2009 Nissan Xterra S 4×4 Review

By Chris Haak


img_0266In its first generation, the Nissan Xterra continued the body-on-frame, Hardbody/Frontier pickup-based tradition that the original Nissan Pathfinder began from 1986 through 1995.  The Pathfinder then moved to a unibody architecture unrelated to the Frontier pickup and added comfort and convenience features, which created an opening below it in Nissan’s SUV lineup.  The 2000 Frontier-based, body on frame Xterra filled that gap.  Then in 2005, an all-new, larger, body on frame Pathfinder hit the market, and was again based on the Frontier pickup.  Now in its second generation, the current Xterra also hit the market for the 2005 model year.

The Xterra is marketed as a back-to-basics, off-road-capable SUV.  It’s certainly a traditional SUV, with a high ground clearance, aggressive, chunky styling, large tires, and a ladder frame.  The original 2000 Xterra was marketed under the tagline, “Everything you need, nothing you don’t,” and its simple interior seems to echo that sentiment nine model years later.  The problem is, the rest of the market has moved on to nicer interiors and additional luxury features in the meantime.

img_0265While the exterior of the Xterra isn’t as dramatically asymmetrical as the Nissan Cube is, the rear liftgate is certainly an odd feature, as it has a bulge on the left side of its exterior to accommodate the standard first-aid kit.  The rear window then drops lower on its right side than on its left as it goes around the first-aid kit bulge.  Another styling oddity is that the theater-style seating for the rear seat necessitates a raised roof; unlike with the Pathfinder’s styling, the top of the Xterra’s front and rear doors are not aligned; the bottom of the back doors’ windows also kicks upward in a sort of strange move toward the rear window.  The stepped-up roof would look completely ridiculous if it didn’t have the gigantic roof rack, including a latching gear basket above the front passenger space.  The fender flare were also a bit too much, as they protruded nearly three inches from the rest of the body.

I do like the new-for-2009 grille treatment, and the unpainted gray plastic doesn’t look bad with the dark gray paint (called “night armor” by the marketing folks at Nissan).  The functional features on the Xterra’s exterior like the chunky roof rack and integrated step on the side of the rear bumper would probably make this vehicle more useful off-road, or at least for dirty, outdoor sports.  For example, the cargo basket at the front of the roof could hold muddy boots or clothing.

img_0276When I first saw the MSRP of this Xterra, I was pleasantly surprised by how low the MSRP was.  $28,220 including destination seemed to be a pretty reasonable price for a V6-powered, off-road-capable SUV, especially knowing that the 2009 Pathfinder SE 4×4 that I tested in October 2008 had a $39,310 MSRP.  (That Pathfinder, while not the top-of-the-line LE model, had nearly every option available except for navigation and the optional V8 engine).  The XTerra’s interior, however, it was easy to see where Nissan trimmed cost.  The more expensive Pathfinder already has too much hard plastic scattered throughout the interior.  The XTerra takes that phenomenon to new levels; the Pathfinder’s silver-rimmed gauges are black in the XTerra.  The Pathfinder’s woven headliner is replaced by rough, fuzzy cardboard in the Xterra.  The Pathfinder’s leather seating surfaces are cloth in the XTerra.

Other ways that Nissan trimmed content from the Pathfinder to hit the Xterra’s price point include unpainted bumpers, a shorter body that does not include the Pathfinder’s third-row seat, a Rockford Fosgate stereo instead of a Bose one, and a rear solid axle instead of the Pathfinder’s independent suspension.  The Pathfinder SE may be $11,000 more expensive, but it felt worth it to me.  When normalizing equipment levels using TrueDelta.com’s pricing tool, the Xterra is about $900 cheaper.  My test vehicle, an Xterra S, had a $27,605 base price including destination, and only had the $500 X Gear Package (fog lights, roof rack crossbars, first aid kit, cargo net, gear basket) and the $115 floor mats.  The Technology Package, normally a $1,300 add-on, was thrown in for free and includes the eight-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system, Bluetooth, steering wheel audio controls, and XM Satellite Radio.  Nissan currently has a $3,000 rebate on the Pathfinder and a $2,000 rebate on the Xterra (both of which are factored into the TrueDelta pricing comparison above), without which the price differential would be less than $100 – meaning that you get $11,000 worth of additional features for your $11,000.

