Nissan markets its Xterra sport utility vehicle as a hip, hard, inexpensive alternative to more sedate SUVs.

But is it really?

December seems like a good month to find out.

Last year, the Xterra benefited from new front end styling and an optional 3.3-liter 210 horsepower supercharged V-6.

For 2003, non-supercharged 3.3-liter V-6 models get a 10-horsepower bump to 180 horsepower. Torque gets a 2 foot-pound bump to 202 foot pounds of torque. Vehicle Dynamic Control with traction control is a new option on all Xterras.

A 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is available as well, but its 143 horsepower rating would seem to be too meager for the vehicle's weight. A five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission is available on four- and six-cylinder models. The supercharged model comes only with the four-speed automatic, while the part-time four-wheel-drive is only available with the V-6 engine.

All engines are available on the base XE model. The regular V-6 is standard on the SE while the supercharged V-6 is standard on the SE-SC.

Got all that?

Nissan offered an SE-SC four-wheel-drive vehicle for testing.

Most surprising about the supercharged model was how much it felt like a regular V-6 4x4 Xterra. With only 30 more ponies, there's not a huge difference in acceleration over the regular V-6. The Xterra still feels sluggish off the line, even without passengers or cargo.

While trying to decide which engine is right for your Xterra, keep in mind the supercharged V-6 takes premium fuel only, while all others run on regular. That's important, since the test rig returned only 13.5 mpg.

Handling is about par for the class, meaning you'll experience body lean in corners and a generally heavy, truck-like feel.

The suspension features double wishbones up front and leaf springs out back. It produces a hard ride that will reveal the truly deteriorated state of Pennsylvania roads. It almost feels like you are off-road, even when you're not.

The front disc/rear drum brakes feature anti-lock to prevent skids, as well as electronic brake-force distribution to ensure you're braking hard enough in panic situations.

Sixteen-inch tires are standard on all Xterras except the SE-SC, which has 17-inch tires. They generated enough noise to remind you that you were in a truck, rather than a car disguised as a truck. For those who prefer refinement and isolation, the Xterra will not fit the bill. This truck is hard, noisy and proud of its identity. You can tell by its funky styling.

Aggressive plastics, flared fenders and stepped-up roof declare this vehicle is meant for the mod squad. Inside, the theme continues, as Nissan has done an expert job at making the materials look hip. The seats are low in relation to the floor, while step-in height is high. The tubular side-rails are of little use.

The dashboard is simple to understand and operate and has a post-modern appearance. The hooded gauge cluster features three deeply recessed instrument pods. The center console has ample storage.

The best part of the vehicle is the incredible 300-watt Rockford-Fosgate audio system. This AM/FM unit features a 6-CD in-dash changer and 8 speakers. The sound is very accurate — so clear that I could have sworn Chuck Berry was playing in the back seat.

Other amenities include steering-wheel mounted audio controls, a first-aid kit, 8-way adjustable driver's seat, cargo area storage bin, a cargo cover and lots of cupholders.

So it's hip and it's hard. But inexpensive? It depends.

The Nissan Xterra starts at $17,999, that's for a four-cylinder rear-wheel-drive model. Want a V-6? The price jumps to $20,399. Want four-wheel-drive? The price jumps to $24,744. If you want the supercharged V-6, the vehicle starts at $27,999. (By comparison, the more refin d Pathfinder 4x4 V-6 starts at $28,799.)

Add the goodies that our vehicle came with (a $349 sunroof package, a $499 side air-bag package, a $999 Rugged Leather Package, along with a $349 towing package, $79 floor mats and $89 splash guards) and the total comes to a none-too-cheap $30,903.

But image counts for a lot in the crowded SUV market and the Xterra satisfies those who like their SUVs high, hard and rugged.

Just skip the supercharger.