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It looks almost the same, but the 2005 Nissan Xterra is all new. And it's better, on paved roads and off. It's safer, more powerful, more sophisticated, and more capable.
First introduced in 2001, the Xterra was simple, functional and largely unrefined. The original Xterra was really just a pickup truck chassis with a utility body, accessorized with racks, bins and cargo hold-fast items. It was truly useful, but it rode and handled like a pickup truck, and it was flawed by conflicts between the base platform and the accessories that were tacked on. Still, it was unique. It was a great adventure vehicle. And it was Cool.
Taking full advantage of the opportunity to re-design the Xterra for 2005, Nissan has made the new Xterra more modern, but still rugged and functional. Features and options are better integrated into the package. Conceived as a multi-function SUV, Xterra eschews luxury do-dads, but can be configured for varying combinations of utility and convenience. With the 2005 Xterra, Nissan has resolved the equipment conflicts, and properly integrated the features packages.
They did all that, and somehow kept The Cool.
Testing an adventure vehicle demands something more than just putting around town, especially when you have a 4x4. Rising to the occasion, we ended up on a weekend adventure trip, driving to the Grand Canyon for a little river rafting, stopping in Sedona and Williams, Arizona, along the way.
Much of the route took us across lonely interstate highways, where we noticed the new Xterra cruises far more easily, and more quietly, than the previous generation. The automatic transmission, a five-speed overdrive, wins points around town. For commuting or driving in traffic, we would prefer it.
But on the open road, the six-speed manual is a sweet gearbox, with an overdrive gear so tall the engine barely murmurs at cruising speeds on the sweeping, largely unpatrolled highways leading to Williams, the gateway to the Grand Canyon. In addition, the six-speed's first four ratios are lower than the automatic, so we could really feel all the torque when we shifted for ourselves.
The 4.0-liter V6 has very good, if not outstanding, response to throttle. High-speed passing with the automatic transmission does create some noise and vibration as the engine revs toward redline, but only at speeds well above the normal cruising levels. No such issues with the manual, which is strikingly refined, yet sporty. We're told the six-speed is a version of the same transmission used on the Nissan 350 Z, and we would recommend it for those who like to drive.
Regardless of the power train, the Xterra is easy to keep in lane on the highway, probably due to the combination of rack-and-pinion steering and a speed-sensitive steering ratio. At one point, we drove five hours without stopping, a positive indication when it comes to seat comfort and overall driving effort.
To check the audio system, we jammed a CD into the Rockford Fosgate. We're not audiophiles, but we like our music. We can testify that the 300-watt system is quite a bit bigger, cleaner, and more accurate than what we normally listen to. Getting good sound in an SUV interior can be difficult, since there are many hard surfaces combined with soft shapes to reflect and muffle sound. In this case, 8 speakers with subwoofer carry the day.
Even though the Xterra's utility quotient is the main design priority, effort has been made to reduce wind noise, and the results are tangible. Large mirrors, angled grilles, big roof racks, open side steps-these are features that invariably create wind noise, and at speeds over 75 mph, noise does begin to become a factor. Yet below those speeds, the Xterra remains nicely calm and quiet. The roof rack, a prime source of wind whistle, has been redesigned with oval beams, which slice through the air more cleanly than round or square tubing. Engine noise, likewise, is kept to a minimum through techniques such as a silent timing chain, microfinished surfaces and Teflon-coated pistons.
On smaller roads, the Xterra retains a handy feeling, driving with the ease of a large family sedan. If you push it, the long-travel chassis will show some roll from side to side, and the tires will complain, but in ordinary driving, the Xterra feels consistently composed and, for a truck, highly refined. The 4-liter engine has some guts in the midrange, and we noticed that acceleration coming out of a corner is a strong point.
A memorable stretch came when as we approached the launch point for our raft trip. Leaving the highway for a graded dirt road, we continued downward for miles. It had rained in the desert the night before, and as we approached the river, water trickled across the road, accumulating in the middle and flowing down the path. Eventually the trickle became a torrent, then a series of streams, and we found ourselves driving down a canyon path of loose gravel with rivulets of water running around us on all sides. The crunch of gravel gave way to the sound of water and rock in the wheelwells. We were forced to move carefully from sid
There is nothing exactly like the Xterra on the market. True to the theme of the original Nissan Xterra, the all-new 2005 Nissan Xterra is considerably improved, and there is a lot to like. There is more power, more room, plus more carefully thought-out utility features. It is more refined in every way, making it a much more practical everyday vehicle. And when used as a truck, a dirt road prowler, or an adventure vehicle, the Xterra can offer authentic 4x4 capabilities, handle wet or dirty cargo, and clean up like a champ.
New Car Test Drive correspondent John Stewart is based in Southern California.