The Nissan Xterra is and always has been an oddity in the ever-expanding SUV world. When it was introduced as a 2000 model, the strangely styled off-road-oriented sport-ute was priced to compete with car-based SUVs, yet it packed the rugged body-on-frame construction and hefty drivetrain of a larger and more expensive truck-based hauler. Nissan's plan for the 2000 Xterra was to build an SUV for younger, more active people who needed the space and versatility of a large vehicle but wanted to look edgy and cool when they pulled up to the lake or off-road trails.
While the initial vehicle sold well, the first Nissan Xterra did have a few glaring issues that needed to be dealt with. The interior was spartan and composed mostly of hard plastic panels, the ride was a bit jarring and with only 170 horsepower on tap the diminutive V6 barely had enough oats to propel the midsize SUV around town. Nissan attempted to fix these flaws when the Xterra underwent a midcycle redesign in 2002, and we found it to be a much improved animal in our first drive. A handful of important changes had a big impact on Nissan Xterra sales, and it ended up selling quite a few of these "extreme" SUVs.
With strong sales and an established image under its belt, Nissan didn't want to rock the boat with the completely redesigned 2005 Nissan Xterra. At first glance the new model looks very similar to the previous version, yet there isn't a single part carried over from the old platform. The front end has been styled to match the rest of the Nissan truck lineup, but the rest of the exterior looks much more evolutionary than revolutionary. Giant fender flares? Check. Kicked-up roofline? Check. Tubular roof rack and lumpy rear hatch complete with first aid kit? Check and check.
The overall look is very familiar, but Nissan stylists did a nice job of cleaning things up a bit and giving the new Xterra a tighter overall appearance. The rear bumper is smoother yet now features integrated footholds for easier roof rack access and the new front end is much easier on the eyes than the previous model's buglike snout. Also contributing to the leaner and meaner appearance is a reduction in the front and rear overhangs. The vehicle's overall length is basically unchanged yet the wheelbase has been stretched by 2 inches. This not only netted a tighter look but also improves ramp angles for increased off-road clearance and performance.
Speaking of off-road prowess, the 2005 Nissan Xterra climbs like a rabid mountain goat thanks to all-new underpinnings and a powerful new heart. While the bodywork is a mere evolution of the previous model, chassis development took a giant leap forward on the new SUV thanks to the addition of Nissan's F-Alpha platform. Originally developed for the industrial-strength Nissan Titan full-size pickup, the F-Alpha chassis features fully boxed frame rails constructed out of high-tensile steel for unparalleled durability. This single change has improved the Xterra more than any other feature on the '05 model, as the marshmallow ride that plagued the previous version is long gone. Suspension components are also new with a high-strength rear leaf-spring setup with a "solid" rear axle. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are now standard, and a new speed-sensitive power-assist rack and pinion steering setup gives the Xterra a much more nimble feel on the highway and around town.
Off-road fans will also appreciate three new options, Hill Descent Control that lets the vehicle roll down a steep incline without changing speed, Hill-Start Assist that prevents the vehicle from rolling back when starting up a steep incline and low-range locking four-wheel drive for escaping those hard-to-reach places. Ground clearance has been increased to 9.5 inches, and all of the sensitive undercarriage parts like the transfer case and fuel tank have been tucked up above the bottom of the frame for added protection off-road.
All of that chassis development wouldn't be worth much if the 2005 Xterra was still motivated by the same tired, old 3.3-liter V6, so the decision was made to redesign the power plant as well. Looking to improve on an already winning formula, Nissan engineers started with the highly refined 3.5 V6 out of the 350Z and bumped the displacement up to 4.0 liters, then retuned the induction system and variable timing control to provide maximum torque and bottom-end power. The result is a big-bore V6 that cranks out 265 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque, making it the most powerful standard six-cylinder in any SUV on the American market. All that extra grunt would have obliterated the old transmission, so a new electronically controlled five-speed automatic was designed to mate with the new mill, and a new six-speed manual is available for those who like to do the shifting on their own. No matter which way you go, either transmission offers tight ratios and smooth shifts that make the most of the available power.
