By on July 23, 2014

2009 Nissan Xterra. Image: Nissan

m koonce writes:

Sajeev – you wanted questions, I have questions! First – I love your column. Great advice, and well written. Now my question(s).

  1. I have a 2009 Nissan Xterra 4wd, X model, 52k miles, and no problems except door squeaks and rubber molding which wont stay attached but that’s trivial. My question is, when should I have a “tuneup” done – i.e., change the spark plugs. Should I wait until Nissan’s recommended mileage (105k miles I think), or do it sooner? And should I replace all the coils at the same time (I presume the truck has a coil-on-plug ignition setup)? What else should I have done at the same time?
  2. Re: same vehicle: at 36k miles (May 2013) I did a transmission fluid dump and refill at local dealership, and did the same again at 49k miles in May 2014, again at dealership. My plan is to continue this dump and refill procedure every year for as long as I own the truck. Am I on the right track here? I’ve also had all other fluids replaced, except brake fluid which will be replaced when I have a brake job done.

Thanks for your advice, and keep up the good work.

Sajeev answers:

Actually you have three questions, come on son!  Now you know I’ll Google up some half-cocked give an enlightening answer for just about any question. And my goodness, do you need questions answered, for the sake of your poor, poor wallet!

Question 1: Squeaky rubber seals: spray them with a silicone based lubricant (safe on rubber, less sticky than WD-40) or do it right with this tube of magic.

Question 2: Direct injection systems aside…rarely, if ever, does a non-modified vehicle driven by a law-abiding motorist need new spark plugs before the recommended interval. Even DI motors won’t necessarily need aggressive plug replacements, and the supercharged versions of your Nissan are fine if you follow the owner’s manual. Spark plugs, be it iridium or platinum, have come a long way, baby!

Question 2.5:  Replace coil pack(s) when the engine computer says so. That is, when you get a stumble/misfire, you scan for codes, etc. and determine the misbehaving coil. Do not change them during the mandated tune up interval, only change normal wear items as per owner’s manual recommendations.

Question 3: ZOMG UR ON THE WRONG TRACK!  Unless this is a work truck towing a loaded trailer every day in city traffic, there’s zero reason for annual ATF changes. You’d be more than safe swapping it out every 50,000-100,000 miles.

Put more succinctly: stop treating this rig like it’s a delicate flower!

Vehicles in the last 25+ years successfully embraced electronic engine control technology, and “long life” fluids are held in high regard across the board…well, Dex-Cool aside. The sooner you embrace the robust beauty of modern vehicles (and fluids) the sooner you can stop punishing your wallet.

[Image: Nissan]

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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33 Comments on “Piston Slap: Chronic Xterra Maintenance?...”

  • avatar

    If you’re getting your vehicle services at the dealer the service advisors there should be able to tell you accurate maintenance intervals. I do all my basic services on my altima at my local nissan dealer and when I go in I’m always picking thier brains. Granted I am a service advisor myself in the diesel industry so I’m probably more inclined to trust another adviser.

    • 0 avatar

      Every car dealer I’ve ever seen has their maintenance advisers “recommend” service well in excess of the intervals in the manual. Not quite to Jiffy-lube-ish levels, but still quite a lot of premature service. The only source I trust is the manual, with some forum surfing to be sure.

      The last dealer I went to said I needed new coolant at 45k because it was “brown”; no, that was the tank, when I had him pull a sample, it was as pink as the day it left the factory. I was then told it was “watery”. Gimme a break…

      • 0 avatar

        As a former advisor at a dealership-mostly yes and also no. For example, Brake Fluid for my brand was recommended to be changed at 100K, or when fluid appeared dirty. However the book also states that if driven in humid weather you should change it at 30K. Here in Maine it is humid about 3 months out of the year so my service manager wanted us to sell a brake flush at 30K-no matter what the fluid looked like. Which I did not agree with.

        I did the job for just over 2 years. While I only worked at one dealership, I never saw any outright dishonesty. Like performing work that didn’t need to be done. But-when you do recommend something-a person usually calls their cousins uncles friends buddy who is a mechanic at Backyard Motors and he says, nah, you don’t need new brake pads- 1mm of brake pad left is plenty! There is more of a “well technically” type attitude-like in my brake fluid example above, or especially when it came to mandatory annual state inspections.

        Again, every dealership-or any shop really-is different. I am sure there are some far worse ones out there, and some better ones too.

        It was not the job for me.

      • 0 avatar

        The old “we have unique operating conditions in this part of the country so we recommend this above and beyond the factory …” sales pitch . Read and follow the manual. One large private chain (that claims to be not like all the rest) that I was employed by had us changing full synthetic gear oil at 30k. Absolute up sell nonsense. Fluid that came out was as clean as what went in. Also pushed all the “conditioner” (BGs, Wynns) additives as well. If you’re worried, follow the severe duty schedule. Pay particular attention to the coolant and flush/change as needed. The V6 likes to leak in your vehicle especially in the front cover area.

