2003 Nissan Xterra
    MSRP
    $17,999 - $27,999
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    2003 Nissan Xterra Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

    Supercharged performance and so much cool.

    Introduction

    Nissan Xterra is cool. It's cool to have a basket for your wetsuits on the roof rack. It's cool to have a mountain-bike rack inside the cargo bay. It's cool to be rugged. It's cool to be retro and a trendsetter at the same time. And it's especially cool to be supercharged. 

    There's even more cool for 2003. The naturally aspirated (non-supercharged) V6 is stronger this year. Stronger is cooler. Electronic brake distribution (EBD) is now standard. Traction control, skid control, and a tire-pressure monitoring system are now available. Eye-catching new colors are available, including Atomic Orange and Camouflage. 

    With its unusual blend of style and function, Xterra has been a huge success ever since Nissan launched this compact sport-utility in 2000. Xterra has prevailed beyond Nissan's expectations and hopes. It's still cool. 

    Lineup

    Nissan Xterra comes in two trim levels: XE and SE. Three engines are available: a four-cylinder, a V6, and a supercharged V6. For V6 models, there's a choice of two- or four-wheel drive. 

    The base 4x2 XE ($17,999) comes with a 2.4-liter, double-overhead-cam inline-4 rated 143 horsepower and 154 pounds-feet of torque. Four-wheel drive is not available with the four-cylinder engine, nor is an automatic transmission. Standard equipment includes a tubular roof rack with removable gear basket, air conditioning, a 100-watt audio system with a CD player, anti-lock brakes and a full-size spare tire. 

    XE V6 ($20,399) comes with a 3.3-liter, single overhead-cam V6 that now produces 180 horsepower (10 more than last year) and 202 pounds-feet of torque. For 2003, XE V6 also comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, tubular step rails, and a driver's seat that adjusts for height and lumbar support. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the V6 XE. A four-speed automatic is optional ($1000). 

    SE ($24,699) comes standard with the V6 engine, four-speed automatic, and a limited-slip rear differential. Also included are upgraded seats; fog lamps; cruise control; first aid kit; leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls; power windows, locks and mirrors; variable intermittent wipers; tilt steering wheel; remote keyless entry and, coolest of all, a 300-watt Rockford Fosgate eight-speaker audio system with subwoofer and in-dash 6-CD changer. 

    A supercharged V6 engine that produces 210 horsepower and 246 pound-feet of torque is available with SE trim only. Supercharged SE ($25,999) includes unique charcoal cloth upholstery and 17-inch wheels and tires. 

    Four-wheel drive ($2000) is available for XE V6 and SE. XE 4x4 buyers can add a limited-slip rear differential as part of a Sport Package ($399 ) that includes front tow hooks and fog lights. A new Rugged Leather Package ($999) for SE models includes leather seats and suede-like fabric inserts for the inner doors. A pop-up sunroof with sunshade ($349) is available on SE models. New for 2003 is the Dynamic Control Package ($549), which includes traction and skid control functions, plus a tire-pressure monitoring system. The Rockford-Fosgate stereo can be added to XE V6 ($799). 

    Side-curtain air bags are optional on the SE ($499) and XE and we recommend them highly as they can protect your skull in a side impact or rollover. Skull protection is cool. 

    Walkaround

    Nissan Xterra boasts rugged, distinctive styling. It doesn't look like a girly girl SUV, though that doesn't mean women won't find it appealing. Men and women find it appealing. Its front end received a major facelift last year (2002), including round headlights (in place of square square ones), a new front fascia that gives it a more muscular look, and a raised hood with a power bulge. 

    The rugged aura is carried through with a thick tubular aluminum roof rack terminating in a black airfoil. Step rails match the roof rack, and stout fender flares frame handsome alloy wheels. The beefy grille and front bumper house big radiator vents and recessed halogen fog lights. Vertical handles on the trailing edge of the rear doors add to Xterra's functional appearance, though functionally they're not the best. The two-tiered roof and a tall, square back add to the rugged, utilitarian look. A bulge in the tailgate contains a first aid kit. Crawl underneath, and you'll find skid plates under the engine and fuel tank. 

