The Nissan Xterra SUV Is The Cheap Jeep Wrangler Fighter 4X4 Fans Have Forgotten About
Is there a body-on-frame 4x4 out there that gets less respect than the Nissan Xterra? For 15 years this rough-and-tumble SUV provided off-road buyers with a legitimate alternative to the ever-popular Jeep Wrangler, and it did so at a price that was more affordable than rivals like the retro-themed Toyota FJ Cruiser and the larger Toyota 4Runner. This value disparity continues on the used market, where the Nissan 4x4 is often one of the least-expensive of the 'modern' truck-based SUVs
The modestly-sized first-generation Xterra was nudged into the void left by the Nissan Pathfinder's push into the three-row family segment in the mid-2000s, receiving a redesign and a size boost to help give more all-around appeal. This gives four-wheeling fans a pair of Xterra models to choose from, in addition to a wide range of trims, each with varying degrees of acumen out on the trail.
Back To Basics
When the Nissan Xterra first hit the scene for the 2000 model year, it followed a playbook familiar to fans of American off-road vehicles by borrowing its platform from the brand's Frontier mid-size truck. Still, it was a novel move from Nissan, which had recently moved the Pathfinder onto a more car-like unibody platform and suddenly had room in its line-up for a new SUV.
Tucked in just below its larger sibling, for the first time Nissan could boast a two-pronged sport-utility attack, which freed the Xterra up to focus on a fresh set of adventure-oriented buyers. By positioning the Xterra vs Wrangler, Nissan could finally court Jeep customers directly, and do so while offering at a more civilized driving experience when not plunging through the back country.
Part of the Xterra's charm offensive focused on styling. The vehicle was similar to the Frontier from the first set of doors forward, with bulging fender flares and a new grille and bumper treatment added to the equation, but seen in profile it offered unique stepped roofline and greenhouse that hinted at what Nissan called 'stadium' seating for the second row. Intended to provide rear seat riders a better view of the road ahead, it was an idea cribbed from the look of the Land Rover Discovery, and it helped the Xterra stand out from other entry-level SUVs at the time.
Inside, control surfaces, trim, and seats were all kept simple, and again much of the Frontier's design was retained. That same just-the-basics approach was carried over to the vehicle's mechanicals, which relied on either a 2.4L four-cylinder engine (143hp), or a 3.3L V6 (shared with Frontier and, for a single year, the Pathfinder) that was good for 170hp. Four-wheel drive, a solid rear axle, and the choice between a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic transmission rounded out the details, with a limited-slip rear differential also available as an option.
Buyers flocked to the new SUV, with close to 90,000 examples finding new homes in its first year of production. Comparing the Nissan Xterra vs Jeep Wrangler off-road in the early model years, even though it featured a full-boxed ladder rail frame the Xterra wasn't quite at the same level as its more established rival, especially in hardcore rock crawling or mud-slinging situations. In daily driving, however, it was far more comfortable and significantly better in terms of gas mileage. These real-world considerations helped spike the Xterra's popularity early on.
Two years later, Nissan updated the Xterra's looks inside and out, and squeezed another 10 ponies out its V6 engine, while also adding the option of a factory supercharger that improved output to a healthy 210hp and 246 lb-ft of torque (with a slight decrease in twist for manual-equipped models).
Redesigned For More Brawn
In 2005 the previously-mentioned Nissan SUV shake-up saw the Pathfinder kicked upstairs to its new role as a family-friendly tow platform, which meant that the Xterra could inherit its hand-me-downs under the hood and not poach too many customers.
The Xterra remained in lock-step with the Frontier, with both the sport-utility and the pickup gaining access to a new, and larger platform that was also shared with the brand's full-size Titan pickup as well as its bigger SUVs. Styling remained similar, again in keeping with the Frontier's general vibe, and the interior continued to prize the basics amenities above luxury (with later models adding in leather and navigation).
The most important update was between the front fenders, where the Xterra featured a new 4.0L V6 that offered up 265hp, which was a meaningful improvement over even the supercharged option from the older generation. The four-cylinder engine was banished from the order sheet, but the manual transmission was still in play (eventually gaining six forward gears), the autobox had graduated to five speeds, and fuel economy for the bigger motor was superior to that of the original V6.
The revision also brought with it a pair of rugged trim levels. First was the 'Off-Road' trim, followed by the 'PRO-4X.' Each delivered a small suspension lift, under-vehicle armoring, knobby tires, Bilstein shocks, and an electronically-locking rear differential. The Xterra PRO-4X was the longest-lived, and more common of the two, lasting all the way until the truck was removed from the market after the 2015 model year, and it's the one to target for the most out-of-the-box all-terrain capability.
Why Not Go Xterra?
When looking at a potential Xterra trail rig, make sure to watch out for rust, especially on first-generation SUVs, as well as a specific type of radiator failure (known as the Strawberry Milkshake of Death) on automatic-equipped second-generation models. Large diameter tires, starting at around 35 inches, have also been known to cause front differential failures.
Properly kitted out, the Nissan Xterra—from either generation—is a fun off-road rig that won't cost you an arm and a leg. Reasonably reliable, cheap to buy, and with enough guts to get you through all but the most complex rock-crawling obstacles, it's a strong counterpoint to the Wrangler religion.
More From Driving Line
- Looking for a 4x4 SUV that's a little bigger? Check out all the reasons to step up to the 1996-2004 Nissan Pathfinder.