COAL: 2001 Nissan xTerra SE 4×4 – Off-Road Ready, Just Add Trails


When my partner James and I met, he was driving a 1998 Dodge Neon that he picked up from a neighbor.  Once we moved to San Diego, it seemed that everyone was getting swept up in the SUV craze.   We were no exception.  It wasn’t too long before James experienced purchasing his first new car, a 2001 Nissan xTerra SE.

James’ first couple of vehicles as a teenager had been trucks.  Growing up in rural New Mexico, he spent a lot of time exploring the backcountry camping and off-roading.  Within a couple of hours drive from San Diego, there are many places to explore with an off road vehicle.  While most people purchasing SUVs were never going to take them off a paved road, we had every intention of doing so.  That meant the SUV we bought had to have some true off-road chops.  No ‘cute-utes’ (what they called the Escapes and RAV4s at the turn of the century) for us.


James really liked the Nissan xTerra.   We saw them around everywhere.  The xTerra had received a lot of press coverage the previous year.  Motor Trend’s SUV of the Year for 2000.  North American Truck of the Year.  It had the serious off-road chops we were looking for.   We drove over to Mossy Nissan in the Kearny Mesa area, “just to look” we told each other.   “Well, lets just take it for a quick test drive.”  “We better make sure that it fits in the car port at the apartment.”  After a quick trip home to check that it actually fit, and a few hours doing the paperwork, we drove home in our brand new xTerra.


We sprung for the xTerra SE in Just Blue.  Pretty much everything that was optional on the lower trim (XE) was standard on the SE.  3.3L VG33E engine making 170 HP backed by a 4-speed automatic transmission and the optional towing package.  The interior was a gray cloth, had A/C and a 6-disc in-dash CD Player.  The rear seats sat a few inches higher for stadium style seating.  This is why all xTerras feature the kickup in the roof over the rear seats.  The 16” alloy wheels (new for 2001), tubular step rails, and a tubular roof rack rounded out the exterior features.  The tailgate of the xTerra also had a squarish push out.  This is where the xTerra First Aid kit clipped to from inside of the tailgate.  Our SE also had a very pointless flip up sunroof.  Almost all xTerra’s had the roof racks on them (they look positively naked without them, see for yourself), and over the driver’s compartment was a removable gear basket.  In order to use the sun roof, you had to remove the gear basket.  I think we used ours twice in the entire time we owned it.


[First day offroading.]

2 weeks.  14 days.  336 hours.  That is exactly how long it took to get the first battle wounds on the flanks of the xTerra.  The second weekend after purchase, we drove out to the Anza Borrego desert to go off roading on some trails.  The further off the beaten path, the less hospitable the trail becomes.  We had several “prairie pinstripes” down the length of both sides of the truck thanks to some brush on the narrow trail.  We ran into a few others on the trail who complimented us on taking the truck out while it still had temporary tags on it.


[Look ma, No plates!  Look at all that mud covering the tires!]

This excursion to the desert was memorable for another reason, getting stuck for the first (and only) time. We drove east from Anza Borrego to the Salton Sea.  As we were traveling down a wash parallel to the Salton Sea, I spot a small islet of land jutting out into the Salton Sea.  My inner photographer brain thinks, what a great photo to take with the xTerra sitting out there surrounded by all the water.  I tell James to head that way, and he asks if I was sure.  I said yes.  About 40 feet from coming off the trail on what looks like hard packed desert, the truck sinks to the frame in muck.  A couple of hours of digging, bracing, and rocking the truck we managed to get unstuck.


[This is what we dug ourselves out of.]

A few months later, we used the xTerra for the first of many towing excursions.  We hooked up a tow dolly and towed James’ Dodge Neon back to his neighbor in New Mexico.  The xTerra barely broke a sweat, it was rated at 5,000# towing capacity.  This was my first experience ever driving a vehicle while towing something, and the xTerra made it seem very easy.  About a year later, the xTerra would be pressed into towing duty again when my Tempo was rescued from Flagstaff.


