– Excellent offroader
– Cabin space and practicality
– Powerful engine
– Hard-plastic cabin
– Engine noise, all the time
– Unimpressive fuel economy
The Nissan Xterra is a fighter. As one the last remaining offroad-capable 4x4s in the midsize segment that actually remains affordable, we love it to death, especially after we went into the wilderness and beat the shit out of it.
The Xterra is a barebones vehicle, or at least, looks like one from the outside. Facelifted in 2009 which only added a robotic-looking grille, the muscular body is flanked by unpainted black bumpers, and there are no sissy chrome trimmings aside from the side-mirror housings, although our test “OffRoad” model did come with side-steps, a stylised roof rack and unique 16-inch wheels. Strange exterior features include steps on the sides of the rear bumper to reach the roof, and a bulge on the rear tailgate that shows you where the first-aid kit is located even from the outside.
The interior is cheap to the extreme, with hard plastics everywhere. The only mildly-padded areas are the armrests, the flat cloth seats and the steering wheel, but at least there are lots of useful storage spaces up front, including two gloveboxes, door pockets, two uncovered cup-holders and two bottle-holders. Second-row bench passengers don’t even get a centre armrest, although they do get some flimsy cup-holders mounted near their feet.
Headroom is expansive, and legroom is decent both front and back. There is no third row, so the luggage area is immense, with more space available by folding flat the rear seat. There is also a bit of storage space underneath the trunk floor, but that’s because the spare tyre is inconveniently mounted under the rear of the vehicle. And straps hold in the tailgate-mounted first-aid kit.
Standard features include cruise control, power windows, electric mirrors, dual front airbags, tyre-pressure monitor, and a CD/MP3 stereo with wheel-mounted buttons. The stereo sounds above-average, with features such as Bluetooth, an AUX port and a non-retractable antenna. The a/c is seriously strong, just like in any Nissan 4x4s, even though it is a simple manual unit with knobs, and it comes with rear vents. We didn’t find any features such as a compass or a trip computer, which are common in most 4WDs.
The strong 4.0-litre V6 from the Pathfinder also makes an appearance here. It pumps out 261 hp at 5600 rpm. The rated 381 Nm of peak torque comes in at 4000 rpm, so understandably low-rev response isn’t as impressive as a V8 engine. But floor the throttle, and energy after 3000 rpm is satisfying. We managed the 0-100 kph run in 8.5 seconds during our March test on a hot dusty day, with some wheelspin from our drag-style launch to get it going in rear-wheel-drive mode. This is actually more than a second slower than the Xterra we tested in 2008, but that one was a lighter mid-range model with less-rugged tyres & suspension, no side-steps, fewer features and a broken-in engine. Our 2012 “OffRoad” edition was fresh-off-the-boat and weighed down with many more features.
The five-speed automatic smoothly does its duty, but there is no tiptronic-shift function beyond the basic D-3-2-1 setup. Due to the lack of a trip computer, we roughly calculated fuel economy at around 19.9 litres/100 km, but that’s because it spent more time with us off-road than on it. We drove all the way from Fujairah to Sharjah, straight across the UAE without using any roads during a Nissan-organised expedition.
Our range-topper Xterra OffRoad wore 265/75 BFGoodrich “Rugged Trail” tyres wrapped around 16-inch rims, hooked up to yellow Bilstein shocks. The front has independent suspension, while the rear is held up by a solid axle, while it is easy to select between 2WD, 4-High and 4-Low. Skid-plates protect much of the underbelly.
The setup handled soft sand easily with deflated tyres, and we never bogged down even once as we held onto the lower gears by leaving the shifter in 1st or 2nd gear and keeping the revs high. We crested some disturbingly sharp dunes, and ground clearance was never an issue, especially with those short front and rear overhangs, bettering the Toyota Land Cruiser on that front. We also drove up massive slopes, some the height of a four-storey building, under full throttle, sometimes hitting bumps along the way. One of these bumps once knocked something off around the engine-fan area, making the car sound like a broken blender for a while. But then the weird sound just went away on its own, after whatever was loose knocked itself back into position during some more bumpy driving. The unpainted bumpers also held up perfectly after grazing all sorts of debris. We never needed the rear locking diff or the hill-descent control functions that came in our OffRoad model.
The beefy heavily-grooved rubber allow for decent ride quality, except for the occasional jitter on some rougher surfaces. Cruising on the highway is largely comfortable, with moderate wind and road noise at 120 kph. All-round visibility is good, even through the rear window, so it is easy to drive in cramped places even without parking sensors. But the strongly-audible engine isn’t among the most refined out there, so engine vibrations are felt even at idle.
On the handling front, the tyres feel very loose when making turns, but the real treat is the controlled moderate body-roll even during sharp side-to-side inputs from the soft steering. The tyres, which are a compromise between road and dirt performance, squeal easily during enthusiastic turns, and we would’ve liked a bit more grip. Still, with rear-wheel-drive and a proper handbrake, it is a lot of fun on gravel trails. The ABS-assisted four-wheel disc brakes are pretty decent, with good pedal feel and linear stops.
The Nissan Xterra is an amazingly well-rounded propostion, at least in OffRoad form. Not quite as flashy as either the Jeep Wrangler or a Toyota FJ Cruiser, it is as capable as both, while still being more practical than either, not to mention being a bit cheaper too. While we can’t comment on its long-term durability because it hasn’t been around as long as the Nissan Patrol Safari, it is definitely among the best hassle-free offroaders we’ve ever driven.
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