Impressive off-road abilities, well-mannered in city confines, versatile cargo area.
Cheap plastic interior, soft brake pedal, awkward rear cabin access.
A wise man once said, "Never underestimate the importance of having fun." Naturally, everyone has their own idea of fun, but for off-roaders, it's that kind of dirty fun you had as a kid — making mud pies, or the splashing, stomping fun Gene Kelly had in the rain. There's also the fun that comes with the great outdoors — like kayaking class-five rapids, or mountain biking down abandoned ski slopes.
The 2009 Nissan Xterra fits the role of adventure sherpa to a "T." This trail-capable and highly configurable hauler was made with fun-seekers in mind. But unlike some off-road-capable trucks and SUVs, the Xterra is also at home in urban settings, with a fair amount of suspension compliance for a comfortable ride. Nissan offers the Xterra in four trim levels that appeal to a wide range of buyers, from the economical X model to the more polished SE for the city folk.
Our 2009 Nissan Xterra test vehicle, in Off Road trim, was clearly intended to wander far from civilization — and return safely. In addition to the mandatory four-wheel drive for this model, the Off Road package includes an electronic locking rear differential, Bilstein high-performance shock absorbers, BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires, rear mud guards, underbody skid plates and roof-mounted off-road lights. Thanks to a competent 4.0-liter V6 under the hood, the Xterra scales steep rocky hills as easily as it roars onto highway on-ramps.
Lately, SUVs have been relegated to familial duties once performed by station wagons or are simply high-riding luxury sedans — and for drivers who plan to remain in the city, a crossover SUV would likely prove more practical. However, it's comforting to know there are still choices that keep the "sport" and "utility" in "SUV." Along with Toyota's FJ Cruiser and the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, the Xterra Off Road is a solid choice to tame the wilderness. Like a bandana-wearing, outdoor-loving Labrador retriever, this Nissan eagerly pounces at any opportunity to run wild, unafraid to get dirty in the name of fun — yet well-behaved enough to live with every day. So go ahead — see the world, get dirty and have some fun.
Like all 2009 Nissan Xterras, our Off Road test vehicle was powered by a 4.0-liter V6 — loosely based on the sporty 370Z (http://www.edmunds.com/nissan/370z/2009/index.html) engine that confidently propels all 4,439 pounds with 261 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque. Power gets routed through an optional five-speed automatic transmission (a six-speed manual is standard) on its way to turn the rear or all four wheels. In testing, we accelerated our Xterra from zero to 60 mph in 8.0 seconds, then back to a full stop needing only 131 feet for braking. Both are on par with the Toyota FJ Cruiser. The Xterra also shares the FJ's maximum towing capacity of 5,000 pounds when properly equipped.
The Xterra jumps off the line enthusiastically, with the V6 pulling consistently up to its 6,250-rpm redline. Upshifts are quick and surprisingly smooth, but during passing maneuvers the automatic transmission inconsistently downshifts one or two gears, accompanied by an awkward pause after throttle application. Stopping performance is adequate with a decent initial bite, but the brake pedal felt unsettlingly soft, nearly touching the floor when applied aggressively.
During our Xterra's brief stay with us, we managed to extract an average fuel consumption of 15.2 mpg, undoubtedly a result of our exuberant driving habits. EPA estimates of 15 mpg city/20 mpg highway and 17 mpg in combined driving seem well within reach if the Xterra is driven with economic intent. Around town, our Xterra was sure-footed and maneuvered around anything the big bad city could toss our way. Parking is pleasantly easy thanks to a light steering wheel effort, but rapid inputs have a tendency to overwhelm the power steering, resulting in considerable resistance to quick spins of the wheel.
When taken off-road, our Xterra displayed its ravenous appetite for rocks and mud that would leave crossover SUVs stranded. We initially approached obstacles with caution and the Xterra climbed and conquered, barely acknowledging the tough terrain, thanks to its 9.5 inches of clearance. Pushing harder over more challenging inclines, the low-range 4WD proved its merit with an uninterrupted and steady crawl over the top, while the hill ascent control ensures no loss of ground should you need a break halfway up a difficult peak. Engaging the hill descent control frees up the driver to concentrate solely on steering, as the Xterra slowly creeps down steep and loose surfaces with little drama.