img_0262The Xterra’s 4.0 liter , 261-horsepower V6 pulled strongly and consistently throughout its operating range.  It was refreshing to drive a vehicle without a CVT after several press vehicles in a row having them.  Since Nissan doesn’t install CVTs in their trucks, the Xterra has a five-speed automatic that seemed to be reasonably intelligent, although it lacked the Pathfinder’s manual-shift feature in another cost-cutting move.  I have two critiques of the engine – it is way too thirsty for its power and the size and weight of the vehicle, and it is somewhat noisy and harsh at higher engine speeds.  The EPA rates the Xterra at 15 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway; these figures aren’t far from a V8-powered Chevrolet Suburban (14/20), but are actually better than the Xterra’s primary competitor, the Jeep Wrangler by one mpg in each test (15/19).  I couldn’t tell my own fuel economy (it didn’t have the optional trip computer), but based on the trip odometer, fuel gauge readout, and my previous experience in owning a 2005 Pathfinder for two years, its economy was in the 17 mpg range.  The Xterra has a far more powerful engine than the Wrangler does, and also a more refined interior, but the Wrangler’s powertrain is pure old tech, with a four-speed automatic and 210-horsepower 3.8 liter overhead-valve V6.  By the way, the Wrangler is also $2,710 more expensive than the Xterra.  And yet, the Wrangler is an off-roading legend, while the Xterra is still just an up-and-coming challenger to that title.

img_0267The short wheelbase of the Xterra shows up as a handicap in both a somewhat bouncy, choppy ride on anything other than a smooth surface, as well as less high-speed stability than I’d like to see in what is still a fairly large vehicle.  I didn’t have the opportunity to take the Xterra off road into its natural environment, but the short overhangs, short wheelbase, large tires, and high ground clearance would all prove assets when the terrain got rough.  My lower-end test vehicle was equipped with an electronic four wheel drive selector and had a low range on the transfer case, but did not come with hill descent control as is available in the Xterra and Pathfinder with the Off Road package.

If you like the looks of the Xterra (personally, I think it’s a little overdone) and don’t want frills such as leather seats, navigation, a power moonroof, and nicer interior trim, it’s a reasonable bargain for a tough, capable truck.  If you do not plan to take your vehicle off-roading and plan to primarily use the XTerra to commute or trek kids to practice and school, you’d be better off with a more efficient and more comfortable crossover such as a Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox, or even a Mitsubishi Outlander.  The Xterra’s design and engineering have too many compromises in favor of off-road prowess for me to recommend it as a daily driver for most folks, and particularly those with families, since a Honda Accord has about the same amount of passenger space (with a smaller cargo area, but 900 pounds less curb weight).  Buying an Xterra as a family vehicle is like buying a Porsche 911 Turbo to drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or buying a pair of $5,000 John Lobb golf shoes to go mini golfing.  It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.  That being said, it’d  be a lot of fun to take off road to a campsite off the beaten path every few weekends by a young guy and his buddies.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. Solid rear axle – check
    No stupid shiny rings around the gauges – check
    No stupid moonroof to let in the blazing Arizona sun – check
    No burning hot leather seats – check

    Sounds better than the Pathfinder in every single way.

    I supose there is zero chance of getting one with a stick shift?

  2. Ha ha! Actually the Pathfinder’s rings around the gauges aren’t shiny, just matte silver. The only shiny things in the XTerra’s interior are the door handles, the Nissan logo on the steering wheel, and a small ring around two of the HVAC knobs.

    I’ve never seen one with the stickshift, but they do make them. It’s a six-speed manual and also gets better fuel economy than the five-speed automatic to boot.

  3. Wait wait, so this thing is still on a ladder frame correct? Or did I miss something in the description? And somewhere, somehow, this thing gained almost 600 more pounds than its predecessor and two inches of wheelbase from the new platform. Anyways, this is a mid-sized truck then best compared to a 4Runner/FJ or a Liberty/Wrangler it seems then. Assuming one will use it as a truck.

    But many people don’t and they buy these types of things regardless. At least it’s got the looks that people want and the fact that it’s in its second generation only reinforces that notion. And crossovers don’t really make much sense to me either as they generally are a lot heftier and ponderous than their wagon counterparts, not to mention far more yawn inducing. I’m tempted to say that CUV in general are as far as an auto enthusiast can strive for, which is why I generally find myself shaking my head in disgust whenever reading up on articles proclaiming “so and so” to have genuine sporting aspirations. This one at least this one will perform as well as it looks in the camping department.

    Oh and I’m pretty sure this car is also pitched at gen X. Time to go boarding yo! Too bad the Element seems to be doing a better job at that AND finding an audience in the older crowd as well. And I don’t think the “t” in Xterra should be capitalized. We’re not that XTreme just yet.

