The 2010 Nissan Xterra Off Road isn't an absolutely pure SUV by the strictest of definitions. Fans of old-school Internationals and Jeep CJs may scoff at the Xterra's modern frivolities like Bluetooth and satellite radio, but they're a small price to pay for one of last real factory off-roaders. An inspection of the Xterra's more substantial hardware reveals an SUV matched by few that's about as close to a pure SUV as you're likely to get in 2010.

Consider it a classic recipe updated for the digital age. Behind the Xterra's 4.0-liter V-6 is a standard six-speed manual transmission with an optional five-speed automatic. Behind that is a real two-speed transfer case, though it is operated by a simple electronic switch rather than a manual gear selector. It doles out power to an electronically locking solid rear axle -- a heavy-duty Dana axle if you order the manual transmission -- and a front differential nestled in a fully independent double-wishbone suspension. Not original recipe, but not pavement-bound, either.

Our tester was no run-of-the-mill Xterra. It was the Off Road model, and you can bet it earned that title. To do it, Nissan added knobby BF Goodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires size 265/75R16 riding on 16-inch wheels and good for 9.5 inches of ground clearance, Bilstein shocks, and the aforementioned electronically locking rear differential. In addition to the standard radiator skid plate, the Off Road is fitted with additional skid plates that protect the oil pan, transfer case, and fuel tank. Select the optional automatic transmission, and Nissan will also set you up with Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist. All Off Road models ditch the side steps to increase ground clearance, and add off-road only lights mounted on the roof rack.

So the spec sheet says it's worthy of the Off Road moniker, but is it really? Only trips to the Stoddard Valley and Johnson Valley OHV areas could answer this question, so off we went.

Like any SUV, the Xterra works fine on the road, but it's in the dirt where it comes alive. The big BF Goodrich tires and Bilstein shocks eat up bumps, obstacles, and ruts in ways the mall-bound crossover set can only dream of tackling. You won't realize this immediately, though. If you weren't raised on Willys Jeeps, you'll likely do the prudent thing and start slow rather than learn an expensive lesson. The beauty of the Xterra Off Road is that you really don't have to. That dirt road you came in on? Xterra didn't notice. You hit triple-digit speeds on that cutting board-flat dry lake bed? Yawn.

How about a challenge? Turn onto that dune buggy trail and see where it takes you. So far, so good. Worst complaint? That damn scrub brush is scraping your shiny paint. The sand pits, ruts, rocks, and whoops? Yeah, they'll slow you down, but they ain't stopping you. The Xterra may not be as fast as an F-150 SVT Raptor off road, but we're betting it would still finish the race.

Those mountains over there -- those look like fun. They sure are steep, though. No problem; click it over to 4LO and start crawling. Before you do, take bets from the skeptical friends you brought along to spot for you. You'll win. Every trail they say the Xterra can't do, it will.

In fact, in three days of wheeling, we found precious few limitations to the Xterra's capability. While the suspension provides an impressive amount of travel, it isn't especially hard to bottom-out the rear end should you hit a large bump or rut fast enough, thanks in part to its compliant Bilstein shocks. Be sure to use that cargo net in the back to tie down your cooler, unless you want to see ice flying across your rearview mirror.

The Xterra's obviously not a hard-core rock crawler, and the lack of a winch will keep it off the most extreme obstacles, but that's forgivable for a bone-stock rig. We also advise keeping your speeds down, as the Xterra's narrow track and high center of gravity made for several religious moments while attempting ill-advised, high-speed off-road maneuvers similar to the Raptor we were following.

At the end of the day, the biggest limitation to our expedition was our own lack of planning. The meaty BF Goodrich tires, despite their 13,000 miles of road wear, happily grabbed onto anything we put under them and clawed their way up loose, rocky slopes with surprisingly little wheel spin. While we did have a full-size spare on board, a keen awareness of the distance between the trail and the nearest service station, and the lack of a support vehicle should we lose more than one tire, constrained our adventures. It didn't stop us from wheeling right into the night, though, as we simply had to test that button that said "Off-Road Lamps." They should've just labeled it "Daylight."

Back on pavement, the only damage to report was to our cooler and to a dislodged mud flap that caught a rock we were climbing over. A little work with the plastic clip had the flap back in place and looking good as new, but leaving us scratching our heads as to why it was there in the first place on this trail-ready Off Road model.

We made light of them earlier, but in the interest of completeness, it's only fair we talk about the Xterra's niceties. Off Road models automatically get the upgraded Rockford Fosgate stereo for quality tunes while you're out breaking things (or repairing them, as the case may be). It includes an aux-in jack as well as XM satellite radio, though you only get the latter with an automatic transmission for some inexplicable reason. The Off Road model also gets unexpected comforts like Bluetooth, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a fold-flat front passenger seat and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. On the more trail-friendly side of things, you get an eminently useful rear cargo net and a first-aid kit. Ours even came with the dealer-installed pop-up Garmin portable navigation system.

All of this is packaged into a truly SUV-worthy interior. While the Xterra got a minor cosmetic update in 2009, the interior is still stuck in 2005. Climbing into the back seats isn't easy, as they're still mounted on top of the rear wheel wells. It's still got that ugly, cheap-feeling Nissan truck steering wheel with its dollar store switch gear. The interior design is fairly uninspired and seems built out of Rubbermaid bins, which speaks more to its durability than its visual appeal. But that's the point, isn't it? Like we said, this is a real SUV, not a soccer team transporter.

In a world where most SUVs have gone soft, the Nissan Xterra Off Road is refreshingly uncivilized. So what if the steering takes muscle to work at parking-lot speeds? Nissan's stuck by the Xterra's "everything you need, nothing you don't" creed in the face of dwindling interest in body-on-frame SUVs, fully accepting the likelihood that this one will be bought only by people who really want it, not the casual commuter. It may not have the posh of a Land Rover and it may cost as much as a top-shelf Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, but it'll go just about anywhere they will without complaint. That must be why it beat the Wrangler and the LR2 in our 2008 torture test. Any purist can appreciate that.


2010 Nissan Xterra Off Road
Base price $30,400
Price as tested $32,005
Vehicle layout Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door, SUV
Engine 4.0L/261-hp/281-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight 4450 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 106.3 in
Length x width x height 178.7 x 72.8 x 74.9 in
0-60 mph 7.4 sec
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 15 / 20 mpg
MT observed fuel econ 16.5 mpg
CO2 emissions 1.15 lb/mile
On sale in U.S. Currently

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