The Nissan Xterra, a successful and original formula for some time, undergoes modest changes for 2009. The grille and front fascia is changed a bit, along with the center console panel, to go along with the rugged and attractive standard fabric upholstery. Standard equipment now includes side-impact airbags in front and full-length airbag curtains. It achieves four of five stars in NHTSA crash tests for frontal impact, and three stars for rollover.
The Xterra is a truck SUV, not a crossover SUV, meaning its body is attached to a boxed-in steel ladder frame and uses a rugged suspension, double-wishbone front and solid axle with leaf springs in rear. It's the same chassis as the Nissan Frontier pickup.
All Xterras use a 4.0-liter V6 that is powerful and well proven. In 4WD with the optional smooth five-speed automatic transmission it achieves 15 city and 20 highway miles per gallon, a bit more with 2WD or the standard six-speed manual transmission.
An Off-Road model is available that will go pretty much anywhere. It comes with Hill Descent Control, heavy duty trail tires, and skid plates. The electronic 4WD system is part time, with three functions available: 2WD, 4WD High and 4WD Low.
The 2009 Nissan Xterra comes in four models, all using Nissan's award-winning aluminum V6, stroked to 4.0 liters from its 3.5 liters as used in other Nissans; it makes 261 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Most models offer a choice of rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive and a choice of six-speed manual or five-speed automatic.
One of the two new '09 Xterra colors is called Red Brick, a fitting name because if there's any SUV on the market that looks like a brick, it's the Xterra. But that's part of its popularity, if not charm.
For 2009, there's a restyled front fascia and grille, as well as the roof-mounted 50,000 candlepower lights on the Off-Road model. The grille of the Off-Road, our test model, is sort of a black egg crate hole with a floating chrome planet Nissan logo in the center, surrounded by an inverted isosceles trapezoid with wings that look like handles on a loving cup trophy made of thick Sandblast Aluminum that might also be called flat silver plastic.
The front end is all very symmetrical and beefy, with more Sandblast Aluminum in the skid plate wrapping up like a bib. Tidy, no-nonsense headlamps. The lower corners of the front fascia are rugged and massive, although not conspicuously so because they're flat black, along with the molding on the doors, which is kind of ugly especially since there are exposed bolts underneath, apparently where optional running boards attach.
Boxy fender flares hang over new wheels, the design of the standard 16s being decidedly common. Maybe it's just as well, because snazzy wheels might not go with the mud flaps. The Xterra's distinction comes as much from its roof rack as any vehicle on the road, and it's been tweaked for '09, although how much tweaking can you do to a roof rack? They call it an airdam, the compartment in front that's meant to hold wetsuits and ski boots and muddy mountain-biking clothes; it's covered by a lid held down with a sloppy plastic latch.
The back half of the Xterra is the part that people mostly notice. The brick has big windows. What's that lump on the tailgate? They might ask. That's where the First Aid kit goes. That kind of thing is what the Xterra has been all about, successfully, ever since it was introduced. And other things, such as the side steps that make it easy to climb up on the bumper and reach the roof rack.
2009 brings some small changes to the interior of the Xterra. There's a new center instrument panel cluster with new HVAC switches, new fabric upholstery for the X and S models, and unique rugged fabric with red stitching for the Off-Road.
The driver and front passenger seat recline way back, although when we tried to take a nap at a rest stop we couldn't line up our butt, the gap between the seat and seatback, the small of our back, the back of our head, and the headrest. The reclined seats might better fit six-footers.
The center console is deep, with coin holders and two cupholders and the emergency brake handle. Nice tray forward of the shift lever, glovebox of decent size, steering-wheel controls on most models. Good visibility out the rear liftgate window and big side rear windows.
The rear seat, split 60/40, folds flat with a few steps. Some SUV seats fold easier, some with more difficulty. Good grab handles over the rear doors, one map pocket on the driver's seatback, two 20-ounce bottle holders. Legroom in the rear seat is a bit lacking, at a mere 34.4 inches, although a person can fit their knees in there, even behind the driver with his or her seat slid back.
