There was a time when body-on-frame SUVs dominated American roads, with nearly every major automaker offering some kind of four-wheeling fighter to suburbia's off-road pretenders. Nissan was no different, and at its peak in 2000, the eminently capable Xterra sold some 88,000 copies – the same year our colleagues at Motor Trend crowned it Sport Utility of the Year.
But unlike so many hardened off-roaders that have evolved into unibody crossovers, the Xterra has soldiered on nearly unchanged since its refresh in 2005. And according to our sources, this latest variant – the Pro-4X – could be the last of an orphaned breed. We got our hands on Nissan's most capable SUV for a week of highway drudgery, big-box shopping and even a little time off the beaten path to find out if it deserves to live on.
Continue reading Review: 2011 Nissan Xterra Pro-4X...
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Shunk / AOL
ThePro-4X is the top-of-the-line Xterra. Typically that would mean plenty of standard features to coddle and cushion. There's a lot of that going on here, but we're not talking about navigation, leather seats or moonroofs. You can't even get a power driver's seat. Instead, the Pro-4X comes strong with Bilstein shocks, hill descent control, an electronic locking rear differential and a trick cargo management system that will keep your gear tethered to the floor even when your Xterra is upside-down.
If you're into coddling equipment, this Xterra isn't your cup of joe. The only pampering we could find was a blissful Rockford Fosgate sound system, which should provide sufficient motivation while crawling over rocks and down steep grades. The only option boxes checked on our $32,725 (a base Xterra X 4X4 comes in at $26,310) tester included leather seats ($1,000), Nevada tow Package ($460), Pro-4X floormats ($115) and an iPod interface ($250).
Any off-roader worth its salt also has to look the part, and the Xterra doesn't disappoint. Its boxy proportions and broad shoulders scream "testosterone booster," while the Xterra's customary roof rack gives this ute an inescapable Panama Jack flavor. That roof rack (accessible with a pair of built-in bumper steps) contains a pair of off-roading lights that most will rarely use, though we found them to be very helpful on a barren stretch of two-lane highway that involved close encounters with both a possum and a deer within a few minutes of each other.
The rough and ready exterior is matched by an equally manly cabin. The nicely upholstered leather seats were plenty comfortable during a five-hour trip we took from Detroit to Indianapolis, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel provided a touch of class in an otherwise utilitarian interior. There are few buttons and knobs adorning the center stack, and dashboard materials are mostly of the hard plastic variety.
Perhaps that's to be expected of such an off-road-biased vehicle, but so are easily accessible vehicle controls. The Xterra obliges with a knob for choosing between two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive high and four low, followed by large buttons for hill descent control and the electronic locking center differential. This Xterra also comes equipped with a first-aid kit affixed to the rear liftgate, just in case your off-road travails lead to a boo-boo or two.
Despite its rough-and-tumble nature, Nissan has managed to squeeze in some technology to make life a bit easier. The Xterra Pro-4X sports Bluetooth, redundant steering wheel audio controls, an optional iPod interface and a standard auxilary input. Perhaps more important is the fact that these features are incredibly simple to use.
The folks at Nissan are fully aware that even the most ardent off-roaders will keep their SUV on pavement most of the time, so space for you and your family or friends is important. The Xterra is about six inches shorter than the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, and the latter is an inch wider, too. That gives the Wrangler the edge in overall passenger volume, though the Xterra still sports a respectable 36.3 cubic feet of space beyond the second row of seats. Those very handy heavy-duty tie-downs we mentioned help secure any cargo you're taking with you. And if your luggage is muddy, the storage compartment is hard plastic and easy to hose off.
An off-road ready interior is only useful if the hardware is willing, so Nissan engineers have packed plenty of technology in spots where the eyes rarely travel. Rugged and uneven terrain is handled by a fully boxed frame made of high-grade steel. The front suspension is comprised of an independent double-wishbone with stabilizer bar, while out back a multi-leaf solid rear axle partners with a beefy rear sway bar to keep the wheels planted on road and off. The Pro-4X is the only Xterra to feature Bilstein performance shock absorbers, giving the top model a bit more street cred on the sand dunes.
