The Detroit News's view

Any kid who ever was obsessed with dinosaurs can surely relate to the Nissan Xterra. The compact sport-utility vehicle, with its distinctive stepped roof, tubular roof rack and running boards, has a fierce “exoskeleton,” according to Nissan. Funny, we found the scariest part of this Japanese SUV to be its too-high price tag.

We first evaluated the Xterra 18 months ago. We decided to revisit and rethink our review because of the red-hot competition in this segment. Xterra now goes up against such formidable contenders as the new Ford Escape and the Hyundai Santa Fe.

He: At $26,698, the Xterra SE 4×4 that we tested is about the same as a fully loaded Escape and even more expensive than a Santa Fe with all the options. And yet, it still falls short of both those competitors in several key areas, notably, ride comfort and handling. The twin-cam 3.0-liter V-6 in the Escape is smaller than the Xterra’s 3.3-liter V-6 and yet it makes 30 more horsepower and gets considerably better gas mileage. The Santa Fe’s twin-cam 2.7-liter V-6 is even smaller, but it too outdoes the Xterra in performance and fuel economy.

She: So what’s the big picture, big guy?

He: You can still get into an Xterra for under $19,000. But the entry-level two-wheel-drive model with the base four-cylinder engine isn’t all that pleasant. If you’re prepared to spend $25,000-plus, there are much better bargains out there in SUVs.

She: I was really hoping we’d have mellowed on our opinion of the Xterra. But when we jumped in it this morning to formally evaluate it, it just kept falling short. I have my little rituals when I get in a vehicle – like checking my lipstick – and the Xterra disappoints from the get-go. No driver’s side vanity mirror. The cheap pop-up sunroof doesn’t work with the roof rack. There are no side air bags. Nissan made a few modest changes to Xterra, but they haven’t resolved any of the things we griped about a year-and-a-half ago. They must not read this column!

He: I’d rather not read this column myself.

She: Why, don’t you check your lipstick, too?

He: I wouldn’t want my comments to mirror yours. Lord knows, there are plenty of good things to say about the Xterra. It’s pretty roomy – although when you flip the rear seats down, the Santa Fe has lots more cargo space. I like the premium amenities on the Xterra like the new in-dash six-disc CD changer. But I can’t imagine why Nissan picked such cheap-looking fabric for the seats and door trim. Nor can I figure out why the seats feel so flimsy on a $26,000 SUV.

She: My philosophy is that the seats are the heart of a vehicle. That’s why I constantly tell consumers to take long test drives in vehicles they’re considering buying. If you spent as much time in the Xterra as we did, you’d notice its other flaws, such as too much noise, especially at highway speeds. By the way, that cheap tonneau cover in the rear, which is like a shade you can pull over cargo to conceal it, is no better than the seats. It looks and feels flimsy.

He: I have to admit, from a styling standpoint, the Xterra is one of the coolest-looking sport-utes on the road. If you intend to do some serious off-roading, this Nissan also feels plenty rugged – much more so than car-based utes like the Escape and Santa Fe. It also has a 5,000-pound towing capacity, which is near the top of the class. Having said all that, if you’re looking for a truck-based SUV, a much better choice in this price range is the Isuzu Rodeo, which has more engine power, more cargo space, better fuel economy and nearly as much towing capacity.

She: This is starting to sound less like a review of the Xterra and more like an advertisement for its competitors. Trouble is, buyers in this segment have a right to be picky, given all the choices they have and the money they’re shelling out. From our perspective, we don’t tend to agree on much when it comes to c s and trucks, but we agree on the Xterra. And it gets no more than a lukewarm two stars from this couple.

Anita’s rating: Acceptable

Paul’s rating: Acceptable

Likes: Better-than-average build quality. Distinctive, rugged looks. Good view from back seat. Roomy. Good visibility. Standard six-disc in-dash CD player on SE model. Unexpected features like first-aid kit. Standard antilock brakes.

Dislikes: At $26,698, our 4X4 Xterra was not a good value. Inconsistent convenience features. Nissan still hasn’t figured out roof rack/sunroof combo. Seats are cheap, uncomfortable. Tubular-style running boards useless, except as decoration. No side air bags.

Type: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle.

Price: Base, $26,099; as tested; $26,698 (inc. $520 destination charge).

Engine: 3.3-liter V-6; 170 hp; 200 lb-ft torque.

Fuel economy: 15 city/19 highway.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan (*Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower depending on coverage and driving record.): $1,081.

Where built: Smyrna, Tenn.

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