GLENEDEN BEACH, Ore. -- The steep slope on a rough trace cut across Oregon's rugged Coast Ranges presents a challenge for four-wheeling through tall timber in an off-road rendition of Xterra, the five-door SUV by Nissan which comes together at a Nissan auto plant in Smyrna, Tennessee.
Xterra is one of three SUVs badged by Nissan, and it's a sturdy wagon capable of serious off-road action but also one that works as a comfortable pavement cruiser.
Loose dirt and chat on the Oregon trail often causes even rippled off-road rollers like Xterra's 265/75R16 BFG Rugged Trail tires to slip and skid on a steep descent, which in turn may propel the vehicle faster than prudent to maintain steady control for safe passage down the grade.
No way that runaway momentum will occur with the Xterra S Off Road, however, because it stocks sophisticated electronic controls linked to the part-time four-wheel-drive (4WD) system as well as anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and Nissan's vehicle dynamic control (VDC) stability system.
The specific electronic equipment, labeled hill descent control (HDC), is designed to keep the wagon's tires firmly planted on a steep grade as wheel speed sensors feed data on both wheel speed and the direction of wheel rotation to an electronic control module connected to the smart brakes and electronic throttle.
To operate the tool, simply tap a tab marked "HDC" and proceed down a steep grade -- but be ready for the mechanism to groan and moan. The HDC indicator light blinks on and off as the equipment goes to work, selectively squeezing brake calipers to retard the discs or adding engine juice via the throttle.
As if by magic, the weighty Xterra wagon creeps down the hill at a virtual snail's pace while the HDC equipment holds it on the steep grade. Driver's feet deliberately stay away from brake and accelerator pedals because Xterra is designed to do all of the hill-hugging work on its own so you merely steer it down a treacherous grade.
Another mechanism called hill start assist (HSA) functions as the opposite of the HDC by preventing the wagon from rolling backward when scaling a steep slope.
The HDC and HSA devices are only two of many electronic controls packaged in the 2010 Xterra.
Riding on Nissan's F-Alpha platform with a boxed ladder frame derived from the Frontier pickup, the mid-size five-seat Xterra SUV comes with standard two-wheel-drive (2WD) traction or the optional part-time 4WD device plus a top-of-class V6 powertrain.
Xterra X is the price-leading base grade but it stocks lots of equipment -- air conditioning and power steering, power controls for windows and door locks and exterior mirrors, cruise control and a remote keyless entry device.
It also provides electronic controls like ABS with EBD and the VDC stability system.
Xterra S is the next step up the trim ladder, adding equipment like 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels, aluminum step rails, the driver's seat lumbar support, and the easy-clean cargo surface.
Xterra S Off-Road 4WD edition adds trail gear like underside skid plates and the BFG 265/75R16 Rugged Trail tires, the HDC and HSA equipment, a locking rear differential, Bilstein gas-filled shocks, plus off-road lights built into the air dam of the roof rack.
Xterra SE tops the trim sequence with a standard Rockford Fosgate audio system and a 6-disc in-dash CD changer, an automatic transmission, step rails and 17-inch aluminum wheels with 265/65R17 BFG Long Trail tires.
All editions of Xterra show bold lines on the body with sheetmetal incorporating styling points of Nissan's big Titan truck -- check those flashy V-angled chrome struts in a rectangular grille, the fat-lipped fascia and oversized squarish headlamp clusters on front corners, crimped overhangs fore and aft plus structural fenders bulging in strong geometric shapes.
Flanks reveal two slab-like doors tucked between front and rear fender shoulders and three large windows, each in a unique shape. And check out the rear door handle which tucks vertically into the C pillar -- it makes the side view of Xterra resemble a sporty three-door wagon.
At the tail there's a top-hinged gate that swings up for access to the cargo bay, and the bumper includes a notched-step platform on each corner designed as a handy leg-up step to reach the roof rack.
Xterra's tubular roof rack, standard for all trim grades, has a latching lid for cradling soft equipment like diving gear or soggy ski boots and suits.
Before developing the original Xterra researchers at Nissan's California design studio in La Jolla studied the usage of sport utility vehicles and trucks and discovered through observations that younger users rig their vehicles with an assortment of racks and storage compartments -- and lots of bungee cords to attach all of the sports gear.
The subsequent design of Xterra addresses that market by providing a variety of storage spaces so the vehicle can be an accessory for an intended sport.
In effect, Xterra puts the emphasis in sporty aspects of a sport utility concept.
The cabin layout shows twin front bucket seats followed by the second-row bench for three with 60/40 split folding seatback and removable seat bottom cushions.
In the rear, the cargo floor is flat and made of hard vinyl for easy cleaning.
Included in the cargo bay are nets and hooks and secreted cubby spaces plus a channel track system with tie-down cleats that slide in or out of the channel grooves to create an infinite number of tie-down points for securing a load of cargo.
For go-power, Nissan's impressive V6 is a dual-cam design using a lightweight aluminum block.
It displaces 4.0 liters and has Nissan's continuous valve timing control (CVTC) device plus a variable induction control system (VICS). The V6 delivers 261 hp at 5600 rpm plus 281 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
Coupled to the V6 is either a slick six-speed manual shifter or the optional five-speed electronic automatic that's available for all trims.
Price points for the 2010 Xterra are competitive, beginning at $22,760 for Xterra X 2WD base grade with the manual six-speed transmission. The Xterra X 4WD with manual shifter comes to $24,810.