The Xterra's powertrain of choice is a 4.0-liter V6 producing 261 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 281 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. If you're not into the slushbox thing, Nissan is kind enough to offer a six-speed manual transmission across the entire Xterra model range. The big V6 also accelerates hard when you ask it to, with a manufacturer-claimed 0-60 mile per hour time of 6.7 seconds.
That sounds nice, but our experience shows that the Xterra feels burlier than a lot of vehicles in its class. The Xterra's powertrain pulled strongly at all speeds, especially when passing punch was needed on the freeway. In fact, we may have punched the Xterra a few times too many during our week with the ute, managing only 16 miles per gallon. That's within the 15 mpg city and 20 mpg highway numbers promised by the Environmental Protection Agency, but we spent the vast majority of our time on the freeway.
Nissan has opted for a variable effort steering system that is well-weighted and provides adequate feedback when working the wheel. Brake feel is similarly solid, with a bit of bite when pushed hard. One (admittedly predictable) annoyance that cropped up on those freeways was an excess of road noise. The Xterra is also a bit on the tall side at 74.9 inches, and its higher center of gravity leads to quite a bit of body roll during harder cornering. But when you're at speed on the highway, the Xterra rides relatively smooth, though it won't challenge most unibody crossovers in terms of ride quality.
Since the Xterra Pro-4X is built for the road less traveled, we figured it was our duty to get it at least somewhat dirty during our time. We took the Xterra on a short but fruitful trip to a nearby trail to see if the big Nissan performed as advertised. The trail featured more water than mud due to the thawing snow, and as hard as we tried to get the P265/75R16 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A rubber to stick, we were never really all that close to succeeding. Heck, we never even had to venture into four low, though we did the crawl anyway just for the experience. We also verified Nissan's claim that the Xterra can shift on the fly into four-wheel high at a maximum of 62 mph. The brakes did feel a bit mushy and unresponsive when the wheels got wet on the trail, but that's to be expected when the rotors are covered in 35-degree mud.
The Pro-4X is the only Xterra that comes stock with skid plates for the oil pan, fuel tank and 4x4 transfer case, in addition to the lower radiator plate that comes with every Xterra. That means we didn't have to worry much about damage to our tester's vital organs, even if we decided to push harder than we did. After our short off-road excursion, the Xterra's underbody was free of any sticks and mud chunks, mainly because the Xterra boasts 9.5 inches of ground clearance, so the underbody was hardly touched. Also important for any off-road-ready rig is a healthy arrival and departure angle, and the Pro-4X doesn't disappoint with 33.2 degrees up front and 29.4 degrees out back. That's nowhere near the 44.5 degree and 40 degree angles of the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, though we're thinking most will never approach the limits of either vehicle.
We almost felt like we let the Xterra down by not providing a more challenging terrain, though we can honestly say we had a blast and the Xterra never missed a beat. We'll try to get one out on some bona-fide trails or at an off-road course sometime soon to see what it really can do.
Those looking at the Nissan Xterra for their next vehicle purchase don't have a whole lot of options left in the off-roading segment. The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and the Toyota 4Runner are alternatives, but both vehicles are larger and pricier than the Nissan. A lightly optioned Grand Cherokee is another – much posher – possibility, though the new Jeep's price tag quickly passes $40,000 when you start checking the more desirable option boxes.
Even with no meaningful updates since 2005, the Xterra is still solid and charismatic enough to compete admirably in its quickly shrinking class. The interior could use a makeover and its fuel economy will become problematic as gas prices rise, but for those looking for an honest all-terrain savant with aggressive styling and simple-but-effective technology, the Pro-4X is a rock-solid choice. But if your daily treks or weekend joneses don't often take you into the muck, or if you're looking for a vehicle well-suited to daily family hauling duties, there are far more modern, better-packaged solutions. The Xterra might be a product from a bygone era, but those looking for off-road capabilities at a competitive price should be pleased that Nissan is still offering this rough-and-tumble utility to the masses.
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Shunk / AOL