Nissan sport-ute designed for what people do with the vehicle

Nissan's brand new Xterra sport-utility vehicle was not named North American Truck of the Year in January just because it was an excellent SUV. It also was a truck-based rig that was different from its competition.

The impetus for Xterra designers was to "create an affordable, rugged, quality piece of equipment," said Jerry Hirshberg, president of Nissan Design International Inc. in La Jolla.

"Xterra is about what people do with the vehicle, as much as what the vehicle can do."

Hirshberg said Nissan researchers checked out campgrounds, trailheads, surfing spots and similar sites to see how people were using their sport-utility vehicles.

To their surprise, the researchers found people were using sedans, wagons, vans and trucks ingeniously outfitted with bungee cords, racks and compartments.

"We discovered a whole generation of young buyers who use their vehicles like they use a good piece of sports equipment. And that most SUVs today are either too expensive or lacking the basic utility to meet their needs," Hirshberg said.

So Nissan came out with a more affordable companion rig to its Pathfinder sport-utility vehicle. But it's not a downsized Pathfinder.

The Xterra is based on the Frontier compact pickup truck. In fact, it shares the front bumper, hood, A-pillar, windshield and front doors with the Frontier.

It has a two-tier roof line that definitely gives it a different appearance from its 4WD sibling, although the rear door handles are vertical like those on the Pathfinder.

That roof line opened the door for Xterra designers to come up with a unique two-piece roof rack. The "lower level" contains a removable gear basket that can hold up to 30 pounds of wet or soiled items like wet suits or snow gear. The "upper level" in the rear is like a conventional roof rack.

Xterra prices, which are competitive with rival sport-utility vehicles, range from $17,349 for an XE model with four-cylinder engine and manual gearbox to $25,549 for the top-of-the-line XE-V6 4x4 with automatic transmission. The lowest priced 4x4 is the LE with manual shifter for $20,499.

The top-of-the-line model Xterra is about $850 less than the entry-level Pathfinder XE 4x2 at $26,399.

It is the Xterra XE-V6 4x4 that is the subject of this road test report. In the case of most truck or truck-based vehicles, the manufacturer's suggested retail price is followed by a long list of extra-cost options. Not so in the case of the test rig.

The destination charge of $520 brought the bottom line to just $26,049, before taxes and the mandatory fees.

The standard equipment list almost filled the window sticker. The major standard amenities included the V-6 engine mated with a four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel anti-lock brake system with power-assisted front discs and rear drums, power steering, power door locks, windows and mir rors, air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette/CD audio system, cruise control, retractable cargo cover, first aid kit, full-size spare tire and numerous other items.

The 3.3-liter V-6 engine was rated at 170 horsepower. Mated with the automatic transmission, Nissan says this model has a 5,000-pound towing capacity.

The V-6 with automatic seemed like a good power team. I'd recommend you test-drive Xterras with both engines if you're thinking about a four-cylinder model, which is available only with a five-speed manual gearbox.

While I didn't have an opportunity to drive the four-cylinder-powered version of the Xterra, I suspect most buyers will opt for the V-6, which is available with manual or automatic shifters.

Fuel economy was about par for the course -- 15 miles per gallon in the city and 19 mpg on the highway. My average for about 500 miles of about 60 percent highway/mountain road and 40 percent urban driving was 17.2 mpg -- all of which was in the two-wheel drive mode.

I had an opportunity to drive the Xterra off-road during last year's Western Automotive Journalists four-wheel-drive program at the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area in San Benito County.

Four-wheel-drive expert Daphne Green of Ross had the Xterra on intermediate trails along with the Infiniti QX4, Isuzu Trooper, Mercedes-Benz ML430, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Nissan Frontier 4x4, Kia Sportage, Suzuki Grand Vitara and Chevrolet Tracker. The Xterra fared well against these rivals.

Green had only the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Land Rover Discovery, Range Rover 4.0, Lexus LS 470, Toyota Land Cruiser and Toyota 4Runner on the expert trails.

The Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester, Subaru Outback and Oldsmobile Bravada were on trails designed for all-wheel-drive vehicles.

The two-tier roof line will probably be most appreciated by the second seat passengers. They'll sit a little bit higher than the front seat occupants thanks to that extra headroom. There's room for three adults on the bench-type rear seat. The driver and front passenger have individual buckets.

Regardless of where you sit, the Xterra provides a comfortable ride on both flatland freeways and winding mountain roads.

This rig should do well in snow country or on summer camping or surfing outings -- all those things for which it was designed.