BANDERA, Tex. -- With a pair of mountain bikes locked on a rack in the cargo bay and a pair of bike riders strapped to the front buckets, our sport utility vehicle grinds over washboard ruts on a limestone-littered trail in the Texas Hill Country.
No need to fret about trail dust creeping into the lubricated sprockets of those multi-speed mountain bikes because they're tucked securely in the wagon's weather-tight rear cargo compartment -- the way-cool way to transport pricy sporting goods.
No need to worry about all of those rocky obstacles on the trail either or the sandy subtext because our vehicle plows the trace with sure-footed confidence, thanks to a four-wheel-drive (4WD) traction system hard at work.
Fact is, we're self-contained and comfortable for a day-trek into the unpaved world, rolling and bumping and crawling along in 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.
It functions as a pure SUV that's part cushy transportation and part tool box for hauling lifestyle sports paraphernalia like the mountain bikes, or gear for camping, rock climbing, skiing or even kayaking.
For our Xterra excursion across the Texas hills, we punch up some tunes piped through eight speakers on the optional 300-watt Rockford Fosgate audio kit, then get a grip on Xterra's thick steering wheel and summon so many horses hitched beneath a stubby hood so the nubby tires can get a good grip in that trail dirt.
We're well armed for this off-road foray.
That's because Xterra, riding on Nissan's F-Alpha platform with a boxed ladder frame, has the 4WD hardware on tap for off-road traction plus a top-of-class V6 powertrain.
Xterra's body features brief overhangs front and rear and a hiked chassis with smooth underbody shields to protect the running gear from off-road debris.
Platform and engine for Xterra are derived from Nissan's Frontier pickup, as are the transmission options -- a five-speed electronically controlled automatic or a nice six-speed manual stick for shift-it-yourself control.
Xterra comes with standard two-wheel-drive (2WD) traction or the optional part-time 4WD device that's controlled electronically with 2WD/4H/4LO modes.
For 2008 issues, more trims apply.
Xterra X is the price-leading base grade but it stocks lots of equipment -- air conditioning and power steering, a stereo kit with AM/FM/CD, a seatback on second-row bench that splits and folds flat, and an easy-to-clean deck in the cargo bay.
It also provides extensive electronic controls like an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and Nissan's vehicle dynamic control (VDC) stability system.
Xterra S is the next step up the trim ladder, adding equipment like power controls for windows and door locks and exterior mirrors, cruise control, a remote keyless entry device and a vehicle security system.
Xterra Off-Road adds trail gear like the underside skid plates and BFG 265/75R16 Rugged Trail T/A off-road tires, electronic hill descent control (HDC) and hill start assist (HSA), a locking rear differential, high performance Bilstein gas-filled shocks, plus foglamps and black bodyside molding, a fold-flat front passenger seatback and leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Xterra SE tops the trim sequence with that Rockford Fosgate audio system standard and a 6-disc in-dash CD changer, the automatic transmission, step rails and 17-inch aluminum wheels with 265/65R17 BFG Long Trail tires.
Then come the two new optional packages for 2008 Xterra.
First is a Side/Curtain Air Bag Package that's available for any trim.
Second is for Xterra Off-Road only -- a Technology Package with the Rockford Fosgate audio plus steering wheel audio controls, a Bluetooth hands-free phone connection and auto-dimming inside rearview mirror with compass.
All editions of Xterra carry 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.
Note that on the rear door the handle tucks vertically into the C pillar. That makes the side view of Xterra seem like 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 removable mesh basket for cradling soft equipment like diving gear or soggy ski boots and suits.
The cabin layout shows twin front bucket seats followed by the second-row bench for three.
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 (C-VTC) device plus a variable induction control system (ICS).
The plant produces 261 hp at 5600 rpm plus 281 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
Coupled to the V6 is the slick six-speed manual shifter or optional five-speed electronic automatic for all trims.
Price points for the 2008 Xterra are quite competitive, beginning at $21,240 for Xterra X base grade.