outside, the new Xterra, though it’s wheelbase is two inches longer than the last-generation model, still looks remarkably similar — maybe too similar for buyers of the new model. The new Xterra is 2.5 inches wider than the last version, adding some much-needed elbowroom.

The interior remains functional, in an L.L. Bean sort of way. Seats in the test vehicle, a premium-level four-wheel-drive SE, were cloth-covered. You want leather? Get a Pathfinder. The Xterra continues to be marketed as the vehicle that has “everything you need, nothing you don’t,” and Nissan has decided you don’t need leather. You do need, apparently, a 380-watt, nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate stereo with a six-disc CD player, air conditioning, cruise control with steering wheel-mounted switches, and the Xterra-trademark first aid kit.

Optional on the test vehicle were side-curtain airbags ($700), XM satellite radio ($400), and body side molding and floor mats ($200). With shipping, the four-wheel-drive SE’s base price of $27,300 swelled to $29,180.

As mentioned, the SE is the top-of-the-line model. The base Xterra is the rear-wheel-drive S, starting at $20,850. That still gets you the great 4.0-liter V-6 engine, but with a six-speed manual transmission — really, not a bad deal. The S has quite a bit of standard equipment, including air conditioning, an AM/FM stereo with CD player, and 16-inch raised-white-letter radials and alloy wheels.

The next step up is the Xterra Off-Road, which adds features such as cruise control, an improved suspension, an alarm, keyless entry and power windows and locks. Even though it’s called the Off-Road, posers can get it with rear-wheel-drive only.

The SE has standard automatic transmission, 17-inch tires and wheels, the premium stereo and several other features. With every available option, the price is just over $30,000.

On the road, the Xterra SE is a reasonably rough rider, especially on uneven pavement, but the ride is certainly tolerable. This translates into very good off-road manners, and with the four-wheel-drive shifted into low gear, the Xterra is sure-footed and plenty powerful.

With so many SUVs softening around the edges, it’s nice that Nissan maintained the Xterra’s bulldog looks and personality. And with the new 4.0-liter V-6, it gets something it’s never had before: Ample horsepower and torque. It’s no longer the across-the-board bargain it originally was, but for what it offers, it’s a good buy.

Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith’s TV features air Wednesdays on Central Florida News 13.

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