  4. Anon: yep, it’s on a ladder frame. I didn’t have the weight of the first-generation XTerra handy, but I know from my pre-purchase research when we bought our then-new 2005 Pathfinder that it gained 500# over the 2004 model with the move back to a ladder frame and adding the size necessary to accommodate the third-row seat.

    Good point about the 4Runner comparison, although in terms of pricing and interior niceties, the 4Runner is much closer to the Pathfinder.

    I can’t believe that I have to go in and change all the ‘t’s in XTerra to lowercase. 🙂

  5. I was just checking the weight of the two generations of the Xterra (both 2×4, previous with a 4 cylinder, current with 6) and it gained about 600 or so pounds. Not sure what the policy is on for linking to external sites but lets just say that there was definitely a substantial weight gain. But for what? With that weight gain comes with the standard V6 the current generation is equipped with, no doubt contributing to the increase.

    And I think I was wrong to include the 4Runner upon closer inspection as it seems that the FJ is more in line with direct comparison in terms of off road prowess and general prices. Just random musings on my part really.

  6. I don’t mind links to external sites, especially when they’re pertinent to the discussion.

    Good point about the FJ. I briefly forgot that Toyota was still selling those, but it would have been a good comparison as well. Checking TrueDelta, the base FJ is about $3,500 more than the Xterra S. Dimensionally, they’re pretty similar (FJ is a little longer and shorter, with less 2nd row legroom but more 2nd row hip room).

    By the way, changing all the XTerra references to Xterra only took about a minute. 🙂

  7. I would have liked to read about the dependability of the
    xterra in your article.However, it was very informative.

  8. Geno, we don’t spend enough time with the vehicles in order to comment on their reliability. However, I recommend TrueDelta.com as a source for free, scientifically-based vehicle reliability research. All you have to do is participate in their survey, which takes generally seconds (and no more than minutes) each month.

    That being said, my family owned a Pathfinder for over two years that we bought new in 2005, and it never had a single spot of trouble.

  9. Whenever an actual truck is tested in auto rags, I am amused by the commentary about how stupid trucks are, since most of the time they are not hauling loads or driving off road. Yet at the same time, few 911 owners take their cars to the track. There seems to be a double standard, so I appreciate your even-handed review of the Xterra. I wonder if the current CUV craze will be a passing fad, since those vehicles seem to be both poor cars and trucks. I yearn for the return of real cars and real trucks, purchased by people who know and understand their strengths and limitations.

  10. I traded in leather heated seats and climatronic for an Xterra S 4×4 and couldn’t be happier. You’re really complaining about the lack of silver (plastic) bezels and nicer headliner? You mention CVT and an Accord in a review of an Xterra? Are you high?

    Maybe you should compare the Xterra to a Jeep, H3, FJ, or LR3 instead of an Accord, Pathfinder, 4Runner, and Suburban. You’ll find the X has a good balance of on/off road manners, cargo-hauling ability, towing ability, and gas mileage (when compared to the others in the segment).

    The solid rear axle isn’t a deficit, any real off-road capable vehicle isn’t going to have full-independent suspension.

    “Nissan doesn’t use CVT in their trucks”–uhhh, does anybody? You obviously don’t review trucks/off-road vehicles much.

    Maybe you should have reviewed the Murano or Rogue.

  11. @Naps,

    What’s your obsession with the CVT? I’ve probably driven ten times more different vehicles than you will ever have driven in your life. I mentioned the CVT only because it was refreshing to drive something with a conventional automatic after having driven several vehicles with CVTs prior to the Xterra. I was saying that was a good thing.

    I didn’t take the Xterra off road, which I said in the article. I am also well aware of the off road benefits of a solid axle, and I’ve driven in the past two years all of the top four full-size pickups (Ram, Sierra/Silverado, F-150, and Tundra), a Suburban, Durango, Pathfinder, Xterra.

    Maybe you should be happy with your Xterra and not be so defensive when someone with obviously different priorities has critiques of the vehicle. It’s fine if you want to take it off road (and by the way, it seems you missed the discussion of the Wrangler in the above review). The point is, though, people who use it for anything other than hard core off road purposes are driving something with a cheap interior, poor fuel economy, poor handling, and minimal interior space.

    I always think it’s funny when people get so worked up when someone says something negative about a vehicle they own. Honestly, I could care less what people say about my car (2008 Cadillac CTS). I’ll freely admit its flaws (electrical gremlins, weighs too much, back seat too small, center console too wide, questionable fuel economy for its size). But it also looks great to me (some criticize its looks, and that’s fine) and was $20,000 cheaper than a loaded 335i.

  12. Wow, good for you that you think you’ve driven more vehicles than me. I’ve probably flown more aircraft than you. What’s your point? With your self-proclaimed huge automotive knowledge, maybe you should have compared the Xterra to something besides an Accord, Pathfinder, and Excursion.

