With its live rear axle, and--in full off-road specification--tall tires and simple transfer case, the new Nissan Xterra seems somewhat old-school against some of its more sophisticated (and more expensive) opposition. But there's a compelling honesty about the Xterra that won over the judges. Nissan has built a sport/utility vehicle that does exactly what its customers want; it's tough, rugged, versatile, fun--and with the right options, it'll take you and your stuff almost anywhere you want to go. Best of all, it's not going to cost you a fortune.

The Xterra's apparent simplicity also belies a clever product-development process that's allowed Nissan to deliver maximum bang for your buck by repackaging proven components and concepts. The Xterra is based on a shortened version of the versatile, American-engineered F-Alpha platform that underpins vehicles ranging from the Armada and Pathfinder sport/utilities to the Titan and Frontier pickups. Its punchy 4.0-liter V-6 is a stroked version of the engine that powers the sporty 350Z. And although it looks, at first glance, similar to its predecessor, its exterior boasts broader shoulders and a taller physique that translates into more leg, shoulder, and headroom inside. Dimensionally, the wheelbase has grown by two inches, yet overall length has increased only 0.7 inch, improving approach and departure angles, helpful when dealing with obstacles on a trail. Focus and execution, not frills and extras: That's why the Xterra works.

The prior-generation Xterra offered a four as well as the choice of a normally aspirated V-6 or a supercharged variant. In the new Xterra, all you get is the V-6. And that's no bad thing: The new engine puts out 55 more horsepower and 38 pound-feet more torque than the old supercharged V-6 and has 122 more horses than the I-4. With four-wheel-drive models, the 4.0-liter has secondary mapping that comes into play in 4-Lo to adjust throttle response. While a six-speed manual is standard, our Solar Yellow version came with the five-speed automatic. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard, as are dual front airbags. Side curtain and supplemental side-impact airbags are optional. The trademark rear-door first-aid-kit bulge returns, as does an evolved version of the easily recognizable roof rack, now with a covered cargo area. There are even steps cut into the sides of the rear bumper, making it easier to extract gear strapped to the roof.

Inside, the feeling of honest-to-goodness value continues: You're not overwhelmed by bells and whistles, but the Nissan has the technology and electronics that keep it from feeling bare-bones. Features in the five-passenger, cloth-only cabin are simple and easy to use. The layout was revised and the HVAC controls improved (now big, easy-to-reach dials), and Nissan added more storage spaces to the front and rear rows. Many judges were impressed by the comfort and support provided by the front seats and the decent storage space with medium-size map pockets, cupholders, and center console.

Available options include cruise control and steering-wheel-mounted controls, power locks and windows, keyless entry, a nine-speaker 300-watt Rockford Fosgate AM/FM/CD system, satellite radio, and speed-sensitive volume. All models come with four power ports, including one in the back. Special attention was paid to the cargo area: Keeping in touch with the potentially mud-oriented habits of Xterra buyers, the backs of the rear seats are rubberized, the cargo floor is easy to hose out, and there are 10 utility hooks on the floor, sides, and ceiling. The floor also contains two adjustable channels, similar to the Utili-track setup in the Titan; those and the hooks make it easy to secure gear and bikes. Two small quibbles about the interior: The relentlessly dark color palette of our tester felt somewhat gloomy, and many judges thought the plastics quality could've been higher.

All SUVs have to hold some level of compromise, whether their origins are from a car's platform or a truck's (a truck can't handle like a Lotus; a car can't tow a large trailer). The Xterra does an excellent job of tackling those concessions to nature and automotive design. It's a traditional truck-based, body-on-frame SUV. It has an all-steel control-arm front suspension and a live axle with leaf springs in the rear. Yet it performs on road with the confidence of a crossover--it's fast, handles well, and is comfortable. This isn't a sport/utility designed just for high-performance driving; it's not supposed to be able to do all that. But it does.

