Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Nissan markets the Xterra as the ultimate SUV for young outdoor enthusiasts, but these three members of the target demographic weren't digging it.
Comments from the mud-covered trio of 20-somethings at a local mountain bike trailhead included, "That's the new Xterra? It's so ugly, it looks like it's already been run into."
Since the styling of the 2006 Nissan Xterra didn't grab them, we showed them the adjustable cargo tie-downs in back, the fold-flat passenger seat up front and the roof rack basket on top. Sensing a sliver of interest, we continued on about the 265-horsepower V6, washable cargo bay and available 380-watt audio system.
"Pretty cool, how much is it?" one asked.
"Around $29,000," we responded. "But it's a heavily optioned off-road model, which isn't the top of the line, but it's close."
The blank looks on their faces told the whole story. The Xterra may be marketed to SoBe-swilling college kids who have dirt in their veins, but it requires more than a part-time gig at a snowboard shop to afford. Other than that small hurdle, the Xterra is one of the most functional and capable midsize SUVs around.
The Good Stuff Is Going to Cost You Redesigned in 2005, the Xterra was made slightly longer, taller and wider than its predecessor. Its wheelbase was also stretched by 2 inches, its curb weight went up 200 pounds and the base four-cylinder was ditched in favor of a single 4.0-liter V6.
For 2006, it comes in four trim levels, X, S, Off Road and SE. The entry-level "X" model is new, and lowers the Xterra's base price to under $20K, but that's for a two-wheel-drive stripper with crank windows, manual mirrors and 16-inch steel wheels. Four-wheel drive adds another $2 grand.
The Off Road trim adds another $2 grand to that, but you get power everything, keyless entry and cruise control along with bigger all-terrain tires, Bilstein shocks, Hill Descent Control and skid plates. Four-wheel-drive versions also get a locking rear differential and a sticker just over $26K.
As we told the mud triplets, ours broke the $29,000 barrier thanks to its optional five-speed automatic transmission, Rockford Fosgate Audio stereo, Sirius Satellite Radio, floor mats and a $615 destination charge.
Fixing the Problems Look past the Mountain Dew marketing and the original Xterra was nothing more than a slow truck-based SUV with few options to keep the price down. Even in top-of-the-line supercharged form it was gutless.
Nissan fixed that problem by stroking the V6 from the 350Z out to 4.0 liters and hooking it to either a six-speed manual or the optional automatic. With 265 hp at 5,600 rpm and 284 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, it makes the Xterra plenty fast.
Our automatic ran from zero to 60 in just 7.7 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 15.9 seconds at 86 mph. That's over two full seconds faster to 60 than the last Xterra we tested and only a tenth behind the V8-powered 4Runner.
It's not only faster than before, it sounds more refined and has better throttle response. Just nudge the gas and this Xterra jumps off the line. Midrange torque is a little soft, but swing past 4,000 rpm and the engine wakes up with another surge of power that continues right up to the 6,000-rpm shift point.
With fully boxed frame rails, the overall structure is much stiffer and stronger. The suspension is still an independent dual-wishbone design with coil springs up front and a solid axle/leaf spring combo in back, but rack and pinion steering replaces the previous model's archaic recirculating ball setup.
If you're an Xterra owner, you'll appreciate the improvements immediately. This second-generation Xterra feels less like a truck and more like a modern SUV. Gone is the bouncy suspension tuning and the deafening levels of wind noise. This Xterra can be driven across states comfortably.
Not a Sports Car The revised steering delivers decent road feel and there's less body roll than before. Its slalom speed of 57 mph is still slow, but we didn't expect much from a 4,400-pound SUV with 31-inch off-road tires.
More importantly the Xterra doesn't feel tipsy. Off Road models come standard with Nissan's Vehicle Dynamic Control, a feature most SUVs in this segment don't have. It works well without being intrusive both on road and off.
Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are now standard but our 136-foot stop from 60 mph isn't much better than the previous model and only average for the segment.
Eats Dirt Better Than Before Making an SUV better for the street usually translates into less capability off-road. After pounding the Xterra on some fast fire roads and a few tricky hill climbs, we think the new version is better in the dirt, too.
It soaks up bumps instead of bouncing off them and the more precise steering makes it easier to pick your way through ruts and around rocks. Maximum ground clearance is down from 9.9 to 9.5 inches but you never miss it as all the underbody components have been safely tucked in above the frame.
Departure angle is up, but the truck's approach angle and breakover angle aren't as steep. Despite this, lower gearing and less sensitive throttle settings in low range give the Xterra improved rock-crawling ability. Plus you can lock the rear differential with the push of a button.
The Electronic Hill Descent Control system makes going downhill as easy as setting the cruise control. There's also a Hill Start Assist system that keeps you from rolling backward if you stop on the way up a hill.
Keeping It Comfortable The overall interior design is simple with large three-dial climate controls, a trip computer integrated into the gauge cluster and a good stereo layout.
Although there are fewer cheap-looking plastic pieces, the cloth seats look and feel fine. If you like big bass, the Rockford Fosgate system hits hard but the satellite radio (either XM or Sirius) is the more essential audio option. Safety has been improved as well with optional side seat and side curtain airbag protection.
The longer wheelbase makes for more front and rear legroom, while the additional height and width have added headroom and welcome shoulder room in both rows. The extra space gives the interior a spacious feel and there's enough room for five extreme athletes and their parachutes.
Cargo room behind the rear seats remains almost unchanged at 65.7 cubic feet. The hook count is up to 10, however, including two adjustable loops on the floor. Plus, the entire cargo area itself is hard plastic so dirt from your mountain bike can be sprayed out with a hose. It's a good idea but the surface is slick so anything that isn't strapped down goes sliding back and forth with every turn.
Dual gloveboxes and a larger center console give you plenty of space for junk up front. But like the cargo area, the space ahead of the shifter is slick and will send your cell phone flying the first time you make a quick stop.
More Mainstream but Still Extreme Nissan did the right thing with the second-generation Xterra. It kept it capable while making it more attractive to buyers who think kayaks are on the endangered species list. Everything that needed to be better is better, from the ride and handling to the engine to the interior — it's all a step up.
The only problem now is convincing mud-covered mountain bikers that it's worth saving for. The ones we talked to may not have liked the way the 2006 Nissan Xterra looked, but we're pretty sure they would have liked the way it drives.
System Score: 8.5
Components: Our Xterra came with the optional $900 Rockford Fosgate system which has 10 speakers including an eight-channel subwoofer and a six-disc CD changer with MP3 and CD-ROM capability. Steering wheel-mounted controls come standard, and forking over an extra $350 will get you either XM or Sirius Satellite Radio. The head unit uses a typical Nissan display with black characters on an orange display. It's not the best setup we've seen but there's not much to complain about as it has a tuning knob and big buttons.
Performance: With this system it's all about the bass. Solid low punch can make or break a good stereo and thankfully Nissan gets it. It can be a little overwhelming sometimes as the woofer under the seat thumps out low notes that you've probably never heard before, but once you tune it to your liking it's a great asset. The bass is tight and deep without rumbling and the highs from the dash-mounted tweeters are clear, sharp and well defined. Midrange is also excellent.
We do have a few complaints, however. The overall tone of the system is somewhat mechanical; it just doesn't have a warm sound. Also, at higher volumes the highs can hiss or squeak. And finally, the display is prone to washing out on bright, sunny days.
Best Feature: Bright and clear sound with punchy bass.
Worst Feature: LCD display is hard to read in direct sunlight.
