I never expected to enjoy the Xterra Off Road Edition, truth be told. However, I realised later I had been wrong to pre-empt a test drive instead of embracing its potential with an open mind. My view wasn't altogether transformed, but it became evident that there was more than enough to like about this off-roader. But I certainly didn't think that at first. To me, the Xterra's looks screamed "crossover". I was convinced, in spite of the bumf, that this was a replacement X-Trail, a car my friend once had to dig out of a dusty car park. While crossovers play an important part in the market, to portray one as a petite Patrol is heresy. I was convinced that the standard Xterra promised far more than it could achieve.
To me, it looked ungainly and disproportionate, as if it had once been a Pathfinder and had its rear cut by a third. The result was an overbearing snout and a snub back-end that finished all too soon. It just didn't have pleasing perspective or the gift of ratio. And inside, I had noted it was filled with cheap plastic like a Hyundai, circa 1986. Nissan may have made the Xterra's interior look rugged, bare, utilitarian, but surely, I thought, at least they could have sprinkled a little good taste in the mix.
I had the Off Road Edition of the Xterra, which offers heavy-duty, all-terrain tyres, stiffer suspension, a locking rear differential and hill ascent and descent controls over the base Xterra models. In addition, it has skid plates and a roof-rack tub that gives it a ready-for-Dakar look that adds to the image. On the whole, in spite of its unflattering proportions, the Xterra Off Road looks much better in this meatier guise.
The interior does look cheap -there's no helping that - but clean. There is far too much plastic of all sorts of textures and sheens around the cabin, but at least there's ample space both front and rear. One of the benefits of the boxy shape is it delivers an abundance of lateral room, while the engine is apportioned to make for good leg reach. And within the swathes of plastic is plenty of storage space, much of it thoughtful. There's a cubby for your mobile, space for your sunglasses, a change tray, a thingy box and even more containers. However, this is not a car with all-out convenience, as those who wear make-up will find as they seek out a vanity mirror.
The dimensions also come at a cost, with very little lateral support for the front seats and little comfort behind. On the whole, though, it is well packaged despite the materials and very well put together. With the big wheels, short wheelbase, bull bars on the front and tray on the roof to disrupt the airflow, the Xterra's watchword could never be stability. And these factors combine with a rather unresponsive steering wheel that feels loose and does not inspire confidence. It's best to push an Elvis CD into the excellent Rockford Fosgate six-disc changer because you'll be dancing like the King all the way down the motorway.
The 4.0L V6 engine, however, seems very able and reasonably spritely, emitting the whoosh that's synonymous with this type of unit as you kick down. Its secret is in its excellent match with a five-speed gearbox that is true and precise, changing seamlessly and easily. This combination is a standout feature of the Xterra's roadly behaviour. But another aspect that should be sent to the back of the class is the cornering, which can get a little hairy. Just like the unresponsive steering, the chassis is let down by the car's dimensions, and the back-end feels delicately light and downright iffy through chicanes.
However, those who opt for big tyres and hefty roof racks for substance more than form will be delighted at how this car transforms once it hits the sand. In fact, it became apparent immediately through a simple five-step process we devised. Step 1: deflate tyres, Step 2: drive onto the sand, Step 3: promptly get stuck, Step 4: engage the diff-lock, Step 5: drive away. Simple as that. It could only have been better had it been intentional, but the Xterra slid back out of its sandy grave like a viper cutting through the dunes.
Having driven a number of off-roaders actually off the road, it quickly became apparent how nimble this specimen was. The short wheelbase and big tyres that made it so wonky on the blacktop came into their own on the sand. The confidence that was lacking on terra firma was restored on the soft surface as the Xterra did everything that was asked of it. With a decent run-up it would scale dune crests; when the sand became brittle and powdery, it would power through with hardly a complaint. There was never even the mere suggestion that we would get stuck a second time. We quickly put that incident down to inexperience with a new car.
It was then that I decided that in spite of the looks, the plastics, the wobble and the wiggle, this was a likeable car. It was hardly earth shattering but still it shattered my preconceptions as a vehicle that was capable - likely more capable - off the road and true to its promise. I had misjudged it before I had tried it, something I will be more reluctant to do again in the future. firstname.lastname@example.org