- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

There’s something to be admired about sticking to your roots.

In the automotive world, vehicles get changed about as often as an infant’s diaper. Usually they grow up, just like little kids. Two examples: the Honda Fit and Scion xB, both of which started out as nimble little economy machines, then got bigger as soon as the new generation came to pass.

The original Toyota Land Cruiser was a small, off-road capable vehicle about the size of a Jeep Wrangler. Now it’s a big, seven-passenger SUV, though still formidable in off-road situations.

Jeep is one make that has stuck to its original concept with the Wrangler, which is a direct descendant of the military vehicles of World War II that were built by Willys-Overland and Ford.

One modern vehicle that also is hanging in there is the 2009 Nissan Xterra, the subject here.

For many years, its garage mate, the Nissan Pathfinder, was the vehicle of choice, new and used, for many outdoors oriented buyers. It offered comfort, power and decent highway performance to go with its formidable off-road prowess.

It had a few competitors, including the Jeep Cherokee and Liberty, the Toyota 4Runner and even the Chevrolet Blazer.

But the inevitable happened. In 2005, the Pathfinder morphed into a seven-passenger SUV, based on the full-size Nissan Armada. The 4Runner also grew, the Cherokee exited and the Blazer was replaced by the bigger Chevrolet Trail Blazer.

Nissan didn’t want to give up that batch of mostly younger people who had remained loyal to the Pathfinder but were not likely to gravitate toward the bigger version. So the Xterra was born.

The orientation was all outdoors. Trimmer than the original Pathfinder and a full nine inches shorter than the new seven-passenger version, the Xterra featured a roof rack with a stow space for wet stuff and tough cloth upholstery that could be covered with optional waterproof seat covers.

Now comes another Xterra generation, and guess what? Though it looks somewhat different, it has exactly the same dimensions as before.

There’s 100 cubic feet of passenger space and a cargo area of 35 cubic feet that expands to 66 cubic feet with the back seats folded. Five passengers can be carried comfortably.

As before, the Xterra is available in rear-wheel drive for desert and other dry climates, as well as a part-time four-wheel drive system. Unlike all-wheel drive systems, used mainly in crossover vehicles, the part-time system does not have a center differential, so the four-wheel drive can only be used where conditions allow the wheels to slip.

However, in upgrading the Xterra along the way, the Nissan folks made a bow to the softer side.

At the top of the lineup are two models, identically priced but oriented differently. One is the Off Road, which is equipped as its name announces. It has skid plates underneath, 16-inch aluminum wheels with fat all-terrain tires, gas-filled shock absorbers, hill descent control and a locking rear differential. The upholstery is a sturdy cloth.

Though still relatively capable in the boondocks, the SE model does not have the off-road equipment. But it has an extensive list of standard items, including stability and traction control, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, leather upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, air conditioning, 17-inch alloy wheels, side step rails, eight-way power front seats, cruise control, auto-dimming inside mirror and illuminated vanity mirrors.

The SE has a base price of $30,120, the same as the Off Road model. With a few options, the test Xterra topped out at $30,970.

Seeking to grab some extra customers, both the SE and the Off Road come standard with a $1,450 technology package that started out as an option. It consists of a Rockford-Fosgate audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer, eight speakers and a subwoofer, steering-wheel audio controls, Bluetooth wireless communications, XM satellite radio and an auxiliary jack for iPods and other MP3 players.

As before, the Xterra SE combines its SUV personality with decent handling and an acceptable ride on smooth pavement.

But that same truck-based SUV design amounts to a substantial drawback in this era of high fuel prices. The Xterra’s four-liter V6 engine delivers 261 horsepower through a five-speed automatic transmission.

That makes for strong performance both on and off the highway. But the Xterra also weighs 202 pounds more than two tons, which shows up in its city/highway fuel consumption rating of 14/20 miles per gallon, numbers that are matched by some full-sized V8 pickups.

Still, if you’re the sort of dual-personality motorist who needs the brawn of a vehicle with tidy dimensions that can handle wilderness chores as well as comfortable cruising on the interstates, there are only a few choices. Besides the Xterra, they include the Jeep Liberty, Land Rover LR2 and the Suzuki Grand Vitara.

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