Nissan XTerra
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by Richard Russell

Nissan makes no pretense about this being a soft-roader. Where the majority of SUV’s carry only a pretense of off-road ability beneath a smoothly sculpted body, the Xterra offers in-your-face butch styling. Where the norm is full or part-time all-wheel-drive systems that divert power to a second axle when grip deteriorates, the Xterra offers a seriously-capable four-wheel-drive powertrain complete with transfer case and low-range gearing that allow it to tackle the most severe conditions. While the majority of the competition are unibody platforms, the Xterra is based on Nissan’s Frontier pickup with a separate body mounted on a rugged, ladder-type frame.

Nissan XTerra

Nissan XTerra

Nissan XTerra

Nissan XTerra

Nissan XTerra
Click image to enlarge

If you want comfort, luxury, leather and a smooth ride, Nissan has several other offerings in its portfolio. But if you actually plan to venture off road with some regularity, the Xterra has been developed specifically for you. This is an SUV for those who want to go deep into the woods and wilds, not just have the security of all-wheel-drive.

The Xterra is also designed for those who don’t want to spend a great deal of money on their vehicle – but who have a young lifestyle with outdoor pursuits that take them where normal vehicles can’t reach. It has more secure and weather-proof space for friends and gear like bikes, backpacking and climbing equipment than a pickup. It has roof racks designed to carry canoes, kayaks and other large and/or awkward loads. It has an optional, ventilated, plastic carrier that attaches to the roof for clothing and other items you don’t want to put inside after getting wet or muddy. This is a lifestyle vehicle in substance, rather than looks alone.

But there are negative as well as positive aspects of a rugged off-road vehicle built to a budget. Most of them are the result of the Xterra’s truck underpinnings. Using the Frontier platform enabled the engineers to develop a rugged off-roader at a competitive price. The added ruggedness and off-road ability came at the cost of on-road civility and comfort. The ride is less than plush and handling decidedly truck-like. Getting in and out requires a significant boost up into the seat, where you find yourself sitting atop the frame with your legs not much below your hip-point.

But, those wishing to utilize the Xterra’s capabilities will be more than happy to trade off some on-road comfort for the ability to put the transfer case in low range, engage first gear and crawl up, over and around almost anything it can get to. The Xterra was first made available with four and six-cylinder engines. Both were normally aspirated and adequate for off-road use when the two-speed transfer case allows torque multiplication and speeds are low. But for highway driving, especially when it came time to tackle steep grades, pass someone or carry lots of people and heavy gear, the Xterra’s truck-based weight can be a problem. This is no pansy little cute-ute, it’s a 4,200 pound truck with all the aerodynamic ability to slip through the air of a boxcar. Power is decidedly lacking with the four cylinder engine but this is not available in Canada. Even the base 170-horse V6 is a bit strained in certain situations. Supercharger to the rescue!

There are two basic ways to gain power. Use a bigger engine or trick an existing engine into thinking it is bigger. A bigger engine means more displacement to generate power. Another approach is to force more fuel and air into an existing engine for the same result – more power. Generally speaking this is done by one of two methods – turbocharging or supercharging. A turbocharger is often thought of as free horsepower since it depends on exhaust gasses to spin an impeller – the opposite side of which is designed to suck more air and fuel into the engine.

A supercharger is commonly turned by a belt, driven off the crankshaft. It blows more air and fuel into the engine – but requires power to turn it. The advantage of a supercharger is that there is no delay while it gets up to speed. It starts adding power right from idle.

Atop the Xterra’s 3.3 litre V6 engine, the belt-driven Roots-type blower provided by Eaton pushes the engine’s output from 170 to 210 horsepower and 246 lb. ft. of torque. It is detuned slightly to 231-lb. ft. when equipped with the manual gearbox, which can’t take the added torque. The supercharger makes a nice addition to the Xterra because of its ability to enhance power at very low engine speeds – just what you need when crawling through tough off road situations.

The inside is designed to be used offroad. Tough, durable materials cover the seats and vertical surfaces, with durable, easy-to-clean floor coverings for the floor. The instrument panel features three prominent instruments – a blue-gradient colour in the SE and SE-SC levels and grey in the XE. Practicality is the theme throughout, from the map pocket and compass to four interior power points and a variety of storage facilities. Off-roaders will bemoan the replacement of the original pull-and-twist parking brake with a more conventional, but less useful off road, foot-operated unit.

ABS is standard and it features a sensor to make it more useful off road than some conventional ABS systems.

The Xterra comes in three trim levels – XE, SE and SE-SC. My tester was the line-topping SE-SC model in a brilliant colour Nissan calls Gold Rush making it awfully easy to locate in dense fog or a snow storm. So-equipped the Xterra cannot be mistaken for anything else on the road – subtle it is not! The front fenders are heavily flared to accommodate the massive 265 mm cross-section, 17-inch tires (16-inches in diameter for the SE model) and the hood has a 48 mm tall bulge, which on the SE-SC model, provides room for the supercharger.

The Xterra is designed for off road duty and that shows on road with a ride that will never be confused with limousines. Noise levels are also higher than more on-road oriented vehicles, partially due to the extremely-aggressive tire tread but also due to the blocky, upright styling.

The Xterra is not for everyone’s taste. But people looking to venture offroad more than occasionally – and for known reliability – would be well advised to put it on their short list.

Technical Data: 2003 Nissan Xterra SE-SC

Base price $33,298
Price as tested $34,498 as tested plus freight, license and taxes
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact SUV
Layout longitudinal front engine/RWD/PT 4WD/Low Range
Engine 3.3 litre V6, supercharged, SOHC, 12 valves
Horsepower 210 @ 4800 rpm
Torque 246 @ 2800 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic (std. 5-speed manual)
Curb weight 1909 kg (4200 lb.)
Towing capacity 2268 kg (5000 lb.) w/AT (1588 kg/3500 lb. w/MT)
Wheelbase 2650 mm (104.3 in.)
Length 4521 mm (178 in.)
Width 1788 mm (70.4 in.)
Height 1875 mm (73.8 in.)
Ground clearance 251 mm (9.9 in.)
Cargo volume 1260 litres (44.5 cu. ft.) seats up; 1858 litres (65.6 cu. ft.) seats down
Fuel consumption City: 15.5 l/100 km (18 mpg)
  Hwy: 11.8 l/100 km (24 mpg)

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