    The tall, flat rear bumper has a gripped surface and would make a perfect step for reaching the roof rack, but it's difficult to get up on it, because there is no grab handle. (If you're tall enough, you can hang on to the rear corner of the roof rack from the side of the vehicle and swing yourself up, but only rock climbers will enjoy doing it that way.) Considering the Xterra's hype about function, this is small but significant oversight. Nissan says the Pathfinder is similar, and nobody ever complained. Maybe not, but Pathfinder owners carry groceries more often than kayaks. 

    In the same vein, the optional removable plastic gear basket at the front of the rack is an excellent idea (think of sloppy ski or hiking boots), but you'll need to order the accessory net to cover it. 

    New for 2003 are a pair of 12-volt power outlets inside the engine compartment, and a heavy-duty alternator to keep them powered. 

    Interior

    Nissan Xterra's interior was revised for 2002. The instrument cluster features a three-pod cockpit motif. XE gets gray gauges while SE's are bluish. A big new console is outfitted with map pocket, power ports and push-out cup holders. The glove box grew by 25 percent, and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning controls were revised. 

    The long-criticized, dash-mounted, pull-and-twist parking brake was replaced with a foot-operated pedal. This is a big improvement, though we'd prefer a proper hand-brake lever. The manual shift lever is on the tall size. 

    The front bucket seats are comfortable and supportive. They fit well and provide good lumbar support. The fabric appears durable and resistant to stains. 

    The console layout is tidy and handsome, if appropriately spartan. A CD changer holds six CDs, which can be selected with the six radio station buttons. There are two cool buttons for the four-way flashers and rear window defogger, rectangular and totally flat on the face of the aluminum-looking panel. Three big retro-looking rotary knobs with wings control the heater. Auxiliary DC outlets are provided front and rear, in addition to the cigarette lighter. 

    SE models have cruise control and radio controls located on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, with wide spokes positioned at 3, 9, 5 and 7 o'clock. The whole padded center is the horn, the best and safest operation because of quick access. The horn is tinny but strong, a no-frills statement. 

    We took the Xterra windsurfing, and were wishing for the accessory seat covers made of wetsuit material. Other nice available cabin details include the side window demisters and rear heat ducts, smart storage crannies, as many as 10 cargo hooks on floor and ceiling, and a strap on the tailgate to close it from the inside. 

    Rear seating is not the most comfortable. There's not much side support. Rear passengers can slide their feet under the front seats, but it's a little tight, an inch less than in the smaller Toyota RAV4. There's lots of headroom, though. The roof is raised over the rear seats to allow them to be positioned higher than the front seats, providing a theater view through the windshield. 

    Because the Xterra is built on the Frontier pickup truck platform, Nissan engineers must have been challenged to squeeze everything in, while providing lots of good cargo space (65.6 cubic feet with the seats folded down, 44.5 cubic feet with the seats up). 

    The 50-50 rear seatbacks fold down fairly flat, but the seat bottoms must be removed. So, depending on circumstance, you either leave them in your garage or they become loose cargo on their own. Not a great feature, but at least they're feather-light. 

    New for 2003 are luggage nets on the headliner (deleted if you order the sunroof) and the side of the cargo area. Nissan has also added metal ceiling tie-down clips in the cargo area. 

    Driving Impression

    Nissan Xterra feels tight, smooth, and refined, in a utilitarian sort of way. Thanks to high-tech sound insulation in places not normally insulated, the Xterra is quiet at freeway speeds. But when you floor the throttle, the single-cam V6 gets pretty loud. And the luggage rack hisses in the wind. 

