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The Nissan Xterra hasn't changed much since its last major revision way back in 2005, but the cabin tech in our S trim model hasn't been upgraded since this active lifestyle SUV debuted way back in 2000. With a beefy engine and switchable 4x4 system, the Xterra is a decent enough soft-roader. But users who want any semblance of cabin technology or true off-road capabilities want to check out the SE and Off-Road trim levels.
In the cabin
One could describe the Xterra S' interior as "utilitarian," but we'd prefer to call it "dated." The cabin technology package available at this trim level is out of the '90s. Your only option is a single-disc CD-player with AM/FM radio. There's no Bluetooth connectivity available for hands-free calling or audio streaming. There's also no USB port or iPod integration tech available at this trim level. The CD player doesn't support MP3-encoded CDs. There isn't even an auxiliary input.
Audio from the standard six-speaker stereo is pretty good, all things considered. Bass is clear with a hint of distortion at higher volumes, but not so much so that the music was unlistenable. Mids were adequate and treble was unmuddied thanks to a pair of dash-mounted tweeters. This is a system tuned to sound good with Top 40 rock and rap, where the bass really drives the music.
The interior has a few neat functional features, such as handles placed on the A-pillar to ease entrance and egress, but other interior bits seem poorly designed. For example, the twin glove compartments look big with their huge doors shut, but open them and you'll only find a shoebox's worth of combined storage volume.
Under the hood
Only one engine is offered with the Nissan Xterra, a 4-liter V-6 engine that outputs 261 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque. This puts it on par with the likes of the 2010 Toyota 4Runner in displacement and power. However, the large displacement V-6 doesn't feel beefy, hiding most of its power when cruising around town. This is mostly the fault of the single-option five-speed automatic transmission's hesitance to downshift on demand, a trait that probably helps the Xterra reach its EPA estimated 15-city/20-highway mpg rating, but doesn't do any favors for the acceleration. Nudging the accelerator for a highway merge resulted in no noticeable acceleration. When we really put our foot down, the Nissan would bog down for a beat while the transmission slogged through a shift, then the engine would roar to life and off we'd go. Once awakened, there's a good deal more pep in the Xterra's step.
Our Xterra was a 4x4 model, which means that it is able to switch between 4WD and 2WD at the touch of a dial. Selecting 2WD sends power out of the rear wheels only and is the best mode for optimal fuel economy on dry public roads. The 4WD splits the power delivery between the front and rear wheels for the best grip when going off-road. We noticed that our Xterra's turning radius was moderately increased in 4WD mode. A third mode, 4WD Lo, is a low-geared, high-traction crawling mode that is best used for rock crawling and creeping out of low-traction situations, such as ice or snow. 4WD Lo can only be engaged when the vehicle is in neutral with the brake depressed; it limits the vehicle's overall speed.
For all intents and purposes, the Xterra is a body-on-frame truck. As a result, it rides like a truck: bumpy and rough with a good deal of body movement. Over rough patches of highway, we felt every pockmark and pothole the road threw at us; and over uneven expansion joints, the Xterra tossed its passengers around the cabin like little rag dolls. However, larger bumps, such as speed bumps, rocks, and curbs, tackled at lower speeds, were soaked up with surprisingly little protest.
Where the Xterra comes into its own is with cargo capacity. The extreme SUV feature a cavernous rear storage area with enough room to store a pair of mountain bikes (with the front tires removed) or ski equipment for a weekend in the mountains. The load-in height is a bit on the tall side, but not unmanageable. The rear area features a wipe-clean floor and can be augmented with accessories from Nissan to hold bikes, snowboards, and other equipment in place.
The Xterra also comes standard with a roof rack with an integrated storage box. This box features a plastic grate floor to allow moisture to escape, perfect for drying a wet jacket or wetsuit as you head home at the end of the day. In order to help reaching the roof rack on the 75-inch tall Xterra, Nissan has included steps on either side of the rear bumper.
The 2010 Nissan Xterra S is a brute: it's big, dumb, and simple. For some drivers, this is part of the Xterra's charm. There's a lot of space out back for cargo and a very cool roof rack with an enclosed storage bin. It may not offer the complex terrain controls of, for example, the Land Rovers, but there aren't too many places that the Xterra can't go with its reasonably torquey V-6, tallish ground clearance, and locking 4x4 system with low gearing.
However, as a tech car, the Xterra S is about a decade behind the times. The S trim level's single option audio system is devoid of any advanced entertainment tech. There isn't even an aux-input, and GPS navigation is flat out unavailable. All of this results in a seriously low comfort score which, in turn, brings the Xterra S' overall score down. Of course, stepping up to the SE or Off-Road trim levels adds many of these features, including a better audio system, Bluetooth, Garmin navigation, the ability to spec an iPod interface, and that elusive auxiliary input.