The cargo area is where the Xterra comes into its own. It's got an Easy Clean surface, like hard vinyl, making your wet dog no problem. There's a nice deep hidden compartment under the floor, and no less than 10 utility hooks on the floor, sides and ceiling. Space and nets to carry jugs. We were intrigued by the adjustable track system in the cargo floor, similar in design to the Utili-track system offered on the Nissan Titan and Frontier pickups; it's optional.
The Nissan Xterra is built on a truck chassis. Its body is attached to a boxed-in steel ladder frame and uses a rugged suspension, double-wishbone front and solid axle with leaf springs in rear. It's the same chassis as the Nissan Frontier pickup truck, although the Xterra has a higher center of gravity that you can feel in the ride, which is reasonably comfortable thanks to a longish wheelbase.
During our week in the Xterra, including 40 miles on gravel and dirt roads, we didn't encounter any harsh spots in the ride, which is saying a lot, although the side-to-side motion is a bit more pronounced than with crossovers.
We took a few runs on a rough off-road course, and the Xterra met every traction and crevice challenge it faced, using 4WD HI and 4WD LO, easily switchable with one knob on the dash. Also, with short overhangs front and rear, things don't easily drag in the gulleys. You can take it hunting or dirt biking to the top of rugged mountains with no worries.
We tested Hill Descent Control on the off-road course as well. HDC only comes on the Off-Road model with automatic transmission. Hill Descent Control allows you to travel down a steep hill and rely on electronics (raising both feet off the pedals) to keep the Xterra safe and steady at 5 mph, with throttle control and ABS applied by the truck's tiny brain and feet, better in this circumstance than your own big ones. If you live in a place that has snowy and icy hills in winter, HDC, available on some other SUVs (that don't have to be off-road equipped), could save your life or the life of another, for example a passenger on the sidewalk. It helps the driver keep the rear from sliding out on a steep, muddy descent, so you don't slowly slide off the trail and into a tree.
Hill Start Assist comes on the Xterra Off-Road with automatic transmission, though that seems strangely misplaced. Hill Start Assist allows you to start moving forward on a steep uphill, without drifting back, useful off road and in San Francisco. But with an automatic transmission, that's not a problem, because you have two feet and there are only two pedals. It's needed with the manual transmission Xterra, if anything, but Nissan didn't design HSA to work on that one.
The 4.0-liter V6 that's used in the Xterra is a great engine, a stroked version of the award-winning 3.5-liter that's used in the 350Z sports car and other Nissans. It has all the right stuff: aluminum block and heads, Teflon-coated pistons, Continuous Valve Timing Control (CVTCS), Nissan variable Induction Control System (NICS), silent timing chain and microfinished camshaft and crankshaft surfaces, digital knock control system, and 105,000-mile spark plugs.
Fuel economy for the Xterra is an EPA-estimated 15 city and 20 highway miles per gallon with 4WD, a bit more with 2WD. It would get more, if the body wasn't such a brick.
The engine certainly has plenty of horsepower and torque, 261 hp and 281 pound-feet, but its torque curve, peaking at a high 4000 rpm, is more suited to a sports car than a truck. As a result, the automatic transmission kicks down a lot at casual speeds, even 35 mph, from fifth gear to fourth; but because it's so smooth, you hardly notice it. However you do notice that the Xterra doesn't feel terribly powerful. Until you boot it, and then it blows you away. When you let it run, you find yourself driving a truck SUV that wants to be a Nissan 350Z. There will be no problem passing on two-lanes, or running with the hot sedans up long freeway slopes.
The Nissan Xterra maintains its steady course on the road and off, as a popular SUV that can do it all and then some, with a fold-flat cargo area that's rugged and easy to clean, and built-in channels on the floor with 10 hooks or eyelets to tie things down. For 2009, there are styling revisions and a new center console panel. The fabric upholstery is attractive and rugged, and there are plenty of cubbies. Side-impact airbags in front and full length airbag curtains have been added as standard equipment. The Xterra is user friendly, has a comfortable ride for a truck, and wears well. In 4WD it achieves 15 mpg city and 20 mpg highway, using an exceptional 4.0-liter V6 engine and smooth five-speed automatic transmission.