    Xterra sways with gusts and leans in curves, not surprising given its height and boxy shape. That big vertical rear window provides excellent visibility, but it gathers dust and dirt like crazy; fortunately, a rear wiper/washer is now standard on all Xterra models. 

    Xterra is nimble at slower speeds, feeling lighter than its 4046 pounds. The steering is very nice. At higher speeds there is a slight lag in the steering from the on-center position, but the straight-line ride is very nice. 

    The suspension takes bumps well; it sometimes has a bit more trouble with dips, which can be felt in the pit of your stomach similar to the feeling from a fast-stopping elevator. The suspension does a great job on washboard gravel roads. In corners, there's less sway than you might expect given the high center of gravity, but head toss is significant over rutted and potholed dirt roads. 

    The front suspension is by double wishbones; the rear is leaf springs with a solid axle. Power steering is by recirculating ball. The body rides on the backs of 10 individually tuned dual-rate rubber chassis mounts, so there's no harshness there at all. The Xterra rides much better than the Frontier pickup, while sharing the Frontier's strong ladder-type frame. 

    The naturally aspirated, 180-horsepower 3.3-liter V6 is challenged to smartly drag the 4WD Xterra's body weight of 4046 pounds. Stand on it, and the V6 roars but isn't able to generate a lot of thrust. It works fine for every day use, but we recommend against racing for pink slips. 

    The 210-horsepower supercharged V6 benefits from an Eaton blower designed specifically for Nissan. Unlike a turbocharger, a supercharger delivers its power the moment the driver pushes on the throttle. It also produces strong torque (246 pounds-feet of torque at 2800 rpm), though it doesn't turn the Xterra into a rocket. Acceleration is accompanied by that supercharger whine, which some people like and others don't. Nissan has taken several measures to reduce noise in supercharged Xterras: more insulation under the hood, a thicker windshield, and a baffle in the front fender well on supercharged models. 

    We haven't tested an Xterra with the little twin-cam, 143-horsepower four-cylinder engine, but we guess that it must be downright burdened. The maximum torque of 154 pounds-feet for the four-cylinder comes at 4000 rpm, versus peak torque of 202 foot-pounds for the V6 at just 2800 rpm. Low-rpm torque is better for accelerating up steep hills or pulling away from intersections. 

    Nissan's four-speed automatic transmission shifts up and down very smoothly, and its electronic calibration avoids hunting on hills, as long as you're not in overdrive. 

    If you plan to take an Xterra off-road, make sure you order the optional limited-slip rear differential for the increased traction it provides (standard on SE). 

    The four-wheel antilock brakes are strong enough, although rear disc brakes would be a welcome upgrade from the current rear drums. The drums are an understandable leftover from the Frontier, where they perform perfectly. Electronic brake distribution improves stability and helps reduce stopping distances by balancing brake force front to rear. 

    Summary

    Nissan Xterra is a good choice for someone who wants a capable, no frills utility. This is not a luxury vehicle, and lacks the refinement of, say, a Toyota Highlander. Built on a truck frame, Xterra does not offer the carlike handling of a Mazda Tribute or Ford Escape. It does, however, offer lots of cargo space, reasonably good off-road capability, and it's attractively priced. Styling and interior were upgraded last year and a supercharged V6 engine is available. 

    These features separate the 2003 Nissan Xterra from other compact sport-utility vehicles. 

    Model Lineup

    XE ($17,999); XE V6 ($20,399); SE ($24,699); SE S/C ($25,999). 

    Assembled In

    Smyrna, Tennessee. 

    Options As Tested

    Utility Package ($899) includes additional power outlet, ceiling tie-down hooks, first aid kit, cargo cover, tilt steering wheel, variable intermittent wipers; Power Package ($1299) includes speed control, map light, dual power mirrors, power windows, power door locks, keyless remote entry, cloth trim door panels, alarm system. 

    Model Tested

    XE V6 4x4 automatic ($21,399). 

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