Every now and again, it pays to go back to basics. Which is precisely what Nissan did with its new Xterra SE SUV. The result? Buyers have practically tripped over each other on their way to dealerships. While other manufacturers are scrambling to provide customers with the latest and greatest - electronic all-wheel drive, a finer grade of leather upholstery, and megawatt sound systems - Nissan lashed together a rigid frame, four big wheels, and a body with a backpack's practicality. And at an incredible price: You can roll out a 4x4 Xterra for less than $20,000. Add on a wealth of goodies and you're still a far cry from the $30,000-plus that most of the midsize sport utes cost.
Loaded with a 170-hp 3.3-liter SOHC V-6 and an automatic transmission, the Xterra is rated for 5,000-pound towing assignments. When we hitched up 2,720 pounds worth of Javelin bass boat and trailer, this tow machine begged for more. It cranks out 200 ft-lb of torque at 2800 rpm - that gets things rolling in a flash. The 70 Series B.F. Goodrich radials dig in to provide excellent traction and the four-speed electronically controlled automatic serves up smooth shifts. Engaging four-wheel drive is accomplished via an old-fashioned floor shift, but this truck is so sure-footed, you'll seldom have to tap into its low-range or 4x4 capabilities. In fact, we chugged our load up a snow-covered launch ramp without ever stepping on that floor shifter. Our only gripe? Mileage. The 12 mpg we registered in mixed suburban and freeway driving isn't much better than you'd get from a V-8-powered SUV.
Relieved of its towing duties, the Xterra feels light and lively. It's a tidy size, the ride is reasonably comfortable over rough pavement, and the recirculating-ball power-steering system keeps you informed about which direction you're heading with thoughtful feedback. The engine hums quietly, whether you're gunning for a break in traffic or moving on cruise control. The interior is roomy with four and can handle five in a pinch. The cargo area is well equipped with storage bins and tiedowns.