One of my favorite SUVs has become even better.

Last fall, Nissan introduced the second generation of its compact Xterra for 2005, which continues as a true truck-based sport utility designed for the kind of rugged off-road driving that I enjoy.

It returns for 2006 with no significant changes, since it was just redone.

The redesign of the Xterra coincided with the makeover of the Nissan Frontier pickup, upon which the Xterra is based. For 2005, both vehicles got extensive changes, including a new chassis that is related to the one used for the full-size Titan pickup, as well as the full-size Armada and midsize Pathfinder sport utilities.

For the Frontier and Xterra, which are considered compact trucks, the so-called F-Alpha chassis was shortened a bit, of course. But the Xterra itself grew slightly in this latest generation, making it roomier and more comfortable.

The wheelbase has been extended two inches for a smoother ride and more interior room, Nissan says, and the vehicle is 2.4 inches wider. But overall, the vehicle is just 2/10-inch longer than before. To accomplish that, Nissan shortened the front end. Keeping the overall length almost the same helped preserve one of the Xterra's most important off-road attributes -- its great maneuverability in tight spots.

During an off-road test into the Scott's Gulf area of the Caney Fork River on Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau, the new Xterra was small and nimble enough to make its way through some very tight rock passages where larger SUVs would have sustained body damage.

Our test model was the midlevel four-wheel-drive Off-Road version (base price $25,500 plus $580 freight).

The Off-Road trim level actually is is offered in both two- and four-wheel drive, but of course, the two-wheel-drive version would not really be suitable for off-road driving. This one, though, was a real SUV, with Nissan's excellent part-time four-wheel-drive system. With a switch on the instrument panel console, the Xterra can be shifted from two-wheel drive to either four-wheel-drive high or low. Down at the bottom of the panel is an additional switch to lock the rear differential electronically for even better traction in four-wheel-drive low range operation.

But in our travels on the rocky trail in Scott's Gulf, we never needed to lock the rear axle; the Xterra did just fine in four-wheel-drive low. My only regret was that we had an Xterra with the optional six-speed manual gearbox (taken from the 350Z sports car), rather than the five-speed automatic. An automatic transmission is usually best for serious off-road driving because the driver never has to disengage the drive wheels from the transmission, which happens when shifting gears with a manual transmission equipped with a clutch.

As with most true truck-based SUVs, as opposed to the new crop of car-based "crossover" models that have become popular lately for city driving, the Xterra comes with a steel ladder frame, upon which the vehicle's body is mounted. This makes the vehicle more able to take rough, rocky trail driving.

This arrangement also makes the vehicle ride more like a truck when it's on smooth pavement, but Nissan has done an outstanding job with the new Xterra's steel double-wishbone front suspension and solid-axle leaf-spring rear suspension to give it as much carlike ride and handling as possible. High-performance Bilstein gas shocks were included with the Off-Road model, which along with the vehicle's enhanced ground clearance.

Four skid plates are included on the Off-Road model, protecting the transmission and other underbody components should the vehicle encounter some big rocks. Ground clearance is 9.5 inches for the Off-Road model with four-wheel drive.

On the highway and on city streets, the Xterra is a very well-mannered compact SUV. "Compact" is a relative term, though. The vehicle is small enough outside to maneuver through some really tight terrain, but inside it's roomier than the first generations of the Ford Explorer.

For 2005, the Xterra has an inch more front leg room, and nearly an inch more front head room. In the rear, there is 1.6 inches more leg room and 1.5 inches more head room, as well as 3.9 inches more shoulder room.

I didn't put three adults in the back seat, but three kids sat together comfortably on the 60/40 split-folding stadium-style rear seat. Or, at least, they were comfortable when they weren't picking at each other as kids will do.

Up front, Nissan says the center console has been enlarged and the glove compartment has a "double deck design." Our Off-Road model came with unique blue seat fabric.