    It’s built on a Titan/Frontier frame, tall, with a stroked VQ motor, of course its going to have poorer fuel economy than the unibody, roadgoing SUVs you recommended. The vehicle was never built for on-road manners, so why fault it for it? I actually think it rides nicer (slightly underdamped) than my wife’s 2008 Passat, but doesn’t handle as well–but it’s a freaking SUV with 9″ of ground clearance, so I expect that.

    I wouldn’t write a review of an M3 and complain about the harsh ride, poor fuel economy, and lack of rear leg room and on top of it all–not put it in its natural environment (i.e. take the Xterra off road next time).

    You say the rest of market has moved on to nicer interiors and luxury features–again, what vehicle are you comparing it to? A $35k H3 or $40k LR3? The vehicle you tested is the second-lowest trim level in a 4-vehicle line up!

    Good job chastising a vehicle about features the target audience doesn’t care about–and that the manufacturer even acknowledges.

    Driving a million vehicles doesn’t necessarily make you a better, more-objective writer, as you’ve proven.

  13. @Naps, you’re absolutely right that you’ve flown more planes than my zero. And yet I’m also not on an aviation website and telling you that you don’t know what you’re talking about and that you must be high.

    I gave the Xterra proper credit for being capable off road and mentioned its primary competitor – the Wrangler – several times. The point of the review was that if you don’t plan on using that off road capability, you’re leaving a lot of interior space, fuel economy, refinement, and on-road handling on the table.

    The Pathfinder has a substandard interior for its price, and the Xterra takes the Pathfinder and de-contents it. The interior was really cheap. The point in comparing with the Accord wasn’t obviously that they’d be cross-shopped, but that most people would assume that something as big on the outside and as gas guzzling as the Xterra would have a spacious interior, and the fact is, a midsize sedan beats it. And it’s considerably smaller than a Suburban, yet is very close to the V8-powered Suburban in fuel economy.

    I’m glad you like your Xterra. I genuinely am. But that doesn’t mean I wrote a non-objective review of the vehicle. It means that you have different priorities in your vehicle than I do. If you disagree with my conclusions or methodology, then read another review where you agree with the author rather than attacking me. Did you notice the comment immediately before yours about how it was an “even handed review?” So one of you must be wrong.

    By the way, I would write a review about an M3 and complain about the harsh ride or poor fuel economy. It’s unusual for me to find a car’s ride too harsh, but my Challenger SRT8 review and my Jaguar XF Supercharged review come to mind as examples of high-performance cars that showed poor fuel economy and that I noted the problem.

    You are paying too much attention to offhand side comments about the Accord and Suburban. They were only mentioned in passing as in, “hey, if you want a big interior, a midsize sedan like the Accord tops it,” or “the fuel economy is pretty poor relative to its interior space.” I wasn’t comparing it with those cars as if they’d be cross shopped. Having driven upwards of 50 different cars in the past year, from $13,000 to $500,000, I can say honestly that the Xterra’s interior was closer to what you get in a $13,000 Scion than to what most other vehicles in its price class offer (same headliner material, same hard plastic dash, same seat fabric. If the off road capability is what you need and want, that’s fine – as I said in the review. To me, it’s not worth the tradeoff.

  14. There is no vehicle in the world better than a Nissan Xterra and that includes every single category of vehicle produced in the world today.

  15. Well said, Doubter. I stand corrected.

  16. Nissan cars are always of good quality. This model is very stylish in look. It is a very heavy car. The interiors are really nice,very comfortable. The automatic gears are really powerful. Riding quality is just average.

  17. I own a 2006 Nissan Xterra S. I wouldn’t go as far to say that the interior is cheap, but I would say it’s very functional for the kind of vehicle it’s in. The seats are made of water resistant fabric, which is fuctional for off-road use, and the “cheap plastic interior” is very easy to clean after a day of offroading, or just hauling my muddy mountain bike around after a great ride. You can’t say that about too many SUV’s today, with carpeted cargo spaces, and interiors suited more towards style and luxury than functional ability in an off road environment which trucks and SUV’s are supposed to be suited for. As for the comment on high speed engine noise, I’ve never heard it, and I think it rides great, even at 70 mph. And unless someone has taken the roof rack off their Xterra, a moon roof is always out of the question. There were comments I did agree with. The fuel mileage could be better, it’s not horrible…but could be improved. All in all, I think it’s one of the best vehicles I have ever owned, and fits my usage of a vehicle perfectly. I did enjoy reading your review and look forward to reading more.

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