2002 Nissan Xterra

By Michael "TXJEEPER" Cohn

Discuss This Article Send this article to a friend!

Armed with nothing but a few tools and compressed air, we caught up with a group of four-wheelers who were heading out to some private land for a day in the woods. The gang was being led by Keith Bailey, owner of Off Road Connection near Birmingham, Alabama. Keith was kind enough to let us tag along with the group, knowing that if we found the limits of our truck and wanted to head back out, we were capable of doing so without holding up his group of well-built Jeeps.

Immediately at the trail head, one of the drivers in the group asked who we were going to ride with and where we were going to park the Xterra. Laughing, we told him that we intended to take it as far into the trail as possible and turn back when we reached our limit. Surprised, he told us it wouldn't be very long. Well, "we'd see," we told him.

Nissan XterraNissan Xterra

We put the Xterra in 4 Lo for the first time using a genuine floor-mounted shifter and began our descent into the wooded trail. By no means would the Xterra win any slow-crawl competitions, but it was certainly a noticeable low range and felt comparable to the Liberty. So far, so good.

Heading down the trail, we soon did our first hand stand. The double wishbone IFS front axle's lack of flex as it fell into a V in the trail had one of our rear wheels a couple feet in the air. Slowly, I eased down into the V and continued moving down the trail. As we hit more very off-camber situations on the wet and muddy trail, I was continually amazed at the handling of the Xterra, with its limited slip, solid axles and aggressive tires. The limited slip is standard on the SE S/C and some SE models, depending on the chosen trim package. The limited slip does not always easily catch, and when we'd hit slick spots, feathering of the brake pedal allowed it to kick in and let the 4-speed automatic pull us forward and out of trouble.

We drove for close to an hour on the trail, encountering just about every type of wooded terrain imaginable, until finally finding our limit trying to get out of a fairly deep creek bed. Fighting some hidden under-water rocks, the Xterra did quite well. On occasion, we could feel the lower front suspension arms hitting the rocks and hanging us up. Ah, the perils of IFS. Getting past those rocks, we arrived at the other side. I'm confident that we could have made it out of the bed, however, the driver's side body panels were less than an inch from the trail's walls on a large creek-exit obstacle. I decided that we would rather not return the Xterra to Nissan with a destroyed door panel, so we thanked Keith for all of his help and backed out.

Heading out of the trail, we decided to go to our usual testing grounds. Taking test vehicles to the same spots each time allows us to keep perspective when comparing them to each other. The main spot is a rather steep climb up a fairly-long hill adjacent to a power line. The ground is made up of very hard-packed dirt and has several nice steps on which to test out a four wheel drive vehicle.

Nissan XterraNissan Xterra

Being that we were by ourselves and wanting to keep safe on the trails, we carefully chose our lines up the hill and decided not to go all the way to the very top, in case of trouble. I set out toward the hill and the Xterra climbed. It climbed quite well, in fact. I kept a slow approach speed and met up with the steps. The Xterra's relatively long front end would keep me from taking a straight-ahead approach, so with this in mind, I hit the step at a slight angle. The rear wheels spun in the loose dirt, due to the lack of a limited slip, so I tried again with a bit of momentum and the Xterra walked right up the step.

We played around on the hill some more and turned around to come down. This is one instance where we did find the Jeep Liberty to be superior. The Liberty had much better engine compression braking in steep downhill situations such as this. This is not to say that the Xterra wanted to run away on us, however, it wasn't exactly trying to hold us back, either. We used the brakes to descend the hill, which worked quite well and never locked up on us. We would like to see better compression braking, however, to eliminate brakes heating up over long trails.

Nissan XterraNissan Xterra

So here's the bottom line on the Xterra as far as we're concerned, regarding it's trailworthiness. Remember that Bill Karrane said, the Xterra "provides the perfect foundation for a hard core off-road enthusiast to make the vehicle of their dreams." Is the Xterra a hard core off-roader out of the box? No. Is it a capable off-roader? Oh, heck yeah, it is! Could it be a hard core off-roader? Well, that depends on your definition of hard core. Will we be seeing Xterras in the extreme championships? Probably not. But what if your definition is more along the lines of hitting 4-rated trails? That's where the aftermarket comes in.

