Opposites attract

2005, Nissan, Xterra

I can't think of two more disparate interpretations of the sport/utility vehicle, and by the same corporate family, no less. On the one hand, there's Nissan's brute Xterra; on the other, Infiniti's svelte FX45. It's as if these two hands were wearing, respectively, brass knuckles and a velvet glove. Together, they fairly well represent the broad spectrum along which sport/utility newcomers have evolved out of car and truck forebears.

In this instructive Nissan/Infiniti pairing, it soon becomes obvious that each vehicle is very well suited for certain tasks. These tasks, however, are mutually exclusive, which is just another way of saying that "well rounded" is not a particularly apt description of either one.

Nissan's oddly named Xterra has been a cult favorite from the moment of its debut. 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 in action, 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 I call a play-tool. Xterra's particular charm is its boxy, lumpy utility. It seems naked without bikes or a kayak pinioned onto that stout tubular roof rack. And if lakewater is oozing out of the tennis shoes you've stowed overhead in the wedgy roofbox, that's just icing on the cake. Because this is 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 steel ladder undergirding Nissan's Titan pickup and Armada full-size SUV, Xterra is a true box-on-frame vehicle. That's why it has a certain floaty, nautical handling feel; why its ride is a bit jarring. That's also why it's a fantastic off-roader. It's strong, durable and tough. And for 2006, it's mightier yet.

The larger, 4.0-liter V6 is the most conspicuous upgrade. Now there are 265 horsepower and 284 foot-pounds of torque at the driver's disposal. It's not particularly fast-revving power, so acceleration isn't exactly spine-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 behind acronyms. For 2006, Xterra acquires a superb four-wheel-drive powertrain plastered with these acros. HSA translates into Hill Start Assist; HDC is Hill Descent Control; ABLS is (4-wheel) Active Brake Limited Slip; and VDC is Vehicle Dynamic Control. In short, let's just stipulate that this alphabet 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 the Xterra could be. But by that point, I was already won over. "Basic," "brutish" and "crude," my three teenage daughters like to remind me, are terms 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

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2005, Nissan Xterra

2005 Nissan Xterra
2005 Nissan Xterra
Inside the Xterra
Inside the Xterra
Rough and ready
Rough and ready
Need a foot hold?  The Xterra has it.
Need a foot hold? The Xterra has it.