- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

Which was the first Japanese company with a major presence in the United States? Who had the first sports car to gain widespread approval? Who built the first U.S. plant (hint, it built trucks and still does)? Who was the first to lose touch with the marketplace?

The answer is of course Nissan, and should be a case study in how volatile and fickle the consumer market is. As impregnable as Toyota and Honda are today, remember when GM had well over twice the market share they have today, and had the anti-trust do-gooders circling around like renegades.

Now with a dose of bitter medicine in the form of cost controls, focused management, and some risk-taking choices, suddenly they are on the upswing. The Xterra is a runaway hit, the Frontier pickup is selling well, the Altima is a consensus car of the year choice, their Infiniti Indy car teams are winning, and if the new 350Z has not been refined to death, "Happy days are here again."

SUVs come in a variety of shapes, sizes and capabilities. Many of them are built with a definite bias toward being run on roads, rather than off-road use. But off-road use was how this category of vehicles started life and remains a major reason for purchasing these vehicles for many buyers.

Xterras are built up on ladder frames to provide a stout platform, have short front and rear overhangs so that they can traverse rapidly changing grades, lots of wheel travel to soak up major disturbances in the terrain, and high ground clearance to skim over obstacles. They also have to have real high and low range four-wheel drive to be considered a serious off-road vehicles.

Finding a well-equipped off-road capable vehicle with the above qualities for under $30,000 is difficult, but the Nissan Xterra XE S/C offers a real sweetheart of a deal. The Xterra XE S/C meets all of the standard requirements for a true off-road vehicle and provides a decent level of standard equipment for a truly thrifty base price of $25,339.

For not much money you get a real 4x4, skid-plates under the engine and fuel tank, power steering, power windows, power locks, roomy seating for five, air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers, additional 12v outlets front and rear, cargo hooks on the floor and ceiling in the rear, a nifty first-aid kit, and a unique roof-mounted cargo carrier.

Plus, you get the Xterra's rugged styling, a hip geo-tech look. And we failed to mention the really killer piece of hardware on the Xterra XE S/C, the 210-hp supercharged engine. The supercharger has transformed the Xterra from being a somewhat ordinary 4x4 to a real decent performer. What makes this thing so good is the torque went from 200 lb./ft. in the base 3.3 L V6 to 246 lb./ft. in the supercharged version.

This is the oomph you need to pull through muck, tow a couple of Jet Skis, and leave those dainty sedans guessing at stoplights. (With the automatic transmission you can tow 5,000 lbs., 3,500 with the manual transmission.) The only potential drawback to the supercharged engine is that it's a bit thirsty; EPA estimated mileage is 15 mpg city, 18 highway.

The Xterra feels very strong with the five-speed manual and supercharged engine. It feels a bit coarse at the upper end of its rev range but the supercharger provides the torque low in the rev range. The supercharger whine can be heard, but it doesn't sing as loudly as some supercharged engines.

The manual transmission has a tall shifter with long throws, a typical truck configuration. It feels good, with a light clutch and positive engagement from gear to gear. This is an easy manual transmission to use and is recommended without hesitation, unless you need to tow more than 3,500 lbs.

Steering is typical 4x4, a little loose on center, but very good at isolating the shocks and jolts the tires get when going off-road. The Xterra has a remarkably tight turning radius at just over 35 feet.

Braking on the Xterra XE S/C is accomplished with front discs and rear drums. Pedal feel is good and stopping distances are good. Four-wheel ABS is standard on the Xterra XE S/C.

Power from the wonderful supercharged engine is distributed to the axles through a two-speed transfer case that provides for a two-wheel-high range and four-wheel low and high ranges. The live rear axle has a limited slip differential. The front suspension is independent. The height of the sidewalls on the 265/70 R 16" tires is extraordinary in this day and age. The sidewalls look taller than the wheel.

Round headlights with a thick surrounding frame set the tone of the vehicle and a new fascia with the Nissan flying "V" grille and round fog lights complete the rugged face of the Xterra. A raised "power bulge" hood center section, the signature Xterra front fenders with large flares, and new 17-inch wheels with off-road tires complete the look of supercharged SE Xterras, while 16-inch wheels with beefy 265/70R16 tires are available on XE and SE Xterras.

The short Xterra overhangs are functional, as is the two-tiered roofline. The roof over the front seats has a useful cargo bin with tie downs. The elevated portion of the roof encompasses the space over the rear seats and cargo area. It has a roof rack. The signature of the Xterra, however, is the embossed space on the cargo door for the first-aid kit. The spare tire is tucked below the rear bumper and does not interfere with ground clearance.

At first glance you may be fooled into thinking this is a two-door truck. The rear door handles are arranged vertically, high up on the C-pillar and the doors are cut into the rear fenders. Getting into the rear seats is a snap once you locate the door handle. Getting into the front seats is a bit different. Like some small pickups, the front seats are close to the floor of the truck, almost as low as some sports cars. This does help give the rear seats a better view, but it can be awkward to climb up and then lower yourself that far into the seat with your legs stretched out instead of down.

The odd group of unofficial testers liked the no-nonsense interior and most thought the base audio system was very good. When they discovered the price they were impressed. Nissan offers the Xterra in a variety of model ranges from a base four-cylinder, manual transmission 4x2 XE model to a top of the line SE supercharged V-6, automatic transmission 4x4 model. The price range is $18,539 for a stripper XE to just under $30,000 for a fully loaded SE S/C. That covers a lot of territory in an SUV that's a truly good value.

Xterra was originally designed at Nissan Design America, Inc. in La Jolla, Calif., with all 2002 refinements designed and engineered at Nissan Technical Center-North America in Farmington Hills, Mich.

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