Classic CARmentary Finale: 2000 Nissan Xterra SE 4X4

Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels, a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.

Now that my wife no longer had any of her possessions at her parents’ house, it was my turn.  This journey would be a little more challenging since the rest of my stuff was in South Florida, a long haul from Central Virginia.  I arranged for the Xterra, which was one of the hot tickets for 2000, and fortunately that’s what was waiting for me when I showed up at my friend’s house in Fairfax where it was dropped off.

We decided to make a nice trip out of it, stopping off in Atlanta to visit some friends and relatives for a few days.  Unfortunately, “Xterra” and “nice trip” don’t really go well together.  It’s loud with a harsh ride and terrible gas mileage.  The 15.9-gallon gas tank meant stopping for fill-ups every 250 miles, quite annoying on a 2000-mile round trip.  However, we were quite happy that we didn’t have to pay for a rental car we couldn’t afford anyway, so there wasn’t much complaining.  

In Florida, I met up with my buddy Mitch.  Mitch is a big two- and three-wheel enthusiast, and someone had created a nice dirt oval track out in an abandoned field with a banked turn and several moderately-high bumps to catch some air.  We decided to take the Xterra out on the track to test its off-road chops.  It performed admirably.

The following review was written on August 17, 2000.

Let’s face it – retro is in. Everywhere you look, from the New Beetle to the upcoming Thunderbird, there are styling touches from the 30’s through the 60’s. But out there in SUV territory, things move a little faster than they do in cardom. It’s pretty safe to say that the SUV craze truly took hold when the Ford Explorer was introduced in early 1990. Since then, manufacturers have gone to great lengths to improve their ride, handling, and luxury content.

But these improvements came with a price – a steep one. Today, it’s hard to drive away in a decently equipped, mid-size SUV for less than $30,000, and most go for more than that. Obviously, a void was quickly created for those financially-challenged would-be buyers who desire something a little more substantial than a four-cylinder Chevy Tracker.

Nissan fell into this trap. The Pathfinder was originally just a fully enclosed version of Nissan’s previous-generation pickup. But when the current generation was introduced for 1996, Nissan ditched the body-on-frame design for the lighter, more car-like unit-body construction. They also increased the size, luxury content, and price. To fill in the void, Nissan went retro and re-introduced an updated version of the original Pathfinder! But where the old Pathfinder could be equipped quite nicely and was aimed at anyone who would buy it, the Xterra is aimed squarely at the active under-30 crowd. And while it’s not unusual to see soccer moms and junior executives driving around in a $30k+ Isuzu Rodeo LSE, Mitsubishi Montero Sport Limited, or a Toyota 4Runner Limited – the other Japanese compact pickup-based SUVs – few of these people would likely give an Xterra a second glance.

It’s a good, “old-fashioned” SUV where comfort and convenience take a back seat to style, ruggedness and utility. Starting with the front half of the Nissan Frontier pickup, Nissan grafted on a slightly raised rear and kept the option list to a minimum. While there is a base, four cylinder, two-wheel drive version that lists for a low $17,599, the version most buyers are likely to find is the top-of-the-line SE V6 4X4, which lists for a slightly higher $24,799. But since there are virtually no options, this is quite close to the out-the-door price.

Besides the rear quarters, other features that make the Xterra visually distinctive are the tubular roof rack with removable basket, tubular side rails, and a unique swelling in the rear door where the first-aid kit is found. Since I’m not a fan of rear-mounted spare tires, it was nice to see that Nissan decided to mount it underneath. Fifteen-inch alloy wheels on fat P265/70R15 tires complete the package. Inside is pure Frontier pickup truck, with basic cloth front seats, no-frills dash, and the under-dash “umbrella handle” parking brake. The lever for the five-speed manual transmission is 16-inches tall, and fifth gear can require a fully outstretched arm for some (a four-speed automatic is optional). Fortunately, cup holders abound, and there’s a center console storage bin that can hold several CDs. The raised rear roofline allows for a slightly higher rear seat with great headroom, although leg room is a little tight. The rear seat can be folded flat only when the cushions are removed, another cost saving measure.

Although you won’t find leather, power seats, a navigation system, or a trip computer, Nissan wisely left in those amenities people have come to expect. Standard or optional on all models are antilock brakes; tilt steering wheel; power windows, locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; variable intermittent wipers; cruise control; and a CD player. The option list does include such lifestyle items as an Anklebiter bike carrier, water resistant seat covers, ski/snowboard carriers, and hitch-mounted bike rack.

As expected, the four-wheel drive system is the no-frills, part-time type, albeit with auto-locking hubs and shift-on-the-fly capability. Befitting its rugged mentality, the Xterra shines off road. The fat tires and high ground clearance allow the Xterra to virtually fly over rough terrain with a relatively smooth ride. When things really get bumpy, there is a low-range setting as well. The 170-horsepower, 3.3 liter V6 is well-suited to the Xterra not for its horsepower, but for its generous 200 lb/ft of torque at a low 2800 RPMs. It should be enough to get most people out of the tightest jams. With the manual, the Xterra can tow a 3,500 pound trailer, which increases to 5,000 pounds with the automatic.

The price for this great off-road handling is a stiff, uncomfortable on-road ride. And the engine that shines so brightly off-road feels loud, course and lethargic around town as well as on the open road. Furthermore, the Xterra gets some of the worst gas mileage in its class – 16 city/18 highway. The automatic actually improves highway mileage by a gallon. Other complaints include two switches that are completely blocked by the steering wheel, and a sunroof that is blocked by the roof-rack-mounted basket.

But this is what SUVs were like a decade ago, before they became fat, soft, and expensive. And Nissan has defiantly touched a nerve because not only has the Xterra won numerous awards, including our own Urban Picks, Nissan also sells every one it can build. Like I said, retro is IN.

For more information contact 1-800-NISSAN-3


Base Price: $24,799
Tested Price: $25,398
Engine: 170-horsepower, 3.3 liter V6
Transmission: Five-speed manual
EPA Mileage: 16 city/18 highway

This was the very last vehicle I reviewed.  Not long after, I quit my fact-checking position at the magazine because I just didn’t have the time for it.  However, I never lost my interest in all things automotive. 

It has been wonderful sharing these reviews again, especially knowing far more people read them this time then when they were originally posted at, AAOW’s website.  Just for fun, I recently entered that URL into my browser to see if anyone ever picked up the domain.  Let’s just say “auto” doesn’t stand for automobile, and magazine has a completely different definition in this context.