I particularly liked the easy-clean cargo area, which has a rubber floor that can be hosed out. We didn't get it dirty, so didn't actually get to try hosing it out, though. There are 10 cargo area utility hooks.

The new Xterra continues the previous generation's inclusion of an inside rear-door-mounted first-aid kit, and there is also space to carry one-gallon jugs. The rear door flips up in one piece to allow for easy loading of the cargo area.

Under the hood, the new Xterra (and its Frontier cousin) get more power, thanks to a 4.0-liter version of the 3.5-liter aluminum V-6 engine used in most of Nissan's cars.

This larger-displacement engine gives the Xterra 265 horsepower and 284 foot-pounds of torque. It's the only engine offered in the Xterra or Frontier, but is more powerful than the previous generation's 3.5-liter.

As far as styling goes, there are changes, but rather subtle ones. It's hard for the untrained eye to tell the difference between the 2004 and 2005 models. The first-generation Xterra, introduced in 1999, has been such a great seller that it didn't make sense to create an entirely different look. The new one is instantly recognizable as an Xterra.

Nissan says this about the evolved design: "Larger in nearly every dimension, the new look is more exciting, more powerful and more functional. Key exterior styling features include large, flared fenders, a new versatile roof rack with latchable lid and a new rear bumper design with side steps for easy access to the roof rack. It also offers a large, powerful hood and headlights and Nissan SUV signature angled strut-style grille." Whatever the changes, the vehicle still looks tough enough for the most rugged trails, yet refined enough to haul the kids to soccer practice.

I found the driver's side bucket seat to be quite comfortable, and I had plenty of leg room. I had no complaints about this newest Xterra other than with the six-speed manual gearbox, which I found hard to get into reverse. I would suggest leaving the manual gearbox to those who for some odd reason just enjoy shifting gears.

Standard equipment included power windows/mirrors/door locks (with remote), air conditioning, power steering, four-wheel antlilock disc brakes, cruise control, tilt steering wheel and more.

Our vehicle came with a few extras, including an upgraded Rockford Fosgate audio system with six-disc CD changer ($900), XM Satellite Radio ($400), supplemental side-curtain air bags ($700), towing package ($430) for up to 5,000 pounds, and carpeted floor mats ($100). Total sticker was $28,610, including freight and options -- a real bargain when compared with similarly equipped midsize models such as the Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder and Ford Explorer.

For our test vehicle, with the manual gearbox, EPA fuel-economy ratings were 17 miles per gallon in the city and 21 mpg on the highway; with automatic, the figures are 16 city/21 highway for the four-wheel-drive model. The tank holds 21.1 gallons of fuel, and regular unleaded is OK.

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G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.

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At a Glance: 2005 Nissan Xterra

The package: Compact, four-door, five-passenger, rear- or four-wheel drive, V-6 powered sport utility vehicle.

Highlights: Introduced for 2000 as a brand new model, and now entering its second generation with the redesigned 2005 version, this compact sport utility has been a runaway best-seller, largely due to its great versatility and rugged off-road capabilities, not to mention a decent price. For 2005, it is roomier, more powerful and more versatile than ever.

Negatives: Four-cylinder engine no longer available for those who want a less-expensive version with better fuel economy; manual gearbox is difficult to shift into reverse. Engine: 4.0-liter V-6.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic; six-speed manual.

Power/torque: 265 hp./284 foot-pounds.

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Length: 178.7 inches.

Curb weight: 4,081-4,382 pounds.

Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds.

Cargo volume: 35.2 cubic feet (65.7 with rear seat folded).

EPA fuel economy: 16 city/21 highway to 17/city/22 highway.

Fuel capacity/type: 21.1 gallons/unleaded regular.

Base price range: $20,850-$27,350 plus $580 freight.

Price as tested: $28.610, including freight and options (4WD Off-Road model with manual gearbox).

On the Road rating: ***** (five stars out of five).

Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail; actual selling price may vary according to manufacturer and/or dealer rebates, discounts and incentives, if any.