By Lary Coppola
“Everything you need. Nothing you don’t,” was the tagline for the versatile Nissan Xterra some years back. It still applies today. The Xterra is a sport utility vehicle (SUV) engineered for serious off-roading that easily does double duty as a comfortable daily driver.
The Xterra is a truck-based, body-on-frame SUV, not a crossover. It features a boxed-in steel ladder frame, riding on the same rugged suspension as the Nissan Frontier pickup, with double wishbones up front and a solid axle on leaf springs in the rear.
Model Lineup: The 2010 Xterra, which was freshened up in 2009, is offered in four models — the base-level Xterra X with 2WD or 4WD; the Xterra S 2WD or 4WD; the Terri SE 2WD or 4WD, and the Xterra Off-Road, which comes only with 4WD, but a choice of manual or automatic transmission. Our test vehicle was the Off Road version with the automatic.
Walkaround: Not much has changed in the overall look and shape of the Xterra since it first debuted for the 2000 model year, it’s just been refined over time. The front end boasts Nissan’s signature truck grille with the same no-nonsense headlamp setup as the Frontier. The flat-black lower corners of the front fascia are rugged and massive, but not conspicuous. Sandblast Aluminum trim wraps up from underneath suggesting a skid plate that’s real only on the Off Road model.
The fenders are flared in the same manner as the Frontier and big-brother Titan. The Xterra’s ubiquitous roof rack was tweaked somewhat last year, and now features what Nissan calls its sloping front surface air dam, which is where the Off Road version houses its 50,000-candlepower roof lights. All Xterra models have a “gear basket” right behind the air dam meant to hold ski boots, wetsuits and muddy mountain-biking clothes, covered by a lid secured with a plastic latch.
The rear of the Xterra features huge windows, and the signature tailgate lump housing the First Aid kit. Steps molded into the rear bumper make it easy to climb up and reach the roof rack.
Interior: The 2009 refresh brought some small interior upgrades, including a new center instrument cluster with new climate controls, new upholstery fabrics for the X and S models, new unique rugged gray fabric with red stitching for the Off-Road, and reclining driver and front passenger seats.
The center console is deep, with dual cupholders, coin slots, a tray forward of the shift lever, a decent sized glovebox, and steering-wheel controls on most models. The rear liftgate window and large side rear windows offer good visibility.
The standard 60/40 split rear seat folds flat, as does the front passenger seat on the Off Road. There are sturdy grab handles over the rear doors, and two 20-ounce bottle holders. Rear legroom is tight, but adequate, even with the driver’s seat slid back.
The Xterra boasts advantages over all its competitors in cargo room. All but the base-level X offer easy-to-clean hard-vinyl surfaces. There’s lots of space with nets to stow things, and a deep hidden compartment under the floor. The Xterra also features no less than 10 utility hooks on the floor, sides and ceiling, along with an adjustable track system in the cargo floor, on all but the base-level X, that’s similar to the Utili-track system offered on Nissan pickups.
Other standard amenities include cloth upholstery, A/C, remote keyless entry, cruise control, six-speaker sound system with single CD, three 12-volt DC outlets, power windows, cargo-area carpeting, roof rails with an air dam, and 16-inch steel wheels.
The Xterra S comes with the automatic only, and adds an eight-way adjustable driver’s seat, power mirrors, an interior microfilter, fog lamps, aluminum step rails, roof rack crossbars and gear basket, and alloy wheels.
The Terri upgrades include leather seats; leather-wrapped steering wheel with Bluetooth and audio controls; Rockford Fosgate audio with 6CD changer; MP3 capability, auxiliary input; Sirius/XM Satellite Radio; auto-dimming inside mirror with compass; illuminated vanity mirrors; first aid kit; cargo net, and 17-inch alloy wheels. Mirrors and door handles are body colored.
The Off-Road comes equipped similar to SE, minus the step rails and leather seats. It adds roof-mounted driving lights, an electronic locking rear differential, Bilstein gas shocks, and skid plates for the oil pan, fuel tank and transfer case. The automatic transmission version comes with Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist as well, plus BFG Rugged Trail tires on 6-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels.
Safety equipment on all models includes dual-stage front airbags, side-impact airbags in front, roof-mounted airbag curtains with a roll
over sensor, and the LATCH system (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren). Vehicle Dynamic Control and vented disc brakes with ABS and EBD are standard, along with the government-mandated tire pressure monitor. The Xterra rates four of five stars in NHTSA crash tests for frontal impact, five for side impact, and three for rollover.
Under The Hood: All Xterra’s are powered by Nissan’s award-winning V6 — universally acknowledged as the best powerplant since the small block Chevy. It’s been stroked to 4.0-liters, delivering 261 horses and 281 pound-feet of torque, with an aluminum block and heads, Teflon-coated pistons, Continuous Valve Timing Control (CVTCS), Nissan variable Induction Control System (NICS), silent timing chain, microfinished cam and crankshaft surfaces, digital knock control, and 105,000-mile spark plugs.
The electronic shift-on-the-fly 4WD system features 2WD, and 4WD High and Low, all controlled by a single-dash mounted knob. For 2010, Nissan has made last year’s Gear Package standard on S and SE models, and what was the Technology Package is now standard on SE and Off Road.
Behind The Wheel: The Nissan Xterra is built on the same chassis as the Frontier pickup, and its higher center of gravity is noticeable in the reasonably comfortable ride, although side-to-side motion is a bit more pronounced than in crossover SUVs.
The engine has plenty of power and torque, accelerating easily, but its torque curve almost seems better suited to a sports car than a truck. I noticed the Xterra didn’t feel terribly powerful until I kicked it, and then it felt like a Nissan 370Z.
The Hill Descent Control (HDC) allows you to move down steep hills with both feet off the pedals, relying only on electronics, at a safe and steady 5 mph, preventing the rear from sliding out on steep, muddy descents, so you don’t slide off the trail. With throttle control and ABS applied electronically, it works in both forward and reverse, and is every bit as good as that on the legendary Range Rover.
Off road, our test Xterra conquered every challenge it faced with ease. With short overhangs front and rear, there’s not much interference, so you can go about anywhere without problems.
Whines: Moldings on the doors of our Off Road test vehicle were flat black instead of body color like other models, which is visually distracting considering the exposed bolts underneath, where apparently running boards attach to other Xterras.
Bottom Line: Nissan has been on a major product roll for more than a decade now, and the Xterra has just gotten better with age. It’s super capable on and off road, user friendly, has a comfortable ride for a truck, and wears well. Honestly, it’s my personal favorite vehicle of this genre, kicking serious butt against any and all comparable size competing crossover SUVs. Well-equipped at $32,005 as tested, is a hell of a value besides.