Tow Test: Nissan Xterra SE

Nissan's Xterra SE is a solid tow vehicle with an incredible price.

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 4×4 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 4×4 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.


Exterior add-ons command more than their share of attention. The tubular-aluminum roof rack looks like it could support a polar expedition, but it is effective at masking the stepped roof panel used by Nissan to augment back-cabin headroom. A removable basket for items unsuitable for interior stowage (bait, live lobsters, wet swimming gear) is a clever idea. However, those tubular running boards mostly get in the way and soil your trousers. A bulge in the liftgate provides room inside for a first aid kit. Accessory items include a solid receiver tow hitch, interior bike-hauling gear, and special roof rack attachments designed by Yakima.

MODEL Nissan Xterra SE
Engine 3.3-liter SOHC V-6
Net hp/rpm 170/4800
Net torque (ft-lb/rpm) 200/2800
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Front suspension control arms, torsion bars
Rear suspension rigid axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
Wheelbase (in.) 104.3
Length (in.) 178.0
Width (in.) 70.4
Height (in.) 73.4
Brakes (front/rear) disc/drum; 4-wheel ABS
Tires B.F. Goodrich Long Trail T/A all-terrain P265/70SR-15
Curb weight (lbs.) 4,280
Towing capacity (lbs.) 5,000
Cargo capacity (max. cu. ft.) 65
Fuel capacity (gal.) 19.4
Estimated city/highway towing fuel economy (avg. mpg) 12
Price (as tested) $26,668

LAST WORD. Want to save on a tow machine so you can spend more on a new boat? The Nissan Xterra SE is a shrewd choice.