2001 Nissan Xterra
2001 Nissan Xterra. Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

Back in the spring of 1999, Nissan’s since-retired top North American designer, Jerry Hirshberg, likened the 2000 Xterra to a pair of comfy old jeans: the Xterra would get better with some serious wear and tear, rather than fall apart at the seams. Hirshberg was apparently spot on with the truth.

The Xterra, introduced in the summer of ’99 as an early 2000 model, is a serious sport-utility vehicle boasting very good quality. True, there have been five recalls, but they don’t show an alarming pattern of engineering sloppiness. Truly impressive are the number of non-safety-related issues that come up in Nissan’s own corporate technical service bulletins. The number is two. Two relatively minor worries, both of which have been addressed with new parts from Nissan. It’s no surprise, then, to find that the Xterra has held its resale value pretty well through the years.

Interestingly, the Xterra arrived as something of a stop-gap measure in 1999. Back then Nissan Motor Corp. was essentially worse than broke. Heavily indebted with a largely lacklustre product line, Nissan was scrambling to come up with a few new products – products that wouldn’t cost much to develop.

Today Nissan is healthy and profitable, run by the man many consider the best car company chief executive in the world: Carlos Ghosn. But looking back, it appears Nissan’s brush with extinction was something of an inspiration for the product planners. At least as far as the Xterra is concerned.

By taking the basics of the Frontier pickup, Nissan built a rugged SUV with all the traditional strengths and weaknesses of a full-frame truck. The body-on-frame construction delivers good off-road performance, but the on-road ride and handling are, well, truck-like.

In ’99, Nissan’s Hirshberg said the Xterra was aimed squarely at a high-adrenaline group, doing high-adrenaline activities. Competitive models the used buyer may want to look at include the rugged Jeep Cherokee and Isuzu’s highly capable Rodeo.

Against the Jeep, you’ll find the Xterra bigger inside and more refined, but with less horsepower from its six-cylinder (170 hp versus Jeep’s 190 hp.). The 2000 Rodeo, which was re-made for 1999, has more juice from its V6 (205 hp) and more interior room, but a less useful cabin design.

Note that Nissan upped the horsepower of the base V6 for 2003 to 180 horsepower, and a supercharged 210 horsepower version arrived as a 2002 model.

Strictly on build quality, the Xterra has an edge over its rivals. In fact, the Frontier pickup on which the Xterra is based has boasted some of the best quality numbers among small trucks from market researcher J.D. Power and Associates.

In any case, the Xterra looks the part of an honest sport-ute. The shape is aggressive, with bulging wheel flares and muscular sheetmetal all around. Look at the roof and you’ll see a notch or step-up starting at the rear seating area. That means so-called theatre seating for better visibility from the back.

Topping it all off is a lightweight tubular aluminum roof rack (rated to carry 56.7 kg or 125 pounds) with attachments available for skis, snowboards, kayaks and bikes. The rack also has a removable and drainable basket for tucking away mucky gear (wet suits?). Other add-ons include tubular-steel step rails which are great for loading the rack, but limiting for the outback adventurist.

Under the skin you’ll find all the authentic sport-ute hardware: rugged ladder frame, protective skid plates under the engine and fuel tank, and low-range gearing from the strictly part-time four-wheel drive system. The car-derived CR-V, RAV4 and Subaru Forester have none of this gear, although it is available with the Cherokee, Rodeo, Chevy Tracker and Suzuki Vitara/Grand Vitara.

Inside, the cabin is comfortable, with plenty of storage space and removable rear-seat cushions that allow the 50-50 folding seat back to lay flat.

So the Xterra is a capable and very real off-roader. If that’s what you’re looking for, you should consider this used truck.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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