The only engine offered in the Xterra (the four-cylinder option was cancelled) will be the 4.0-liter V-6 from the Frontier and Pathfinder, which essentially amounts to a stroked 350Z V-6. Although the new Xterra has put on a few pounds, the revvy VQ40 sends 265 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque to a six-speed manual or sturdy five-speed automatic, the latter a version of the Titan/Armada transmission.

As one might expect, the stiffer, boxed frame allowed chassis engineers to create a more precise on-road feel (i.e., less shudder) with better springs and shock tuning, ensuring the Xterra can compete more effectively with car-based SUV platforms (RAV4, Santa Fe, CR-V, Escape). On a longer (higher-speed) section of highway, we found the speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering goes numb on center, requiring almost constant fine adjustments to the wheel, but we were told final calibrations hadn't been locked in.

In addition, Nissan's research convinced the manufacturer that authentic four-wheel-drive capability was part of the Xterra personality. So Nissan decided to inject the new vehicle with a considerable amount of 4x4 technology, giving the Xterra hugely improved off-road credentials. The Off-Road package offers an electronically selectable locking rear differential, Bilstein shocks, hill-descent control, hill-start assist, and a clutch interlock defeat switch that allows the vehicle to crawl out of harm's way, starting in first gear and low range (with the six-speed manual, without the clutch depressed). We found the suspension reasonably flexible during our rough-and-tumble trail ride, during which we tested both transmissions. Gearing in the manual is exceptional, and, when combined with the clutch defeat and locking differential, the combo is almost unstoppable--a top competitor in the trail-capable 4x4 segment (Liberty, Sorento, XL7). The smooth-shifting electronic five-speed auto also impressed us, although down on gearing, the computer softens the shift points and throttle sensitivity in low range. Certainly not necessary for the majority of SUV owners, but Nissan incorporated these features for those discriminating buyers who might want to push their Xterra beyond the normal SUV boundaries.

This evolutionary advance of the youngest and smallest of the F-Alpha family will turn the Xterra into a solid sales hit for Nissan. More power, better on-road manners, improved cargo utility, all the while retaining a back-to-basics personality is a good strategy. Perhaps better defined than any other Nissan SUV or pickup, the new Xterra should create enough room for its X-Trail baby sister to join the ranks in the U.S. Nissan's biggest challenge will be steering away from the temptation to overprice its newest standout product. We expect pricing to start a tick over $20,000, with extensive option ordering carrying it to just under $30,000. With the bugs worked out of the platform, this looks to be another strong player from Nissan.