Whale Watching - The Death of the Nissan Xterra
Nissan Plus and Minus
Nissan figured prominently in the last year’s news (and not just in trucks). As of this writing, we don’t know if Titan XD walked off with North American Truck of the Year honors, though I’m not holding my breath expecting car-guy jurors to see beyond Volvo’s new XC90.
I’m curious to see where XD goes (and how the non-XD Titan slots in below it). The domestic brands have done this heavy-half or 3/4-light thing before, and they all bailed out of it. But they did those trucks when the gap between 1/2-ton and HD wasn’t as sizable as today’s chasm caused by 13 to 15-ton tow ratings, and I know plenty of small business owners who can’t deal with a 1/2-ton but do want better economy and operating costs than a big HD.
The other big influence is that Cummins badge. Will it draw as it did when a couple of rogue Cummins and Chrysler guys first wedged a B5.9 into a Dodge Ram 30 years ago, putting that truck back on the map and, in some respects, ahead of the competition? Will a “foreign” brand made in Tennessee, rather than a domestic brand made outside the U.S., matter? Heck, at this point (December 2015) I can configure one but don’t know what it’ll cost.
And in other Nissan news, about six months ago it became official that model year ’15 would be Xterra’s last. Credit the standard rationale of slow sales and looming regulations (although given the Xterra and Frontier share a lot of parts and platform and that there will likely be another Frontier, the regulations aspect falls on deaf ears). That leaves 4Runner and Wrangler as the only body-on-frame SUVs that don’t come covered in chrome, lined in leather, and costing two or more times the average new vehicle.
I was reminded of all this when I passed a Nissan dealer with a new Xterra out front recently. For an MSRP of $31,500 you could get a fully boxed frame, six-speed manual, 16-inch wheels wrapped around vented discs, real-sidewall tires, a locking rear diff, skidplates, decent shocks, approach and departure angles of 33 and 29 degrees (respectively), 9 1/2 inches of ground clearance (to iron parts), 281 lb-ft of torque, 36 cubic feet of cargo space, and racecar-trailer towing ability. At that price, you also got navigation with NissanConnect, a thumping Rockford-Fosgate sound system, heated front seats, and so on. You can’t touch that feature set for the money in a Wrangler Unlimited or 4Runner.
My fondness for the Xterra (named after an off-road triathlon in Maui, Hawaii, that Nissan had sponsored for a couple of years) predates the ute’s introduction by more than a decade to the first-generation Pathfinder. Arguably not the same value statement because the Pathfinder was slightly more lux and people weren’t paying $20,000 more for some 4Runners and Wranglers, the original Pathfinder was a reasonably adept factory trail machine (31s, flexible coil/link in back, all disc, good angles and clearance), and the long-termer I built while with Four Wheeler was essentially bulletproof. Despite going from Central America to Alaska (where it was misplaced for a couple of months) without pavement, desert flights, 35-percent-more-than-stock power, and sticky trails where I once stuck it with just one wheel on the ground, only two things broke in 75,000 miles: a $9 antiroll bar bracket and a door lock knob.
Xterra simply picked up where the Pathfinder had left off when it switched to a unibody five years earlier, with a little less lux and a raised roof mimicking Rover’s Discovery. It was a few inches wider, longer, and higher than early Pathfinder but still rugged, right-sized and honest. It won both North American Truck and Motor Trend SUV of the year. Suckered into working an adventure triathlon outside Los Angeles a few years later, I found the competitor parking area was 40 percent Xterra, 40 percent Subaru wagon, and 20 percent all others.
I prefer the style of the first generation, with a supercharged engine please. The second-generation Xterra’s bumper/fascia plastic up to wheelarch height too much resembles an M151 A1 MUTT for me, but the F Alpha platform and 4.0L/six-speed combo were definite plusses. Steps cut into bumper corners foretold GM pickups to come. This ’05 redesign brought the same big awards as the first, plus 4-Wheel & Off-Road’s 4x4 of the Year.
The writing was already on the wall, then, if perhaps in invisible ink. Car companies figured out most people only bought SUVs to sit up high and look like they were adventurous. But unlike many SUV buyers, Xterra people were actually adventurous—or mental. You must be when your day starts with a 2-mile swim in 55-degree salt water before a 40-mile mountain bike ride and an off-road run. Since those enthusiasts comprised such a small part of overall SUV sales, the Xterra was doomed.
Xterra served its purpose and may well hold its value. But it’s still a shame when a good piece of equipment gets only minimal attention for years and sales slide enough to kill it. Xterra just joins the Ranger, FJ Cruiser, and others in this dubious distinction, and we can only hope with Nissan’s rekindled truck interests that it returns some day.