By on June 27, 2005

It is what it is.  But is it for you?Today's showrooms teem with vehicles with false pretensions. Four door 'coupes.' Hardtop convertibles. 'Sport' wagons. SUV-schnozzed minivans. Hybrid-powered trucks. At best, most crossbreeds and half-casts are insincere. At worst, they're incestuous counterfeits. In Nissan's case, the Maxima no longer lives up to its 'four door sports car' billing. The Quest is a minivan masquerading as modern art. The Murano is an SUV that doesn't want to get its feet wet. So consider the Xterra Nissan's mea culpa. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it's a truck's truck.

Nissan's new Xterra is based on yet another variant of the company's stout F-Alpha platform, first seen underpinning the massive Titan. As with the previous iteration, the new model is a fantastically buff, well-resolved form– butch without being vulgar. Clipped overhangs and purposefully-vesicated sheetmetal give it the muscular good looks of a gym rat. If the compact SUV segment were an elementary school playground, Xterra would liberate its classmates of lunch money, yet they'd all feel cooler by association.

An SUV from the old school The Xterra's outdoor aesthetic is so strong the SUV looks naked without a kite board or kayak on its standard-fit storage thingy. The 4WD SE's quad-vane 17" alloys are the only misstep; symmetrical spoke wheels always fail to convey an appropriate sense of motion. Some might carp that the Xterra's narrow track (admittedly 2.5" wider than Gen 1's) and pipe factory roof gives the Xterra a tipsy demeanor. Others will consider it part of its old-school charm.

As befits the Xterra's rough and ready rep, standard equipment is notable by its absence. The high-end SE came packing manual air-con, juiced locks, windows and… that's about it. Its sole luxury is a filling-loosening 380-watt Rockford Fosgate 6-cd changer, incorporating XM and steering wheel controls. Desperately seeking sat-nav? Leather? Perhaps sir would prefer something in a Pathfinder. The Xterra offers purely elemental off-roading… not unlike the first Pathfinder, point-of-fact.

Lindsay Lohan or Xterra?  Which one has higher quality plastics?This may explain why the dour plastics deployed throughout the cabin share an unfortunate kinship with Happy Meal prizes. And why the minor controls– HVAC knobs, control stalks, etc. — offer all the refinement of Lindsay Lohan on a girls' night out. The Xterra's seats, rendered in hard-wearing fabrics, are punctuated by inserts that appear to be made from Chore Boy sponges, betraying the too-soft foam therein. Well-to-well polymer in the cargo area provides wipe-clean utility, but mandates use of the cleat-and-net system (its unctuous plastic doubles as a Slip 'N Slide for inanimate objects when cornering).

Thankfully, everything mechanical and electrical works honestly and intuitively– no false flourishes, no superfluous stylistic gristle… just 100% USDA SUV. The original Xterra took this utilitarian manifesto to its logical extreme, incorporating a buckboard ride, feeble power (marginal even with the optional supercharged V6) and an unending symphony of squeaks. While the new Xterra's carriage remains pickup flinty, build quality is now unassailable. Credit its toughened F-Alpha architecture, whose far superior torsional rigidity allows the suspension to work more effectively, neatly exorcising interior rattles in the process.

Finally, some horses for courses.Nissan has stroked its capable VQ V6 to a full four liters, helping put the Xterra in [more than] polite company. The powerplant's extra chutzpah (265hp and 284 lb. ft. of torque) make it an infinitely more engaging steer than its anemic ancestor. With 0-60mph in the low sevens, Xterra leaves every SUV in its class (from the Mazda Tribute to Land Rover's Freelander) for crow fodder.

Considering its Trump Tower profile, you might expect Xterra to have all the directional stability of a beach ball on a blustery day. You wouldn't be far wrong. There's a slight off-center dead-spot in the speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering which necessitates minor corrections when the going gets gusty, particularly at highway speeds. Thankfully, Xterra's tendency to pitch and head-toss on rough roads has been greatly diminished. Still, this ain't one of them citified lifestyle luggers; we're talking about a 4X4 red in tooth and claw, with coil leaf suspension, a solid rear axle and knobby tires. The Xterra's ABS-abetted discs are as effective as anything you'll find in a family sedan, but (unlike the rest of the Xterra), they're alarmingly soft.

Nice rack.  Now go and put a kayak on.Appropriately, plain and simple is the best way to order an Xterra. The bottom-rung 'S' 4WD affords buyers the same excellent chassis, all-aluminum V6 and a manual transmission with extra cog. Save one-trick ponies like Jeep's Wrangler, the base part-time 4WD Xterra is the truest distillation of SUV spirit currently available. By avoiding MSRP-bloating garnish (as on our SE), not only do extremists save surplus coin for off-road skateboards, they hew Xterra down to its gloriously uncompromised essence. In the end, this Nissan proves that only added toys befitting a hardnosed, take-no-prisoners SUV are the ones clamped to the roof.

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