When Nissan's Xterra debuted as a 2000 model, it found instant popularity among outdoor sports enthusiasts, such as kayakers, mountain bikers and skiers, who wanted a no-nonsense SUV that would serve their needs. It was also well received by those who wanted to project an image of being outdoor sports enthusiasts ... but we digress. The early advertisements made it plain that the Xterra was a serious, truck-based (full-frame construction) no-frills SUV that could handle almost anything, not a cute ute with car-based origins, unibody construction and limited off-road capability. There was even the option of a first-aid kit to handle those injuries one might suffer while enjoying nature.
In spite of its success on the sales charts, the Xterra could've stood improvement. Our gripes centered around the truck's lack of pep, no surprise considering that the V6's 170 horses were charged with hauling around two tons of SUV. You do the math. And the interior design was a bit bland, as well, though this was in keeping with the back-to-basics nature of the Xterra.
Enter the 2002 model, which addresses those shortcomings and throws in a few other treats for good measure. We drove pre-production models of the '02 Xterra and came away feeling that Nissan has responded well to our (OK, not just our) criticisms.
The Xterra is once again available in two trim levels, base XE and uplevel SE, and buyers have a choice of two- and four-wheel-drive versions. XE models are not the strippers one may assume them to be, as air conditioning, a 100-watt stereo with CD player, dark-tinted glass, roof rack, antilock brakes and skid plates (we told you they were serious) all standard. SE models add 16-inch alloy wheels fitted with 265/70R16 tires (in place of the 15-inchers on the XE), foglights, step rails, cruise control, power windows/locks/mirrors, the first aid kit, keyless entry/security system, extra power points (four total), rear wiper and an upgraded sound system with in-dash six-disc CD changer and steering wheel audio controls. For the true audiophile, or anybody who likes their music loud and clear, a new Rockford-Fosgate sound system option will be available. This system cranks and will have Xterra owners running errands just so they can enjoy its incredible sound quality.
Starting with a quick walk-around, the first thing that grabs attention is the new front end. The former plain nose didn't really go with the rest of the Xterra's aggressive body style. Round headlights, a beefy grille and a "power bulge" hood tie in better with the meaty truck's look. New 17-inch alloy wheels are optional on those Xterras fitted with the available supercharged V6. Inside, the '02 Xterra trades the previously featureless dash design for an exciting, sports car-like theme with three individual instrument pods in front of the driver and a larger console. A foot-operated emergency brake replaces the primitive, under-dash pull-type used before. We'd still prefer a pull-up e-brake between the seats, which makes holding manual tranny models on hills (on- or off-road) easier while working the pedals.
Whoa! Did we mention a supercharged V6 under the hood?! Yep, offered in the Frontier in 2001, the force-fed six-shooter imbues the Xterra with greatly improved sprinting ability. The new mill makes for a total of three engines available in the Xterra. Base two-wheel-drive XE models come with a 2.4-liter four-banger making 143 horsepower and 154 pound-feet of torque, matched to a five-speed manual gearbox (the only tranny offered with this engine). Four-wheel-drive XEs and all SEs come with the familiar 170-horsepower/200 lb-ft 3.3-liter V6. This V6 can be hooked up to either the manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. Optional on all XE and SE models, the supercharged V6 pumps out 210 horsepower and 246 lb-ft of twist (231 lb-ft with a manual tranny) and can also be had with automatic or manual gear changers.
Driving around Monterey, Calif., on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, the supercharged V6 showed off its considerable low-end and mid-range power. Brisk acceleration from rest makes the Xterra feel lighter than its considerable mass of 4,100 pounds. From 0 to around 45 mph, this thing is quick. But after that velocity is attained, the acceleration curve drops off so much that upper range performance, such as when passing or merging on the freeway, doesn't feel any stronger than that of the (non-supercharged) V6. Having most of the newfound power concentrated down low makes more sense from an application viewpoint. When towing a trailer or tackling off-road terrain, low-end grunt, not top-end power, is what is needed, and in this respect the blown V6 is spot-on. However, we feel that the power should've been spread a bit higher.
Apart from the optional fast-twitch muscles, the '02 Xterra's driving dynamics are familiar to anyone who has driven older versions. That is to say the steering feels a bit lazy and the suspension is on the soft side. But these are not necessarily demerits. The slower steering ratio means that the Xterra will handle off-road situations better by not overreacting to steering inputs and misplacing a tire. The softer suspension provides a more comfortable on-road ride than some other utes' stiffer setups and yet is capable when challenged off-road.
Will the revamped Xterra be able to hold off the charge of the new Jeep Liberty, as well as a number of other fresh challengers? A small-SUV comparison test would be a great idea, and we will be conducting one very soon. Stay tuned.