Even with performance numbers in hand, some judges were still wary of the old-school chassis on twisty roads and Southern California freeways. But its confident handling, responsive suspension, and solid chassis won many over. Says Detroit editor Todd Lassa, "It's fun on the handling circuit, neutral with nice steering weight and feel. You can hustle this through curves better than in most crossovers." Adds senior road-test editor Chris Walton, "This VQ40 engine is ever-ready, and the transmission is smart. Despite its rough-and-tumble 4x4 ability, the Xterra did an excellent job navigating Angeles Crest Highway." It held its own on freeways, as well, having no trouble getting up to Interstate speed and staying there. The five-speed automatic transmission was a good match for the V-6, providing gear changes at the right times without intruding too much on the driving experience.

It was equally impressive off-road. On a course that included loose sand, a hillclimb and descent, and a severe side-angle hill, the Xterra remained as adept as a billy goat. It completed our off-highway circuit without difficulty, staying poised from beginning to end--especially through the Sluice Box, a long channel filled with rhino-size boulders, which emulates the famed Rubicon Trail and is off-limits to all but the most hardy 4WD truck. Dial turned to 4-Lo, the Xterra proved its mettle there, going through with little trouble and no scrapes.

This is a sport/utility with the capability of much more expensive models, in an honest, durable, value-minded package. It sticks to its genuine off-road-focused guns, and it's clear in its mission. The design is well thought-out, its execution undeniably competent. Pricing starts at $21,430 for two-wheel-drive S models, and an Xterra with four-wheel drive can be had for $23,530. Ours, with all possible off-road bells and whistles, priced out at $28,980, still a bargain considering its versatility. It's the best four-door off-roader for the money; on road, it's quick and mannered enough to compete with V-8 luxury models that cost two or three times as much. Whether it's touring the backcountry, hauling gear, or just getting from A to B, the Xterra is the right tool for the job.