- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2005

Though the genetic makeup of their products keeps changing, automobile and truck manufacturers never have lacked growth hormones.

Once a new model runs its course and becomes a candidate for mutation, one thing is almost inevitable: It will get bigger.

A prime example is the Nissan Pathfinder and its outdoorsy sibling, the monthly payments of many admirers.

At the start, it was a midsize, truck-based SUV with impressive off-road credentials and a reputation for durability and reliability that made it a favorite in the used-vehicle market.

But in keeping with established American tradition, it moved relentlessly upscale, becoming ever pricier and luxurious, to the point where the powers at Nissan decided they needed something new for the active-lifestyle folks who get mud on their boots and gunk inside their trucks.

Thus was born the XTerra. It was based on the Pathfinder, but was shorter for better maneuverability, and it came with a gritty, practical persona, aimed at the dirt and boulder set who spend their recreation time outdoors. Among other things, it featured stash space on the roof for wet clothing and cloth upholstery that could be protected with waterproof covers.

In the 2005 model year, the Pathfinder transition was completed. It became a seven-passenger giant, based on the even-bigger Nissan Armada. While it still had plenty of off-road capability, its persona was more that of a family vacation hauler.

Fortunately for its fans, the XTerra did not follow suit. Though marginally larger than the original, the new-generation XTerra retains manageable dimensions and, Nissan hopes, the loyalty of its cadre of outdoors men and women.

For 2006, there are only modest changes, including the addition of an entry-level X model, as well as a couple of new colors.

In the panoply of truck-based SUVs, there are only a few vehicles that compete directly with the XTerra. The Jeep Liberty is one, and perhaps the Suzuki Grand Vitara. But that’s about it. The Jeep Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited are smaller and aimed mainly at the wilderness trekkers.

Other SUVs in the XTerra’s size class are car-based, like Nissan’s own Murano, and not as suited to off-road adventures. As before, the new XTerra has a strong, rugged feel, trucklike with all that implies, including the bouncy ride, 2-ton weight and poor fuel economy.

But for the purpose for which it was intended, the XTerra acquits itself well.

The tested SE model, with a base price of $27,800, can be ordered with two-wheel drive for customers who don’t live in the snow belt, or with a part-time four-wheel-drive system and low range for snow country and off-road duty.

A part-time four-wheel-drive system is less sophisticated than some of the new combination all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive setups. But it is the best choice for traversing off the highway.

The upholstery on the four-wheel-drive test vehicle was a sturdy and comfortable cloth, and the cargo area out back was equipped with a variety of nets and adjustable tie-downs to secure all the stuff.

Passenger volume is 100 cubic feet, about what you’d find in a midsize car.

At an inch shy of 15 feet long, the XTerra is 9 inches shorter than its seven-passenger fraternal twin, the Pathfinder. But despite an increase in interior space and a longer wheelbase — the distance between the front and rear axles — the second-generation XTerra is only an inch longer than the original.

With a new 265-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6 engine linked to a five-speed automatic transmission, the XTerra has more than enough juice for highway traveling and byway slogging. On the road, it cruises quietly and tracks true.

But don’t figure on much in the way of fuel economy. The XTerra is a heavy brute, tipping the scales at 4,167 pounds.

As a result, the EPA fuel consumption rating is just 16 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway.

You’re likely to get something close to the city figure.

The tested 4X4 SE, which is the top of the line, had a starting price of $27,930.

It came with a load of standard equipment, including antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, stability control, tire-pressure monitoring, air conditioning, an audio system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer and MP3 capability, remote locking, 17-inch alloy wheels and a full-size spare wheel and tire.

Options included side-curtain air bags, XM satellite radio and a towing package, which brought the sticker price to $29,610.

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