2006 Nissan Xterra S Off Road. Click image to enlarge
Review and Photos by Brian Early
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So why, in this day and age, would any manufacturer build a brand new SUV with not only a solid rear axle, but – horrors! – a solid rear axle suspended by leaf springs? Particularly when there’s another SUV (the Pathfinder) that’s built on essentially the same chassis, but featuring a modern, fully independent, coil-sprung multi-link rear end?
It just doesn’t make sense without some background.
The original Pathfinder arrived on the scene in the mid-eighties, a two-door SUV largely based on the then-current “Hardbody” pickup (gaining two more doors just a few years later). With its 1996 redesign, it moved away from its truck origins and further upmarket, switching to a unibody design, abandoning the few hard-core off-roaders that had cherished the original model.
Along came the 2000 Xterra. Looking to recapture the younger, entry-level buyers that the upward-aspiring Pathfinder had left behind, Nissan had again borrowed heavily from its pickup line to create a simple, relatively inexpensive SUV. Basic but rugged, the body-on-frame Xterra also found favour with off-road aficionados.
As part of Nissan’s corporate turnaround strategy, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn decreed a reduction in the number of unique designs and parts, so the latest generations of Pathfinder and Xterra – both new for 2005 – now have much more in common, though both remain targeted at different buyers.
The commonality begins with their basic chassis designs, portions of which are shared with the Frontier pickup line, which in turn was derived from the full-size “F-Alpha” platform used in the full-size Titan pickup and Armada SUV. Interestingly, this means that the Pathfinder has returned to a body on frame design.
In an unplanned twist of fate, I was recently able to drive both of these SUVs back to back.
From the B-pillars forward, the Smyrna, Tennessee-built Pathfinder and Xterra are essentially the same, though each utilizes unique sheetmetal and trim. Both use a 4.0 litre VQ-series V6 (265 hp/284 lb-ft in the Xterra, 270 hp and 291 lb-ft of torque in the premium-fuel preferring Pathfinder). Only the Xterra offers the option of a six-speed manual however; Pathfinders and automatic Xterras use an electronic five-speed tranny.
There are even considerable similarities in the forward portion of the passenger compartment, though the finish level is appropriate for each model (monochromatic expanses of plastic in the Xterra, chrome highlights and faux-metal trim in the Pathfinder). Only the Xterra has a console-mounted handbrake; by far my preference.
Their drivers both will find a comprehensive six gauge cluster, visible through one of Nissan’s nicely shaped and sized corporate steering wheels. Pity that the rubber-gripped wheel in my Xterra tester was spoiled by a few annoying bits of flashing on the rim.
From the B-pillars rearward, the two models diverge considerably. The Pathfinder is longer, with a lower roof and larger rear doors, and it features a fully independent multi-link rear suspension – more expensive, but in keeping with its upscale persona and correspondingly higher entry price.
The Xterra retains the stepped roofline, tubular roof racks and bin, and the tailgate first-aid kit bulge introduced on the original model. Also like its predecessor, it eschews a fancy rear suspension in favour of a traditional solid axle and leaf springs.
The Xterra’s wheelbase is 15 cm shorter than the Pathfinder’s, and its overall length 22.5 cm less, so there’s no room for that model’s available third row of seats. On the other hand, the Xterra’s stubbier length does make for a more agile package, both on and off-road.
My “Solar Yellow” tester was an “Off Road” model, and thus equipped with Bilstein shocks, which provided a firm ride, but surprisingly good on-road manners, taming much of the misbehaviour that’s inherent with solid rear axles.
As the availability of an “Off Road” package suggests, the Xterra is a real SUV, and it comes with the pre-requisite two-speed transfer case (electronically switched, but strictly part-time). The Xterra’s standard stability system also provides four-wheel traction control (functionally similar to having limited slip differentials front and rear); supplemented in Off Road Xterras by a push-button lockable rear diff. Automatic-equipped Off Road models also feature Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist (basically an anti-rollback function).
