Thursday, February 02, 2006

From the Archives: Long term test 2003 Xterra

Odd. Unusual. Different. Like a little Land Rover. These are some of the descriptions I heard people used when Nissan introduced its Xterra model in late 1999. Perhaps because my viewpoint on anything has never been anywhere close to mainstream, I really liked the shape. I still do like the shape, four model years later as the platform reaches the end of its life. My long range tester is a 2003 Xterra SE model with the optional supercharger. Due to it’s love it or leave it Orange color, it has become known as the Atomic Pumpkin around the Grant household.

Perhaps best known for its most popular colour, Solar Yellow, each year Nissan prepares a limited run of some bright, unusual colour. For 2003, they offered the truck in two of these limited shades. Early in the model year, we saw the bright orange truck arrive just in time for Halloween, and then later the next summer came green. And what a green it was! Officially named Camo, this could best be described at HULK Green. A comparison to the big green cartoon character may be a fitting one, as the Xterra has two distinct faces, one that many people may not expect. In many media comparisons, the Xterra is often tested along side of other small sport utility vehicles that really are sport – cutes. While Toyota’s RAV4 and Honda’s CRV may look rugged on the outside, underneath that skin hides the heart of a car. Under an Xterra however, it is all truck. Built on a full frame chassis, the Xterra follows traditional truck designs. This gives the vehicle a much different feel on the road, but also makes the vehicle more capable when carrying a load or venturing off the beaten path.

In showroom condition, the Xterra is a very capable off road vehicle. There really does seem to be a bit of that Land Rover DNA built in, because this thing climbs rocks like a Billy goat. Because of its’ truck construction, the Xterra has a tow rating of 5000 lb, which makes it a fairly serious tow vehicle for a stylish weekend warrior. As a result, the Xterra has developed a dedicated enthusiast following that is supported by an endless supply of aftermarket manufacturers. You can buy anything for an Xterra, from hard core suspension modifications to safari style roof racks to carry more cargo. These enthusiast groups embark on cross country trips all over North America, testing the limits of their vehicles and their own skills. The hard core types that Nissan uses in their ad campaigns for the Xterra really are the kind of people who drive these things. It’s not uncommon to see a heavily modified truck, covered in stickers, with bikes and kayaks on the roof heading for some adventure up north.

While the supercharged Xterra won’t break any records down the drag strip, it certainly has more guts than the base model. The non supercharged model has always felt inadequate when trying to merge onto the highway, so the extra power is most welcome.
All of this capability however, does not come without a price. In this case, that price goes up and down with the price of gas, but it’s never cheap! The Xterra’s gas tank holds about 70 liters, and in over 20,000 km my fuel usage has varied dramatically. In the extreme cold this winter, my worst tank was down around 280 km from a full tank! Now that the weather has warmed up, I think my best tank was a record 425, still horrendous when compared to a CRV or RAV4. Those vehicles don’t benefit from the extra power provided by the optional supercharger though.

The unusual body design is actually home to a world of functionality. With seating that is comfortable for a family of five, with the smallest one still in a booster seat, this became our vehicle of choice for family outings. The cargo area is large enough for all the stuff needed to take three kids away for a weekend at a resort. If we were camping however, we would need an aftermarket Safari basket to store more stuff on the roof. A friend who drives an Xterra discovered that, with the back seats down, an inflatable double bed fits just nicely in the back. It is certainly more comfortable for a couple than a tent when the rain starts coming down. There are three 12 volt outlets for charging cell phone, running air compressors or keeping that portable refrigerator powered up. In the back, there are what looks like steel coat hooks all around the ceiling. I found these to be very useful keeping the propane tank upright when rushing to the local station in the middle of a dinner party by stringing bungee cords between the tank and the hooks. Every car should have these. The stereo in the SE model has a six disc 300 watt Rockford Fosgate in dash player that is connected to eight speakers including a large sub woofer in the cargo area. The space taken up by the sub is a small sacrifice compared to having enough bass to embarrass your kids in front of your friends!

Other than its’ excessive thirst for Premium gas, I really can’t complain about the overall package. In just over 20,000 km the only problem has been a sticky speedometer needle. The power windows are a bit on the slow side, but this seems to be a common characteristic with the Xterra and its’ big brother the Pathfinder. Some owners complain about the lack of an intermittent setting for the rear wiper, but I haven’t found this to be a bother for me. One of the big selling features of the vehicle is the large storage basket on the roof above the front seats. I find it odd that the designers would include a sunroof that can only be used if the basket is removed. Also, due to the shape of the roof, the glass sunroof panel can only flip up to allow slight ventilation.

Overall, I found the Xterra SE-SC to be a fun, practical vehicle to drive. I just wish that you could drive a bit farther between fill ups. I think if I were to buy this truck, I would choose the better mileage of the non supercharged, 5 speed model. After all, it is a truck and not a sports car. For roughly $37,000 you get the quirks and practicality that comes with the Land Rover Discovery, with Japanese reliability for a third less money.


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