  • avatar

    Transmission fluid at 14k? Wow! Yeah, that’s the fluid change interval for a Corolla towing an RV across the Mojave. (Okay, I exaggerate, but not much… have transmission fluids EVER needed changing that often?)

    And modern plugs last so long, the change interval is more to keep them from welding themselves to the head more than any serious need to actually change them even at 100k. I’ve heard of techs that just leave the rear plugs alone on transverse V6’s that make access hard. (Not endorsing that plan, just saying it happens, and doesn’t usually cause disaster.)

    • 0 avatar

      Ahhhh… but the now departed Suzuki sx4 called for 20k gear oil changes once they started eating up synchros. This, I imagine, was to push people out of drivetrain warranty more than to address any mechanical need.

      I think Honda did something similar with their faulty v6 autos back on the day.

  • avatar
    C. Alan

    In the last 10 years, the only vehicle I have changed to plugs on early was my ’06 Ford Expedition with the 5.4L V8. That is the motor Ford used the crap plugs in that have a bad habbit of breaking off in the head when you try to change them. I had them changed out at 75k miles (instead of 100k as suggested by ford) because the motor was missing, and four of them broke off in the head. Lucky for me, there are several specialty tools around that can be used to extract the base of the plugs from the heads. However, the whole ordeal cost me $600. The mechanic that did the job suggested that I change the plugs every 50k miles.

    As for the coils, I would do like Sajeev suggested. Just change them when you need to. Ive already gone through two on my Expedition.

    • 0 avatar

      My 01 Taurus too, they use plugs with no nickle coating that would corrode and stick to the head, and 1/6 of them actually had a hairline crack / carbon trace.

      That’s manufacturing quality issue however, the aftermarket plugs I put in is going strong.

  • avatar

    I changed the coil packs on my 1999 Pathfinder at 140K miles. But there was no warning or engine code. I came home from work one night. An hour later went to run an errand and the car wouldn’t start.

    My advice would be change the coil packs with the plugs, but they should be good for 100K.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I’ve had a few ‘long-life plug’ engines whose plugs I’ve changed around the 50-70k mark, and they have run better as a result. Interestingly, on two occasions they have also benefited from changing the fuel injectors, which can become leaky after all those miles. Coil packs don’t like heat, so if they’re hard to reach, I’d change them along with the plugs.

    FYI, my friend’s 2004 Sentra had a spark plug seize in the head at 70k miles when he went to change them. The EZ-Out broke off in there, too, so $600 later, he and I changed out the head and all was well. I wouldn’t wait until time or mileage do the same thing to a car.

    Also, for years, I’ve changed ATF every 25k miles. It’s cheap insurance. Besides, without a flushing machine, you can only get about 1/2 of it out at home. Unless you’re doing rough service, I’m not sure changing ATF more often is helpful, but I certainly wouldn’t wait until 50-100k miles.

  • avatar

    As I understood it, he’s not getting a trans flush every year, he’s just draining and refilling the 3 or 4 qts at a time you can get out this way. Aside from paying the dealer to do something that’s pretty easy to do yourself, this seems reasonable to me.

  • avatar

    I do a drain and refill on my transmissions every year.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    Wow, I am a terrible Nissan owner. I, literally, don’t do any of the activities mentioned here. I have a tube of lithium white grease for the squeaky door that has yet to occur.

    Granted I have only had the rig since December, but I am fairly certain that I will change the oil every 6k and perhaps jack with the plugs at 100k.

    All the other stuff mentioned…no thanks. Nissan makes disposable cars, I don’t want to own it at 200k. Thanks but no thanks.

  • avatar

    I own the exact same vehicle, though a 2010 with a little more miles on it. Here I thought I babied mine with too much preventative maintenance! As Sajeev points out your maintenance schedule is overkill for most newer vehicles, the Xterra included. Check out for a wealth of information on the Xterra. Plenty of members have well over 200k on these rigs with normal / routine maintenance.

    The X is reliable, though early versions were prone to some issues. The minor ones being the fuel sending unit (gauge will not read fuel level appropriately), timing chain guides (older ones will whine), and the IPDM engine control module causing no-start or erratic conditions. All these minor issues are correctable and have been eliminated from newer versions of the X. Your 2009 is safe.

    However, there is one major issue that some Xterras do experience. It is fondly referred to as SMOD (Strawberry Milkshake of Death) by the forum. An internal weld within early radiators will fail, causing coolant to mix with radiator fluid, creating a milkshake like consistency, strawberry in color, which will cause the transmission to overheat and fail. If caught early enough it can be addressed, otherwise owners end up needing a new transmission. Nissan does warranty 2005 – 2010 Xterras for this condition, up to 100k miles. It has yet to be documented to any Xterras past 2007 on the forum.

    In short, enjoy your X and save your money on the overkill maintenance. You’ll need it for gas!

    • 0 avatar

      “causing coolant to mix with radiator fluid”

      I’m guessing that should read “transmission fluid”?