Short overhangs and a generous 24.2 cm of ground clearance, combined with good axle articulation meant that there was no way that I (or, I suspect, most Xterra owners) would be daring enough to truly challenge this ute off-road, although my five-year old daughter, Lauren, thoroughly enjoyed the truck’s slithering and bumping as we crawled over some rocks and through some deep ruts and muck anyhow.
Off Road models further benefit from underbody skid plates, which we did not test. Sufficient for normal people, real rock crawlers will likely want to replace them with larger, sturdier units.
Most Xterras will find themselves pounding the pavement anyway; it’s no slalom machine (the stability control would probably rein in such foolishness), but it responds faithfully to commands from the helm, and the rack and pinion steering even offers decent feedback.
The big, throaty V6 generates healthy power, the automatic transmission is quick to offer a downshift (two gears at once, if necessary), and the four-wheel disc brakes will tolerate repeated traffic-induced highway-speed stops without fade.
Surprisingly, even with the large tubular roof rails and (removable) storage bin and cross bars, wind noise remains reasonable right up to the legal limit. Much beyond that, you’re reminded by both noise and fuel economy that you are punching a large, not particularly aerodynamic hole through the air. Road noise is commendably hushed, as is the exhaust note while cruising; it’s a different story under throttle, where the VQ V6 gets quite vocal.
No noise source was any match for my tester’s very good (and very loud) 380 watt, 9 speaker Rockford Fosgate 6-disc stereo.
“Utility” is a large part of the SUV equation, and the Xterra’s mission in life is accommodating stuff. Two gloveboxes and several bins and cubbies handle smaller items; four 12V powerpoints keep your gear fed.
The rear seats fold flat once the cushions are tipped forward (they can also be removed) – space for the headrests can be found in the footwells – and the front passenger’s seatback also folds down for toting longer items.
Tie down hooks and channels are everywhere, even on the inside of the roof (!), and there’s a good-sized lidded bin beneath the uncarpeted cargo area floor. If it can’t go in the truck, there’s always the roof bin and racks. Still too big to fit? The standard 2268 kg (5000 lb.) trailer rating should help.
Rear seat passengers will find sufficient room behind all but the tallest drivers, but they may find getting in and out tricky – the Xterra’s short rear doors and large wheel arches make the openings narrow, and those arches are prone to soiling unwary passengers’ clothing.
Click image to enlarge
Younger children won’t be able to reach the high-mounted exterior handles either, and may have difficulty climbing in over the high sills – neither of which diminished Lauren’s love for the big yellow beast.
If you’re strictly looking for a commuter vehicle with an SUV image, there are plenty of crossovers in and around the Xterra’s $33,748 base MSRP. That misses the point though – the Xterra isn’t meant to be a cushy, car-like cruiser, it’s meant for hauling bikes and riders to a remote trailhead without being uncivilized during the weekly slog.
Technical Data: 2006 Nissan Xterra S Off Road
|Options||$1,300 (Off Road Automatic Transmission incl. HDC/HAS)|
|Price as tested||$36,424 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger SUV (body on frame)|
|Layout||Longitudinal front engine rear/part-time four wheel drive|
|Engine||4.0-litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves|
|Horsepower||265 @ 5600 rpm|
|Torque||284 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm|
|Tires||P265/75/16 all-season (tester equipped with winter tires)|
|Curb weight||1976 kg (4356 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||2700 mm (106.3 in.)|
|Length||4540 mm (178.7 in.)|
|Width||1850 mm (72.8 in.) excluding mirrors|
|Height||1903 mm (74.9 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||388 litres (13.7 cu. ft.)|
|2nd row folded: 1869 litres (66 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 15.0 L/100 km (19 mpg Imp.)|
|Hwy: 10.4 L/100 km (27 mpg Imp.)|
|Fuel type||Regular unleaded|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km vehicle|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 powertrain|