The Nissan XTerra isn't for everyone and often is overlooked. This mid-sized SUV is tougher than you think, more fun than you expect, and a great value. It might not be the biggest, the most capable off road, the quietest, or even the best looking, but if you are the kind of person who carries a multitool every day or values that Swiss Army Knife you've had since you were a kid then this might just be the perfect vehicle for you.
I've lived with my XTerra as a daily driver for several years, made numerous modifications, and generally enjoyed it more than any car I've ever owned. It can take you to work and to do the shopping just as easily as it can crawl over red slickrock in Moab, UT or blast over desert tracks at highway speeds.
The XTerra is often maligned for having a cheap "plastic" interior. Although the interior is basic, even spartan, it is solidly built and shruggs of dirt, mud, and grime that would scratch or damage other interiors. If you are looking for a luxury SUV, look elsewhere, but if you want a rugged, simple, and utilitarian vehicle that does everything an SUV should, then this is the right way to do it. The XTerra was introduced with the slogal, "Everything you need, nothing you don't" and while other SUVs have become bloated, heavy, luxury barges that trundle no father than the local Abercrombie & Fitch, the XTerra has stayed true to the heritage - and that makes it something special
The Off Road (now the Pro-4X) Nissan XTerra is far more capable than it looks. In stock form it comes with upgraded shocks, a higher ride height for better off road clearances, skid plates, and, most importantly, a locking rear differential. There are few tough SUVs left on the market, but the XTerra stands out. It shares a chassis with the Nissan Titan/Armada and the Navara - the Frontier that is sold outside North America. Unlike Toyota, who brought a ligher weight mid-sized truck to the 'States in the form of the Tacoma, Nissan brought in the same over-built chassis that competes with the legendary Hilux in Australia, Africa, the Middle East, and South America. The result is a very strong and rigid chassis that can take far more than most drivers can dish out. The lack of flex means that after many years of hard off road abuse and high speed desert runs, my interior doesn't have a single squeak or rattle (well, at lease once I take the compass, GPS, and pocket knife out of the glove box).
The XTerra is essentially a truck, but it has one flaw in the suspension. The rear axle has very limited upward travel before hitting the bump stops. This means that bottoming out on bumps and dips, especially with a full load, is common. Fortunately, the simple suspension is easily fixed with a number of remedies: urethane bump stops, helper springs, longer shackles, add-a-leaf springs, air bags, or any number of approaches work to smooth the ride. If you plan to lift the vehicle then this is a non-issue, even a small lift will alleviate the problem.
Driving position & visibility
One of the XTerra's main competitors is the FJ Cruiser. If you cross-shop the FJ and the XTerra one thing will become apparent very quickly; the XTerra has great visibility. Even at 6'4" I don't have to crane my neck to see stop lights in town and the large windows provide a great view when exploring the back country. Rearward visibility is helped by the funy rear window shape and unlike the FJ, checking your blind spot means you aren't just staring at a massive b-pillar.
Interior storage compartments
The XTerra is full of clever storage options. The front door pockets accomodate water bottles, the cup holders have rubber liners that lift out for cleaning or to fit oversized water bottles. There are two glove boxes, a center console with a spare 12v socket, a tray on the dash that is handy for your GPS locator, sunglasses storage in the headliner, and another tray for small items in front of the gear shift near another 12v socket. In the cargo area there are a number of small cubbies with mesh netting for securing items and the option of a cargo net. In the floor of the cargo area is a spacious hidden storage area under the floor and with the jack and tire iron under the rear seat ample room is left for other gear. The cargo deck also features movable tie-downs for easy gear management. The cargo area, including the backs of the rear seats, are made of plastic and can be easily wiped clean; convenient for those home improvement runs or just a place to stash dirty boots. The XTerra also features a clever exterior storage solution in the form of the "wet box", a mesh-bottomed and vented storage area tucked in behind the roof rack fairing. Nissan says it's great for wet bathing suits and such, but I keep my emergency gear there so I don't have to unload the cooler to get under the floor.
The rear suspension can bottom easily from the factory, but this problem can be fixed in a number of ways depending on your budget and needs.
Although the 2005+ gets better fuel economy than the previous incarnation, it won't compete with the light weight car-based CUVs on the market. If you want the strong chassis and off road performance you will feel it at the pump. Off road modifications like extra armor, dual spare tires, larger tires, and gear don't help either.
Depending on your tire choice the back seat can get a bit loud on the highway. Adding a carpet kit or keeping the rear cargo cover closed will help.
Rear seat room & comfort
The rear seat on the XTerra is not spacious, but it is sufficient for shorter adults, kids, and pets. At 6'4", I'm cramped and the narrow door opening doesn't help with access. Still, it's far less clastrophobic than the FJ Cruiser.
I've found my XTerra to be every bit as reliable as the offerings from Toyota and in some areas the Nissan excells (the body panels don't tear themselves apart and the CV joints can handle more angle without vibration). Despite a great deal of abuse at high altitude, in dust, salt, and corrosive soil, bashing off rocks, carrying way more than was intended of rough terrain, high speed runs over corrugated desert tracks, and other general abuse, my XTerra has been a solid and reliable vehicle. I would put it up against Toyota any day in a blow-for-blow long-term torture test.