    • 0 avatar

      Was wondering if the SMOD/PMOD was going to be mentioned. I have a 2006 Pathfidner that falls under the same warranty. But the terms are questionable at best. It’s really just a prorated co-pay. The closer you get to 100k miles, the more you are going to end up paying. If anger filled, anti-Nissan discussion boards are to be believed, this happens with enough frequency that replacement transmissions from Nissan are hard to find these days.

      Knock on wood, I have not had this issue, but when I first learned of of it I called Nissan directly and asked about preventative measures or even some sort of recall. They pretty much washed their hands of it and then offered me employee pricing on a new car.

      There is a DYI hack out there that’s not too hard to find online, but I haven’t pulled the trigger on it. This may come back to haunt me, but I’ve had all service on our Pathfinder done by KC area Nissan dealers. The hope being that if it does eventually fail, I have a documented service history where they can’t try and wiggle out of the warranty.

    • 0 avatar

      If the issue is an internal weld in the OEM radiator, then isn’t the solution simply to spend the $100 or so and replace the radiator with a new non-Nissan radiator? The mere thought of coolant getting into the transmission makes this one a no-brainer.

      Or am I missing something?

      • 0 avatar

        Thats what I would be doing, a new Denso is about $130 bucks to your door from Rock Auto. Hour or two to drain and replace the coolant (a good excuse to do it) and swap in the radiator.

        Or I it might be possible to bypass the part that runs thru the radiator and go straight to the cooler.

        $150 (with coolant) and a couple hours vs a new transmission? Thats a no-brainer for me.

      • 0 avatar

        Indeed. The “hack” is that some folks by-pass the radiator and rely solely on the auxillary transmission cooler. Personally I don’t trust the reduced cooling capacity, but there are plenty of forum members who swear by it.

        An aftermarket radiator or the new OEM Nissan design fixes the issue entirely.

      • 0 avatar

        I believe this was fixed in the 2012 models or so. I know my 2013 Frontier has a different part number than my friend’s 2007. He incidentally bypassed the radiator transcooler and installed a larger aux cooler and has not had the issue in 150,000 + miles. This and the previously mentioned timing chain guides are the most serious issues I know of with these rigs. I know my interior will scratch if you look at it wrong too, but mine is the cheapskate “S” model.

  • avatar

    The VQ35DE (probably the 40s, too) “whine” translates to “burn through the plastic tensioner shoes and allow slack in the timing chain,” (1) or, “plastic guide cover falls off, maxing out the main tensioner and allowing slack in the timing chain.” (2) It’s not “minor” so much as “repair or replace your engine when the pistons bend your valves.”


    • 0 avatar

      Yes, if left unaddressed for a significant amount of time that “whine” will have the potential for major engine issues.

      I said “minor” in my earlier post as I feel you have warning and plenty of it. Its not like a Jag V8 who’s timing chain guides suddenly explode into the engine.

      Potatoe, pototoe I suppose.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah. To me, “minor” means “The TPMS light stays on my car because I replaced the factory wheels with sensorless wheels, annoying.” I don’t know how many times the timing chain has to rub against the shoes to cause catastrophic failure, so I would start saving up to replace them as soon as the whine presented itself. It’s not like spending a morning swapping out a timing belt on a Honda I4. It’s more like brain surgery (in the FWD VQ35s, at least).

  • avatar

    Congrats! You are:

    -The rare male owner of an Xterra.
    -The rare owner who maintains an Xterra.

    Most of the ones I see are in the hands of girls who couldn’t get a Wrangler, and could not care less about any maintenance/washing/anything other than the stickers on the back.

  • avatar

    Tangentially related question – is the Xterra the spiritual successor to the XJ Cherokee? I appreciate any and all comments.

    • 0 avatar

      Maybe. I don’t know about spiritual successor, perhaps modern equivalent. I had a late 90s XJ that was my winter beater. I ended up really liking it and it saw much more than just winter usage. When it was finally time to replace, in 2010, I was hard pressed to find an SUV that had the same visibility, footprint, and versatility.

      The original Pathfinder and 4Runner were bloated incarnations of their former selves and the Jeep compass was a joke. I checked out the 4-door Wrangler, FJ and Xterra.

      In the end the X was the best value – offering a livable utilitarian design for a great price. I will grant it does not have as much character as the old XJ, nor is it as iconic looking as a Wrangler or an FJ. But its been a reliable great work horse for camping, kayaking, biking, towing, moving, home depot runs, etc. Much more so than the XJ. (I know bullet proof inline, but mine was like a crazy ex-girlfriend always fun, but with that threat of drama. I think it may have had a rough start in life.) Can’t say I miss it much, I’ll take the X any day over it.

  • avatar

    Minus the independent front suspension I think it is probably as close as one can get nowadays.

  • avatar

    I’m wondering what the “dump and refill” means in this context. In my very humble opinion, if it involves sucking the ATF through the probe tube and then re-filling, it’s useless. The actual target is the transmission filter. If filter is not changed, the excercise is pointless.

  • avatar

    Extended warranty info:

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