Even though the xTerra performed well in completely stock form, we did upgrade the tires to get some better grip off the paved roads.  We went to a slightly larger set of B.F.Goodrich All Terrain T/As.  The size we selected meant that we had to trim a little bit of the plastic mud flap behind the front wheel.  Gas mileage around town did go down by about 1 mpg, but when you’re averaging 17-18 it wasn’t that much difference.  The new beefier tires also made the xTerra look a little more rough and tumble.  We removed the side step rails, as they kept getting bashed on rocks and parts of the trail.  We also decked out the interior with those nifty xTerra branded seat covers made out of neoprene.


[Typical group shot.  The lone xTerra among a bunch of Wranglers.  And this particular day, a RAV4.]

James and I joined up with the San Diego 4×4 Pride group.  The group leader would organize trail runs about once every other month, and we would happily tag along.  Almost every one of the other members had a Jeep Wrangler of some vintage, we were always the outcast with our xTerra.  But we were always able to keep up and never got stranded.  We took many trips to the desert and the mountains with them.


The xTerra also served as our primary long distance vehicle.  We took several trips around California to explore our new home state.  Many trips to Los Angeles, and a couple of trips to San Francisco.  Our longest trip was to Long Beach, Washington; which was on the coast and just north of Portland.  We also took the xTerra to Salt Lake City, Utah to pick up our next toy, a boat.


A friend of ours had taken us out on to Mission Bay and out on the ocean with his new boat.  We really enjoyed being out on the water, and James wanted to buy a boat.  We couldn’t afford a new boat, so James went searching for something used that fit in our budget.  He found an early ‘70s 28’ cabin cruiser on eBay, made a few calls to the dealer to inquire about it, and sealed the deal with the winning bid.  Friday afternoon hopped into the xTerra and headed north to Salt Lake City.  This was in January!  Only a few years living in San Diego spoiled us to the weather, we forget that everywhere else has weather.  Leaving San Diego it was mid 70s.  Driving through Provo, UT at 4am we saw 14 degrees.


[Towing the boat back from Salt Lake City.]

When the boat dealership opened up, it only took a couple of hours to complete the paperwork on the boat.  We hooked it up to the xTerra and started back home.  James had done his research on the weight of the boat, and with a typical trailer it was just under our maximum tow rating.  Since the boat had been sitting outside, in the snow, for who knows how long there was a massive accumulation of ice in the hull of the boat.  This definitely put us over the tow rating of the xTerra.  About 2 hours south of Salt Lake, one of the tires on the trailer blew out.  James wrestled the rig to the side of the road.  We pulled the flat tire and another that looked like it was about to go flat, and took them to a tire shop in the next town to get new tires mounted.  Back on the road and it was slow going back south.  You could tell the xTerra was strained, but was still chugging along.

We hit Las Vegas just after nightfall.  As we made our way south down I-15, we got closer to the Las Vegas Strip and traffic started to get thicker.  James was being as cautious as he could, but no amount of caution will keep someone from cutting you off.  This jackass entered the freeway and cut across three lanes of traffic, right in front of us.  James jumped on the brakes to avoid hitting the car, and that’s when it happened.  We both could feel the trailer start to push the back of the xTerra to the left, and the front end started to point to the right.  We were about to jack knife.  Before I was able to even panic, I saw out of the corner of my eye James whip his head to the right to check for traffic; clear.  He gunned the xTerra towards the off ramp that we were now pointed at.  There was a slam as the trailer jerked against the hitch and it straightened out.  We pulled safely off the freeway and to a stop, hearts pounding away.  After a few minutes of calming down (and changing underwear), we proceeded on our way back to San Diego.  Thankfully, no more incidents after that.


Once all the ice had melted, it still felt like the boat was just too heavy for the xTerra to handle.  We had enjoyed several years of off roading in the mountains and the desert, but now we wanted to enjoy a different type off roading; on the water.  After a little bit of deliberation, the decision was made that we needed something with a little more pulling power.  That new truck provided more than enough pulling power.  We listed the xTerra for sale on AutoTrader.  A couple of months after listing it, we watched as the new owner drove off into the sunset.