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The Nissan Xterra is a no-frills SUV, a purposeful-looking, purpose-built off-roader promising youthful adventure at a reasonable price. Totally redesigned last year, this latest Xterra is safer, more powerful, more sophisticated, and more off-road capable than ever before. It rides better on paved roads, too.
Xterra remains true to the original concept as the rugged outdoors type with everything you need, nothing you don't. Don't look for leather on the options list. Yet this latest-generation Xterra is a much better, much more substantial and much more sophisticated than the pre-2005 models. This starts with the basic structure: This latest Xterra is built on the same platform as Nissan's full-size Titan pickup and Armada SUV, which use a very well-engineered, fully boxed ladder frame. Sophisticated electronics helps maintain traction and stability over all kinds of uncertain terrain. Power comes via a 4.0-liter version of Nissan's acclaimed VQ V6 used on the 350Z.
While there are no significant changes for 2006, a new base model has been added that drops the price of entry by nearly a grand to $19,950.
The Nissan Xterra is an excellent choice for outdoor adventures. It cruises well on highway, more easily and more quietly than the pre-2005 models.
The automatic transmission, a five-speed overdrive unit, wins points around town. For commuting or driving in traffic, we 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. In addition, the six-speed's lower four ratios are all lower than in the automatic, so we could really feel all the torque when we shifted for ourselves.
The 4.0-liter V6 offers very good throttle response. 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 level. 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 350Z, and we recommend it for those who like to drive.
Regardless of the power train, the Xterra is easy to keep in its lane on the highway, probably due to the combination of rack-and-pinion steering and a speed-sensitive steering assist.
Even though the Xterra's utility quotient is its main design priority, effort has been made to reduce wind noise, and the results are tangible. Large mirrors, an angled grille, a big roof rack, 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 designed 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 4.0-liter engine has some guts in the midrange and the Xterra accelerates well when coming out of a corner.
We left the highway for a graded dirt road near the Grand Canyon. 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 side to side to find the firmest ground, crossing running water gingerly, for about a quarter mile. The electronic traction control kicked in and out, but we never got stuck. Eventually, we turned a corner, crested a little hill and arrived at our destination, none the worse for the moisture.
The Off-Road model is intended for situations such as this, because out-of-the-way places are often subject to changes in weather and circumstance. All it takes is a little rain, or snow, or falling rock, to create a challenge. In this case, our Xterra Off-Road model, with its traction control, all-terrain tires and locking differential, not only got us in, it got us out again, which is the whole point with a vehicle like this.
We think this is probably Nissan's most capable off-highway vehicle, one that can handle most challenges without the effort of pushing, shoveling, or tow straps. All 4WD Xterra models feature a truck-tough part-time transfer case with low range and electronic control. With the six-speed manual, the low-range crawl ratio is 40:1, better than most Jeeps. Unlike many SUVs, the Xterr
There is nothing else quite like the Nissan Xterra. Xterra stays true to the theme of the original. It's in its element when used as a truck, a dirt-road prowler, or an adventure vehicle. It can handle wet or dirty cargo and clean up like a champ. At the same time, the current model is considerably improved over pre-2005 models, with more power, more room, and more carefully thought-out utility features. It's more refined in every way, making it a much more practical everyday vehicle.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Stewart is based in Southern California.