Marc Stengel, Wed, 3 Aug 2005 08:00:00 PDT
I can't think of two more disparate interpretations of the sport/utilityvehicle, and by the same corporate family, no less. On the one hand, there'sNissan's brute Xterra; on the other, Infiniti's svelte FX45. It's as ifthese two hands were wearing, respectively, brass knuckles and a velvetglove. Together, they fairly well represent the broad spectrum along whichsport/utility newcomers have evolved out of car and truck forebears.
In this instructive Nissan/Infiniti pairing, it soon becomes obvious thateach vehicle is very well suited for certain tasks. These tasks, however,are mutually exclusive, which is just another way of saying that "wellrounded" is not a particularly apt description of either one.
Nissan's oddly named Xterra has been a cult favorite from the moment of itsdebut. Who knows why? It's boxy and lumpy; the ride is rough and choppy;tubes and bars sprout from the bodywork. It's an example of reverse-chic inaction, and people kids, actually, young women in particular just love it.
And I? I really like it too. Not as a chic fashion statement, but as what Icall a play-tool. Xterra's particular charm is its boxy, lumpy utility. Itseems naked without bikes or a kayak pinioned onto that stout tubular roofrack. And if lakewater is oozing out of the tennis shoes you've stowedoverhead in the wedgy roofbox, that's just icing on the cake. Because thisis a truck for getting to the places where you get to do fun things.
"Truck," by the way, is the operative term. Based on the same basic steelladder undergirding Nissan's Titan pickup and Armada full-size SUV, Xterrais a true box-on-frame vehicle. That's why it has a certain floaty, nauticalhandling feel; why its ride is a bit jarring. That's also why it's afantastic off-roader. It's strong, durable and tough. And for 2006, it'smightier yet.
The larger, 4.0-liter V6 is the most conspicuous upgrade. Now there are 265horsepower and 284 foot-pounds of torque at the driver's disposal. It's notparticularly fast-revving power, so acceleration isn't exactlyspine-tingling; but the added, mid-rpm torque is a boon for exacting,tactical off-road tasks.
As is increasingly common these days, Xterra's refinements are masked behindacronyms. For 2006, Xterra acquires a superb four-wheel-drive powertrainplastered with these acros. HSA translates into Hill Start Assist; HDC isHill Descent Control; ABLS is (4-wheel) Active Brake Limited Slip; and VDCis Vehicle Dynamic Control. In short, let's just stipulate that thisalphabet soup nourishes a very capable off-roader.
There are buttons to push and a certain savvy required for a driver to configure the Xterra properly for varying challenges; but in principle, the alpha-gadgets are dedicated to preserving maximum vehicle control in minimally tolerable conditions.
A stint driving the new Xterra through hub-sucking North Georgia goo made a believer of me. With the limited slip differential locked and low-range gearing selected, I negotiated steep, Teflon-slick hillsides up, down and sideways. Often, thanks to the effectiveness of descent control, my feet were flat on the floor, and Xterra's powertrain managed traction andthrottle of its own accord without veering from a narrow path through trees indisposed to step out of the way.
Later, driving around town, I was struck by how basic, brutish and crude theXterra could be. But by that point, I was already won over. "Basic,""brutish" and "crude," my three teenage daughters like to remind me, areterms of high praise in the reverse-chic stylebook.
4-door, 5-pass.; 4.0-liter DOHC V6 w/ vvt; 4x4, 6-sp. manual; 265 hp/284 ft.-lbs.; 17 mpg/city, 21 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo, 35.2-65.7 cu. ft.; tow: 5,000 lbs.; payload: 1,061 lbs.; std. equipment: front ind. suspension,4-wheel ABS disc brakes, HVAC, AM/FM/CD audio, 16-in. wheels, "OR" off-road pkg.; base price: $25,500; as-tested: $28,610