Despite the truck-based underpinnings and additional off-road features, our 2009 Nissan Xterra was surprisingly docile over potholes, bumps and expansion joints. Wind noise was pleasantly abated despite the blocky exterior styling, as was road noise, despite the knobby off-road tires. Cruising at highway speeds is comfortable, making the Xterra well suited for longer road trips.
The front seats are adequately padded and supportive, with plenty of headroom and legroom for taller drivers. The controls are within easy reach and placed to allow operation without requiring you to take your eyes off the road. Because of the Xterra Off Road's taller ride height, climbing in and out of the cabin may be inconvenient for shorter passengers. The rear seats prove even harder to gain access to, due to the rear wheelwell intruding on an already narrow door and an awkward vertical door handle. Once you're seated, however, the rear cabin offers a decent amount of comfort, legroom and headroom for adults, though the seatbacks seem a bit too upright. Rear passengers are treated to a particularly good view out the windshield thanks to the higher, stadium-style seating position.
The utilitarian and somewhat primitive control layout makes for fairly easy operation — the only time we had to consult the manual was in regard to the off-road features. Our 2009 Nissan Xterra test car came with the optional $1,300 Technology package at no additional cost, thanks to Nissan's limited-time promotion. This package (which essentially became standard on the Off-Road trim for 2010) upgrades the audio with an eight-speaker Rockford Fosgate system with subwoofer. The main speakers deliver fairly clean tones, but the bass is often muddied by the overwhelming subwoofer. Compounding the issue is the lack of subwoofer adjustments and the placement underneath the driver seat. The steering-wheel controls for audio, Bluetooth and cruise control were easy to operate and intuitive, though nighttime illumination for them would be a welcome addition.
Cargo space is large and versatile with a maximum capacity of 65.7 cubic feet, but while the plastic surfaces are easy to clean and allow objects to slide freely, they also show loading scars far too easily. Fortunately, our Xterra was also equipped with plenty of sturdy steel utility hooks and a version of Nissan's Utilitrack cargo channel system that can quickly be configured to secure any load. Underneath the cargo floor, a hideaway storage bin provides space to separate dirty gear from the main cargo hold.
Up top, the Xterra's sturdy roof rack accepts a host of aftermarket accessories to haul your water-, snow- or land-based toys. Included with the Off Road trim is a ventilated, removable gearbox and bright off-road lights to pierce the darkness. The topside rack is accessible by standing on an open doorsill and convenient rear bumper steps.
The Xterra's blocky Tonka-trucklike exterior is fitting for an SUV with such burly off-road capabilities. The large tires filling the flared fenders lend an air of athletic aggression and the integrated roof rail and gearbox advertise the Xterra's adventure-driven utility. Our gripes are minor and include a noticeable amount of "orange peel" on painted surfaces and the use of toylike plastic on the nose and tail — though serious off-roaders may appreciate the lower cost of replacement.
The thick and boxy design theme is carried over into the interior, but unfortunately the cheap, hard plastics detract from an otherwise successful execution. When calling upon the rear differential lock for an off-road climb, the flimsy, plastic switch bracket snapped, allowing the switch to be pushed deep into the panel. This forced us to gingerly pry the switch out with a key in order to operate the diff lock. Points are also deducted for the Xterra's abundance of chirpy, body-on-frame squeaks and rattles emanating from the headliner — though it's likely that our test car had seen some pretty punishing terrain before we took delivery.
The 2009 Nissan Xterra Off Road, like a Swiss Army knife, could be thought of as a multipurpose tool. A deeply rutted trail can be tamed just as easily as a Monday-through-Friday commute — all in the same vehicle. If you prefer your recreation with a board, skis, bike, neoprene, helmet, oar, rope or fishing pole, this Xterra is for you.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.