2008 Nissan Xterra

The Good:
– Affordable base price
– Excellent off-road capability
– Good power and ride quality
The Bad:
– Hard dull interior
– Limited road grip
– Unrefined engine character

The market is being flooded by poseur “crossover” 4WDs nowadays. There are so many of these needless vehicles around that it is becoming hard for off-road enthusiasts to shop for proper 4WD machines that can tackle the rough. Even the likes of Land Rover, GMC and Jeep have come out with such gay vehicles to appeal to a larger market. At least some of the more popular makes are now attempting to offer cheap niche products that are going back to basics. And Nissan is one of these outfits, selling bundles of girly crossovers alongside true trucks, and we approve of their most affordable offroad-capable 4WD yet, that goes by the name of Xterra.

The Xterra is an excruciatingly basic vehicle. In fact, if it weren’t purpose-built for off-roading, we’d whine about it being too basic. The muscular body is flanked by unpainted black bumpers, and there are no sissy add-ons such as side-steps or chrome trimmings. Our test model came with the thick optional stylised roof rack and standard 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.

Climbing into this tall vehicle isn’t strenuous, but being greeted by tons of hard plastics is painful. Sticking to basics, the only mildly-padded areas are for the elbows and the steering wheel, but at least there are lots of useful storage spaces, including two gloveboxes and four cup-holders. The flat-yet-grippy cloth seats are manually-adjustable and are lifted straight out of the basic Pathfinder, but second-row bench passengers don’t get a centre armrest. Headroom is immense, but our vehicle didn’t have a sunroof. Legroom is great up front, while rear space is pretty decent, being a smidge more than the Pathfinder. 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 our tailgate-mounted first-aid kit was missing, although the straps for it were there.

Standard features at least include dual front airbags, cruise control, power windows, electric mirrors and a CD stereo with wheel-mounted buttons. The stereo sounds above-average, even with its ugly face and a non-retractable antenna. The a/c is seriously strong, just like in most Nissan trucks, even though it is a simple manual unit with knobs, but we didn’t find any rear vents. We also didn’t find any features such as a compass or a trip computer, which are common in most 4WDs. Options apparently include side-airbags, hood guard, floor mats and, well, those sissy side steps if you really want them.

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 the rush of forward energy after 3000 rpm is immense, catching us by surprise during acceleration tests. While feeling lazy in casual driving, the engine powered from zero to 100 kph in 7.1 seconds, with some wheelspin from our drag-style launch to get it going in rear-wheel-drive mode, making it quicker than all its direct competitors. The five-speed automatic smoothly does its duty, but there is no manual shifting function. The six-speed manual version could probably be quicker with perfectly timed shifts. Due to the lack of a trip computer, we roughly calculated fuel economy at around 17.9 litres per 100 km, similar to Toyota’s FJ Cruiser and Jeep’s V8-powered Grand Cherokee.

Our high-riding Xterra wore 265/70 tyres wrapped around 16-inch rims, while the top-spec gets 17-inch wheels with the same tyre width. The beefy heavily-grooved rubber allow for good ride quality, even with the independent-front and solid-rear suspension setup. Cruising on the highway is largely comfortable, even more so than the Hummer H3 or the FJ Cruiser, with limited wind noise and moderate 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. That makes it feel as stable as the FJ Cruiser, while certainly improving on the wobbly Hummer H3 and even its Pathfinder sibling. 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. The ABS-assisted four-wheel disc brakes were great in emergency traffic situations, with good pedal feel and linear stops, saving us from a near-collision with some moron who cut us off.

The Xterra, of course, shines on the rough stuff. The wide tyres match those of the Pajero and the FJ Cruiser, and while they give up some grip on the road, they handled soft sand easily. The truck bogs down a bit when taking off, and it is apparent that the FJ Cruiser has better response at the lowest revs. But pick up the revs a bit, and the Xterra can power out of any situation with a lot less effort than any of the popular big boys. The Xterra also has a solid-axle rear suspension, which makes it a better option than the all-independently-suspended Pathfinder in rocky scenarios. Our test vehicle had a button-operated transfer case with choices for 2WD, 4WD-high and 4WD-low, with no diff locks and no traction control, but we didn’t miss either of them on our runs. The basic case means that, just like the FJ Cruiser, the Xterra cannot be driven in 4WD mode on dry roads, unlike trucks with useful automatic all-wheel-drive systems such as the Hummer H3 and the Ford Explorer.

The Xterra is a strong offering from Nissan, and we like its minimalist approach similar to the underpowered Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, but offering a more practical package at a lower price. It won’t turn any heads on the street like the pricier FJ, but it will attract attention on the dunes with its abilities. With no breakable shiny accessories, owners won’t have to worry about losing bits of chrome in the wild, which is always on the minds of Hummer drivers. It won’t be as cushy on the trip to work, but at least it doesn’t try to act like what it is not.

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