Nissan Xterra SE 4WD (2002)

"If you're interested in a car-like ride, creature comforts or set-and-forget on-road winter traction, the Xterra is not for you."
Good: power, handling, spacious
Bad: noisy, on-demand 4WD, truck-like


The Nissan Xterra is kind of a throwback, a return to those days, a decade or two ago, when sports-utility vehicles were basically trucks. The Xterra is based on the Frontier pickup truck, with its body-on-frame construction and a shift lever for the part-time, four-wheel-drive system sticking up out of the floor. The Xterra is clearly less "luxuried-up" than car-based SUVs like the Toyota RAV4, the Subaru Forester, the Ford Escape or the Honda CR-V. On the other hand, it's bigger and cheaper than those vehicles. So if you're looking for a very basic SUV -- a truck with a covered cargo compartment -- this is the vehicle for you.

The Xterra is just a few years old, and fits in Nissan's lineup beneath the aging Pathfinder. While clearly cheaper than the Pathfinder, it's not much smaller. It comes in two-wheel- and four-wheel-drive versions. It's pitched at Generation X-ers (X-terra, get it?) who want in on the SUV trend, but aren't ready to spend 30K on an Explorer. At a target price of $23,509, the top-of-the-line Xterra we drove fills a market niche abandoned by the Explorer, Trailblazer and Pathfinder as they moved up-market in price and amenities.

We've driven earlier versions of the Xterra, and we must say that the 2002 version is much more pleasant to drive. For one thing, it has more power with the available 3.3 liter, supercharged V6 engine, the same engine that was offered in the Frontier in 2001. Nissan says this engine produces 210 horsepower, which is 40 more than the regular V6. The added power makes the Xterra much more peppy, especially at lower speeds. This engine is a good match for this truck. The standard transmission is a five-speed. A four-speed automatic will set you back another thousand bucks.

We're not sure what kind of tinkering Nissan has been doing underneath the car, but the Xterra seems to handle better, too. Make no mistake about it, the Xterra is a tall, narrow vehicle, and as such it feels kind of unsettled if you take a corner too quickly. And the ride is a bit bumpy, as befits a vehicle that's actually set up to navigate the unpaved part of the world. Even so, it feels more polished and less harsh now.

The Xterra is, however, noisy. Between the engine's supercharger and the lack of sound deadening, it has a somewhat "McDonnell-Douglass-like" roar whenever you stomp on the gas. Would you care, though, if you were 20-something and your priority was a cool looking SUV? Probably not.

In another cost-cutting compromise, the Xterra has the old fashioned "on-demand, four-wheel drive," which means it can't be driven in 4WD on dry pavement. If you leave it in 4WD all the time (like you can in an all-wheel-drive vehicle), you -- not your vehicle -- run the risk of ending up in traction. This old-fashioned 4WD system undoubtedly helps to keep the Xterra's price down, but it's not as convenient as true all-wheel drive. To shift into 4 WD, for example, you need to be driving on a straight road, and under 25 mph. In short, on-demand, four-wheel drive can be less than safe than AWD if it's used incorrectly -- which it often is.

The Xterra's pickup truck origins are apparent as you climb into the driver's seat -- this is a Grade A seam-splitter. The passenger compartment floor and the cargo deck seem especially high off the ground. If you like to bring your dog with you (we would never deign to bring a dog into a test vehicle), you may need to trade in your Dachshund for something with more vertical leaping ability -- like a Springer Spaniel.

Once you make the ascent, you'll discover that the interior is a pretty comfortable place. The seat itself is fairly low and close to the floor. But there's adequate room in all directions both in the front and in the rear, and the decor is tasteful and basic, not at all tacky. In keeping with this vehicle's back-to-basics nature, there's no Corinthian leather, or burled walnut appliques on the dashboard. This is all easily cleanable, with lots of hard plastic. There's a medium-sized cargo area behind the back seat. (There is no third row in the Xterra.) There are numerous storage cubbies scattered through the interior, and useful cup holders between the seats.

To Nissan's credit, all Xterras come with air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, a stereo CD player, a split-folding rear bench, and a remote lift-gate release. The SE version we drove also has cruise control, a cargo area cover, key-less entry, power locks and windows, fog lights, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Common sense prevails in the Xterra's controls. The ventilation is directed by three large, round knobs, and even the radio was uncomplicated enough for morons like us to figure it out.

In a world of increasingly car-like SUVs, the Xterra stands out for its rugged looks. We thought it looked pretty cool, particularly with its tubular -- if somewhat useless -- luggage rack up on the roof. (You may need a stepladder to actually use it, though.) The round headlights and the bulge in the hood to accommodate the supercharger are new touches for 2002. If you like the look, you're in luck. Nissan says a similar makeover is in the works for the Pathfinder

The Xterra, like most Nissans, enjoys a deserved reputation for reliability. Nissans come in just a notch below Hondas and Toyotas in the reliability area, so we would expect the XTerra to be reasonably reliable. Our only doubts concern the effects of the supercharger, which forces more air into the cylinders. That, in turn, puts additional stress on the crankshaft, connecting rods and the piston rings. It may be that the engine is engineered well enough to hold up to these forces, but we may not know until a bunch of Xterras have 125,000 miles on them.

Nissans are generally easy to service and maintain, and the Xterra is no exception. Expect average repair and maintenance costs.

If you want the basic attributes of an SUV -- ruggedness, flexible cargo capacity, off-road capability, and a high seating position -- the Xterra provides those. If you're interested in a car-like ride, creature comforts or set-and-forget on-road winter traction, the Xterra is not for you. Because Nissan has targeted the Xterra narrowly, and only provided those features that the bare-bones crowd wants, they've been able to keep the price down. So the Xterra is a substantial, fairly well-equipped vehicle, that costs about the same as a loaded CR-V or a stripped Explorer.

Most people these days want a modern all-wheel-drive system that you can leave on all the time. But for those who just want the basics, or can't afford the dolled up luxo-trucks on the market these days, the XTerra provides a nice alternative.

If what you're looking for is a full-time, all-wheel-drive vehicle, though, you're barking up the wrong SUV. This is an unabashedly traditional vehicle, and one that we suspect will attract young buyers and families on a budget.

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