While the chassis and drivetrain offer the most dramatic changes for '05, the redesigned interior is nothing to sneeze at. Improvements include stadium-style second-row seating; increased shoulder, hip-, leg- and headroom; fold-flat front-passenger and rear seats; and a nifty cargo area packed with useful features. Utility was definitely the goal for the Xterra's cabin, as cupholders, water bottle holders, storage compartments (including a double-decker glovebox) and power outlets abound. Behind the rear seat lies the new "multiflex" cargo area, which is shrouded in textured vinyl and hard plastic designed for easy cleanup. A Utili-trak channel tie-down system similar to the one employed in the Nissan Titan bed has been integrated into the floor, and 10 tie-down hooks have been placed on the floor, sides and ceiling of the cargo area for maximum versatility. Overall, the new interior may not coddle the driver in opulent luxury like some of the more expensive SUVs on the market, but it offers an unparalleled degree of access and utility for those who would rather spend their weekends bombing down a mountain on a dirt bike than hitting the links at the local country club.
The four-cylinder version has been nixed for 2005, so the 4.0L V6 is the only engine available in the new Xterra. Trim levels include the standard S, the upscale SE and the rugged Off Road (OR) edition. We spent time in both an SE and an Off Road, and didn't notice much difference between the two. Both models were four-wheel drive, and while the latter model comes with bigger tires, Bilstein shocks and undercarriage skid plates, they didn't affect the way the vehicle drove in most situations. Only those looking for serious rock-climbing performance need bother with the OR.
Otherwise, we were pleasantly surprised by the new Nissan Xterra's available power and chassis refinement. For a relatively tall body-on-frame SUV, it doesn't tip or roll much in the corners, and the highway handling is nimble and confidence-inspiring. The ride over busted-up asphalt highways was a bit harsh, which we suspect is a concession to the stiffly sprung rear suspension. It took a bit of getting used to, but the firmer suspension paid off in spades on the dirt, where the SUV was so secure it made us feel like we were gliding over obstacles in the Baja 1000. The 4.0 V6 provides so much bottom-end punch that it feels like a V8 has taken roost under the hood, and both transmissions do a nice job of evenly distributing the power all the way up to about 100 mph, where the motor starts to lose steam. That isn't a bad thing, however, since we wouldn't recommend taking a relatively large SUV over that velocity anyway.
Behind the nicely contoured steering wheel, we found all of the switches and secondary controls within easy reach. The turn signal/wiper/cruise control stalks are typical Nissan — easy to understand and effortless to operate — and the climate control and audio systems both featured simple knobs and excellent functionality. Speaking of the stereo, SE and OR versions are available with a Rockford Fosgate audio system complete with pre-amp and underseat subwoofer that can really crank out the sound, especially if you're a fan of gut-busting bass. The seats feature a combination of soft fabric and an interesting open-weave fabric, giving them a sporty albeit somewhat utilitarian look. The front buckets are extremely comfortable, however, and the fold-down rear bench offers plenty of back support and legroom. The cabin is relatively quiet for an SUV in this price range, and our only real complaint about the entire vehicle is that the interior materials look and feel cheap. Hard plastic is everywhere, from the dashboard and door panels to the center console and even the barely padded armrests. We don't expect Infiniti-like leather-lined luxury in a hard-core off-road SUV, but a bit of soft-touch material here and there would go a long way. However, the fit and finish of said panels is top-notch, and we suspect all that plastic would be easy to wipe down if you have a propensity for collecting dirt, grime and all that other nasty stuff that goes along with being "extreme."
The midsize SUV market has changed quite a bit in the five years since Nissan Xterra made its first appearance, but we think it should make an interesting and capable contender in several market segments, thanks to its competitive price tag and long list of available features. It may not be the prettiest or plushest vehicle in the Nissan stable, but the 2005 Nissan Xterra should serve as a capable, practical and fun-to-drive tool for the action hero set.