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George Carlin once said, "Technically speaking, Attila the Hun led an active, outdoor lifestyle." I mention this because there can't possibly be enough base-jumping, BMX free-styling, kayak-loving dudes (and dudettes) mountain biking all over creation to actually support the Xterra. Like most folks, every few years I get a sense of my own mortality, quit smoking and take up jogging. Within a month a girl breaks my heart and I wake up naked watching my dealer's one-year-old dig through the trash in search of breakfast. (I ain't talking Subaru dealer, either.) Since most Americans are fatter and lazier than even I, can Nissan's function-first SUV make a non-Dan Cortez case for itself?

Nissan's second-generation, third-iteration rig looks the part. It's about six-and-a-half feet tall, indicating there's plenty of room for your rock-climbing gear. It's got the signature, huge-diameter-pipe roof rack for strapping down your para-glider. There's even that storage binnacle up top β€” made from plastic even GM would turn up its pocket protector at β€” for your dirty spandex. Sure, more weight up top increases the chance of a rollover, but the Xterra comes with a built-in first aid kit. It even has steps carved into the rear-bumper so you can get to all your junk. Though, for most Xterra owners, the bumper grooves are too high off the ground to actually step on. In fact, my biggest gripe is that the Xterra looks like a sneaker. (High-top Vans, to be precise.)

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Inside, Poochie the dog is not yelling, "To the Extreme!" The plastic HVAC knobs are laughable in a $30,000 vehicle, especially one intended to spend its life bashing heads with boulders. The head unit looks even cheaper. However, the cabin is refreshingly sparse, devoid of mega-buttons and flashing lights. The seats are, well, there's a reason the word "flimsy" is an auto-journo clich ; they support as well as a dwindling trust fund. There are two large knobs below the seats, but I had no idea what they did. I couldn't get them to turn, either. The back seat is big enough to make out in (I checked it out - sorry Nissan), and there is hella space behind the rear seats for more of the aforementioned gear. Even better, with the rears flipped down, an Xterra owner is presented with 65.7 cubic feet of space β€” all covered in non-slip, easy-clean rubber. I hauled potting soil and garden lattices around like a champ.

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On the road, the first thing you'll notice, especially in Southern California, is that Xterras are everywhere. The second thing is that, above 65 mph, it shakes (though, to be fair, there's no telling what may have led up to that condition in the well-traveled press loaner). And you begin wondering how so many people can put up with incessant vibrations on a daily basis. The leaf-spring-plus-solid-axle technology out back was common when Patton was cruising Bastogne in a Willys, and, frankly no longer acceptable. Superb off-road performance you say? You're not going to leave the pavement I say. The fantasies of Nissan's marketing department notwithstanding, 90% of Xterras will never see dirt. Who cares how big the tires are?

Nonetheless, the bored-out family VQ mill has real guts. Nissan excavated the displacement from 3.5 to 4.0 liters, which equals mondo-torque for a six-cylinder. True, the 284 foot pounds don't appear until 4,000 rpm, but when they do, it's a boot to the small of your back. Sixty miles per hour arrives in 7.7 seconds, and 1,320 feet is covered in less than 16 β€” impressive numbers for a truck weighing 4,400 lbs. Still, an archaic ladder frame, narrow stance, relatively short wheelbase, massive-profile tires and a center of gravity up around mid-chest make turning the wheel an X-Games event. I never lost the imminent sense that one overzealous input would result in the Xterra resting on its doors.

Taking an SUV out to perform suburban tasks reinforces the stereotype that Americans are clueless herd animals. We buy more trucks and SUVs than we do passenger cars, yet the overwhelming bulk of our driving duties require none of the functionality we pay premiums to purchase. The demographic expected to purchase Xterras to sustain its "active, outdoor lifestyle" presumably also enjoys driving; why not a Subaru WRX Sport Wagon [c'mon, full disclosure, Subaru boy β€” ed.]? Better mileage, better ride, handles much better, plenty of off-road capability and, with the rear seats flattened, only four fewer feet's worth of stuff-hauling capability. Plus the Subaru is cheaper, exactly as ugly and you can reach rack-mounted surf boards without hauling out the step ladder. Of course, logic has always taken a roof-ride in favor of emotion when we break out our wallets. Which is why we see four times as many Xterras as we do Impreza hatches. [by Jonny Lieberman]

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