The first of many surprises with the Xterra was its performance at the track. Our tester was the topline, 4WD Off-Road model (you can buy an Xterra with RWD only), meaning in addition to the tough, fully boxed frame, it came equipped with a part-time four-wheel-drive system with an electronically controlled transfer case; Off-Road VDC, which includes hill-descent control and hill-start assist; off-road-biased Bilstein shocks; skidplates protecting the oil pan, transfer case, and fuel tank; and 265/75R16 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires--not the ideal setup for maneuvering around cones.

Even so, the Xterra's 58.1 mph through the slalom was beaten only by the nimble car-based SUVs and the Mercedes-Benz ML500. And its 29.4-second time over the MT figure eight was fifth best. The straight-line numbers underscored the 4.0-liter V-6's punch: The Xterra's 7.7-second 0-to-60-mph time was better than all but two other competitors, the supercharged Range Rover Sport and the 300-horsepower Mercedes ML (and those had V-8s). And it was the only other sport/utility besides these two that recorded a 0-to-100 time before running out of track.

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.


What's Old (School) Is New Again
This isn't the first time Motor Trend has been impressed with the Xterra. In fact, it received Sport/Utility of the Year honors in 2000, when the SUV first made its debut. Back then, the staff had to cut through the Gen-X-focused ad campaign to get to the genuine merits of the 'ute. One arena where it shined then, and still does, is off the beaten path. "In low-range, the lightweight 4x4 easily scampered up steep sandy hills that left the heavier vehicles struggling, and, try as we might, we couldn't get it stuck." Sounds familiar.

Another aspect that impressed the editors was value. Six years ago, the entry-level, four-cylinder-powered XE started at $17,869, and the V-6 could be bought for $19,019 Fully loaded models topped out at $26,148. For 2006, Nissan hasn't lost sight of its priorities: Motor Trend's near-topline Xterra was $28,980, only $2832 more than the 2000 model, and the new base model is only $2931 more than the 2000's six-cylinder.

2005 Nissan Xterra
OR-V6 4x4
Powertrain/Chassis
Drivetrain Layout Front engine, 4WD
Engine Type 60° V-6, alum block/heads
Valvetrain DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Displacement 241.3 cu in / 3954cc
Compression Ratio 9.7:1
Power (SAE net) 265 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 284 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Weight To Power 16.8 lb/hp
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Axle/Final/Low Ratio 3.13:1 / 2.63:1 / 2.63:1
Suspension, Front; Rear Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; live axle, leaf springs
Steering Ratio 20.4:1
Turns Lock-To-Lock 3.5
Brakes, f;r 11.7-in vented disc; 11.3-in solid disc, ABS
Wheels 16 x 7.0-in cast aluminum
Tires P265/75R16
BFGoodrich Rugged Trail
Dimensions
Wheelbase 106.3 in
Track, f/r 61.8 / 61.8 in
Length X Width X Height 178.7 x 72.8 x 74.9 in
Ground Clearance 9.5 in
Apprch/Depart Angle 33.2 / 29.4 deg
Turning Circle 37.3 ft
Curb Weight 4451 lb
Weight dist, f/r 52 / 48 %
Towing capacity 5000 lb
Seating capacity 5
Headroom, f/r 39.9 / 39.3 in
Legroom, f/r 42.4 / 34.4 in
Shoulder Room, f/r 58.3 / 58.3 in
Cargo Vol Behind f/r 65.7 / 35.2 cu ft
Test Data
Acceleration to mph
0-30 2.7 sec
0-40 4.1
0-50 5.8
0-607.7
0-70 10.3
0-80 13.8
0-90 17.6
0-10022.5
Passing, 45-65 mph 3.9 sec
Quarter mile 15.8 sec @ 87.4 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 130 ft
600-ft slalom 58.1 mph avg
Lateral acceleration 0.71 g avg
MT figure eight 29.4 sec @ 0.54 g avg
Top-gear revs @ 60 mph 2050 rpm
Consumer Info
Base price $27,280
Price As Tested $28,980
Stability/Traction Control Yes/yes
Airbags Dual front, front side, front/rear curtain
Basic Warranty 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/60,000 miles
Roadside Assistance None
Fuel Capacity 21.1 gal
Epa City/Hwy Econ 16 / 21 mpg
Recommended Fuel Regular unleaded

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