2003 Nissan Xterra
2003 Nissan Xterra. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

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These days, Nissan is working hard at making a name for themselves as a builder of tough trucks, and if the company’s newest generation of brash brutes has proven a little lacking in the reliability department, at least they still look tough!

Nissan’s move from a producer of mostly cars and a couple of trucks to a line-up that’s now fully half made up of trucks and car-based SUVs didn’t happen overnight. In 2000, Nissan added a third truck model to its line-up, building on the strong reputation built by its venerable Hardbody compact pickup and Pathfinder SUV. That new truck was called the Xterra, a name that, with a bit of linguistic gymnastics, could be translated as “cross country.” It fit, too, as this was a small SUV with big, bold styling and lots of off-road capability and handy stuff like a tubular roof rack and an easy-to-clean cargo area.

While Nissan’s latest truck models have had a few teething problems, the Xterra used proven components, including a 3.3-litre V6 (170 hp) borrowed from the 1996-2000 Pathfinder. That engine gets lots of love from owners of older Pathfinders for its improved durability over the more-powerful 3.5-litre engine used in 2001-2003 versions. The 3.3-litre engine has proven just as durable in the Xterra. In 2002, the Xterra got a supercharged version of that engine, which made 210 horsepower, as an option.

Unsurprisingly, fuel consumption is on the high side: Natural Resources Canada’s ratings for the Xterra range from 14 to 15 L/100 km in the city and 11 to 12 L/100 km on the highway, while supercharged models are rated at about 16 L/100 km (city) and 12 L/100 km (highway). In general, manual-transmission models are more economical in the city, while the optional four-speed automatic seems better suited to frugal highway driving. Be aware, though, that NRCan’s numbers are very conservative, and real-world fuel consumption tends to be higher.

As mentioned, the Xterra’s 3.3-litre V6 is a durable unit. There’s just one issue to look out for: cracking exhaust manifolds, a problem that affects older Pathfinders powered by the same engine.

2003 Nissan Xterra
2003 Nissan Xterra. Click image to enlarge

Other than that, there’s not much to know with regard to reliability. Still, if you’re considering a used Xterra, it’s not a bad idea to head over to www.nissanforums.com and search the forums, using “Xterra” as the keyword. This brings up a number of posts from members and owners trying to diagnose the kind of random issues that affect any car or truck, reliable or not. There are a number of Transport Recalls dealing with the Xterra, so make sure any truck you might buy has had these addressed.

Where safety is concerned, there isn’t much to be, well, concerned about. The first generation Xterra performed admirably in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash testing, earning at least four stars for protecting front seat occupants in frontal impacts, and four and five stars respectively for front and rear seat occupants in side impacts. Those are good results for a truck that wasn’t available with side airbags until 2003 and 2004, when they were standard in mid-range SE and top-line SE-SC models. Anti-lock brakes were standard on all Xterras. Conversely, the Xterra earned an “acceptable” rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) frontal offset crash test.

All of the Xterra’s positive attributes make it a desirable vehicle choice for those with “active” lifestyles, which in turns ensures that an Xterra will hold its value fairly well.

2003 Nissan Xterra
2003 Nissan Xterra. Click image to enlarge

That’s good for those who bought one new, and not so great for those shopping for a used example. The Canadian Red Book puts the value of a 2003 Xterra SE at a shade under $20,000, and used values in general tend to be a little higher than those of the Jeep Liberty and TJ, two other capable off-roaders. The bottom of the Xterra’s used value range is $11,775 for a 2000 model, and about $25,000 for a 2004 SE-SC.

We like the Xterra for a lot of reasons, the most significant being its reliability, where it holds a small advantage over the aforementioned Jeeps. But it also brings a lot of “sport” and “utility” to the table, qualities that many SUVs – ironically – lack. As far as whether we’d recommend an Xterra over a Jeep – well, that’s a tough one. Calling it even is tempting, but that’s a bit of a copout. Here’s the thing: for the ultimate in off-road abilities, the TJ would win out. It also holds the cards for buyers who also enjoy open-air driving, as it’s the only one available without a fixed roof. But where reliability is key, we’d have to go with the Xterra for its rugged build quality and proven durability, characteristics we think are more meaningful than pure off-road prowess.

Online resources

  • www.nissanforums.com – There’s no pretence in this site’s web address. Here you’ll find information on all things Nissan, except, curiously, a forum section dedicated to the Xterra. There’s a spot for the Frontier pickup on which the first-generation Xterra was based, so that’s a good place to start, as would be the “4×4 and Off Road Action” section.
  • www.nissanclub.com – Any site with more than 48,000 members should be a busy place, and NissanClub.com is that, but not in the right places for Nissan truck owners. Most of the action here seems to go on in the Altima and Off-Topic forum sections. Also, any Xterra information is buried in a general truck forum, where you’ll have to sift through discussion about all of Nissan’s trucks to find Pathfinder-specific stuff.
  • www.freshalloy.com – This is a very popular web destination for Nissan enthusiasts. While most of the company’s models get their own discussion sections, the first-gen Xterra is lumped into the “Other Nissan Trucks and SUVs” forum, so be prepared to dig for specific details on what you’re curious about.

Related stories on Autos

  • Test Drive: 2002 Nissan Xterra SE-SC

Manufacturer’s Website


Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004151; Units affected: 21,145

2000-2003: On certain vehicles, the fuel pump terminal on the fuel sending unit can develop a crack. When exposed to heavy concentrations of road salt in the winter, if road salt enters the crack, the terminal strip will corrode and eventually could break due to corrosion. This will cause the fuel pump to stop operating and will result in not being able to start the engine or cause the engine to stop running without warning. Correction: Dealer will replace the fuel sender unit.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000217; Units affected:1,840

2000: On certain vehicles, the shift cable locking plate may break, allowing the driver to shift into the Park position but making it very difficult to shift from the Park position. The gear shift lever and the PRNDL indicator may move, but the transmission will not shift from the Park position. If the driver were over time to manipulate the gear shift lever out of Park, the gear indicated on the PRNDL display may differ from the gear actually engaged. Correction: Automatic transmission shift cable lock plate will be replaced.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002206; Units affected: 10,844

2001-2003: On certain four-wheel drive vehicles, water may enter the rear axle housing due to inadequate sealing of the ABS sensor in the axle housing. This may result in corrosion and eventually failure of the wheel bearing. If this occurs, the wheel assembly could separate from the vehicle. Correction: Dealer will inspect the rear axle for water intrusion and replace any affected components. The ABS sensor will be resealed to prevent water intrusion.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 20020205; Units affected: 739

2001: On certain vehicles, the fuel tank inlet shutter valve may not meet the sealing performance specification. Under certain conditions, fuel may spill from the filler inlet as the tank is being filled. Correction: Dealer will replace the fuel tank inlet shutter valve.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003045; Units affected: 4,487

2002: On certain vehicles, the clockspring electrical connector may not be fully secured to the driver side air bag module squib pin connector due to the retaining groove in the module not having sufficient depth to hold the connector in the assembled position. If the connector comes loose, the supplemental air bag warning light will come on. However, the driver side air bag will not deploy in the event of a crash. Correction: Dealer will install a retaining clip on the clockspring electrical connector.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002204; Units affected: 770

2002: On certain supercharged vehicles, the amount of intake air-flow through the air-flow meter may exceed the maximum preset diagnosis limit value which would cause the engine control system to go into the failsafe mode. Under this condition, the malfunction indicator lamp will illuminate and engine speed will not exceed 2400 rpm’s regardless of throttle position. Correction: Dealer will reprogram the electronic control module (ECM).

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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