Conclusion: A very good stereo that does much well. It's the perfect companion for this powerful and fun-to-drive SUV. — Brian Moody
Senior Content Editor Erin Riches says: Nissan's Pathfinder doesn't do it for me. I get it that it's supposed to be more of an off-roader than earlier Pathfinders. But with that new third-row seat, it's supposed to cater to families, too. Yet in spite of that mission, it doesn't handle or brake all that well, and its third row is suitable only for the smallest of preschoolers. Alongside the schizo Pathfinder, the Nissan Xterra's clarity of purpose is refreshing: It goes off-road. It carries crap. And it does this for about the same price as a Honda Accord.
The original Xterra did this, too, but the new version has fewer annoying compromises. Like the front seats. There's more seat-track travel, and you don't feel like you're sitting on the floor anymore. Plus, the seats themselves are now contoured to fit the human body. Acceleration is now pleasurable as well, as the new 4.0-liter V6 provides more than enough torque for this 4,400-pounder. Throttle response is nice and progressive, allowing off-roaders to ease into the power.
Other things haven't changed much. The ride is a little smoother and the handling a little more controlled, but overall the Xterra's dynamics are still on par with a competitor like the Jeep Liberty. It's still a traditional SUV with a short wheelbase, a high center of gravity and slow steering response. That's great in off-road situations, but you need to take it easy on pavement. And that means RAV4 owners won't like it.
You shouldn't buy an Xterra unless you go off-roading at least one weekend a month. However, unless you need a tiny third row, it makes a lot more sense to buy an Xterra than a Pathfinder.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says: Looks like Nissan has polished up the Xterra's act. Previously, unless you got the supercharged version of the Xterra, performance was lackluster, as was the interior's design and materials. For the most part, those shortcomings have been taken care of.
Yes, there's still too much hard plastic in the cabin, but during my seat time everything felt solid, the seats were supportive and there were plenty of cubbies and such for my garage opener, CDs and drinks.
And what a contrast the performance is compared to before. The throttle response is immediate and strong. And it doesn't fade either as speeds climb — there's power everywhere.
The "Off Road" indication on the doors had me expecting a stiff ride. It was certainly firm, but not uncomfortably so. On the blacktop, the Xterra felt relatively planted and secure, almost sporty in spite of its 4,400 pounds, hefty ground clearance and those off-road-oriented tires.
I can't comment on the Xterra's abilities in the boonies, as I didn't hit the dirt, though I imagine they'd be considerable. But I can say this: as a daily driver this is one truck-based 'ute I wouldn't mind having. Anybody on staff will tell you that's pretty high praise from me.
"Excellent ride. Handles like a dream and rides like a car, not a truck. I do believe they could have put more thought into comfortability, but you give up comfort for more extreme usage. It handles the mountain roads I live on with pristine grace and I feel confident it will handle the roads when snow becomes a factor." — Heidi, October 11, 2005
"After wearing out my age-old Blazer, I needed a new SUV. Out of all the different makes and models that I tested, the Xterra is the only one that had the total package — great appearance, excellent off-road capability, outstanding acceleration for an SUV, a little attitude, and a very clean interior. I have tie-down points all over the interior which is very useful when packing up for a trip. No other smaller SUV looks, feels, or rides as good as this. It has the best roof rack ever — extremely durable, held up perfectly when I slammed my kayak rack into a low-hanging pole. No damage at all to the car, just to the add-on kayak rack. Would recommend it to any active person needing a good SUV." — Matt, September 21, 2005
"I wanted the most capable off-road vehicle without having to modify. Think Jeep Rubicon capability in a far more reliable and refined truck that also seats five. I live in Colorado where off-roading is a passion. With rear lockers, hill descent control, 9.5" of ground clearance and the new 4.0 265-HP engine, you have one rugged and extremely capable 4x4. Pleasant and fun on-road with a well-thought-out no-nonsense interior and full instrumentation. A winning combination all around. My Xterra has been 100% reliable with no mechanical or fit and finish issues. The Xterra has exceeded all my expectations." — cp4wd, September 17, 2005
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