The Enthusiast Package is a good start, for sure. Manual locking hubs and a limited slip are a good foundation. The aftermarket has already risen to the occasion and company's like Calmini already have suspension lifts available and Eaton has an ELocker coming very soon if you want a solid, switchable locker instead of the limited slip. Other companies are making bumpers, skid plates, and rocker bars, as well, so armor and winch-mounting are made easier.

By adding some of these goodies, you can now easily lift and lock your Xterra and hit the tougher trails. At that point, your only limiting factor will be the independent front suspension. Certainly, beefed up axles will also be on the horizon as more and more enthusiasts take their Xterras to the trails.

Is the Xterra built to compete with the venerable Jeep Wrangler? Absolutely not - at least from a trail standpoint. Not many out-of-the-box production vehicles could even attempt to take on the Wrangler, with its massive flex, awesome approach and departure angles, and a myriad of accessories and upgrades available.

But is Nissan trying to take on the Wrangler? No they are not. The Xterra is intended to live a multi-purpose life. It's rear stadium seating will carry two or three rear passengers comfortably. During the week, the Xterra will get you to school or work in comfort and will pick up your groceries with plenty of room to spare. On the weekends, it will hit the trails or take you and your mountain bikes wherever you want to take them. And by removing the rear seat bottoms and dropping the seat backs, you'll have no problem fitting a dozen bags of wood chips at your local home improvement center. Anyone who owns a Wrangler will tell you that your options are bit more limited when it comes to space and hauling compared to the Xterra.

Though we had the Xterra for a full week, it didn't take but an hour or so before we were fighting over who would get to drive it. The Xterra is built for fun and delivers on that promise. The on-road handling is excellent for a sport utility. And though the Xterra looks to be top-heavy, it really didn't feel like it - especially compared to the Jeep Liberty, which actually sits 2.4 inches lower. The 178 inch length helped keep the Xterra more stable, as well, compared to the Liberty's 174.4 inches (including rear-mounted spare).

Nissan has a real hit on their hands with the Xterra. Attractive styling, comfortable ride, off-road capability and a reasonable price make it a great vehicle for individuals or families. With dual-stage front air bags and LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children), the Xterra will also help keep you and your kids safe in the event of an accident. If you're in the market for a vehicle within the wide price range of $18,000 to $29,000, you owe it to yourself to consider the Nissan Xterra. It's fun fun fun!

Nissan Xterra
Though not a flex-monster, the Xterra went just about everywhere we wanted to go.

Nissan Xterra
The four wheel drive system works well.

Nissan Xterra
Lack of a limited slip rear end did not keep us from hitting real obstacles.

Nissan Xterra
The Xterra climbed very well up steep hills.

Nissan Xterra
The 8-speaker stereo sounded great, despite one of the tweeters not working.

Nissan Xterra
Even with the rear seat up, the rear of the Xterra has plenty of space.

Nissan Xterra
Unique charcoal fabric adorned the seats and door panels.

Nissan Xterra
Look! A real transfer case!

Nissan Xterra
IFS is the biggest thing standing between the Xterra and the big-dog trails.

Nissan Xterra
BFGoodrich P265/65R17 tires came on our Xterra. (30.56" x 10.43" x17")



Additional Resources:
Insurance Institute Crash Ratings:
Xterra Owner's Club:
Neat Xterra Fact:
You can type "Xterra" with just your left hand.


Michael Cohn

Michael "TXJEEPER" Cohn is the Editor and founder of Rockcrawler.com.

Contact Michael at

Help spread the ROCKCRAWLER world!           Share on Facebook

©1997-2015 ROCKCRAWLER 4x4 and Off-Road Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

RockCrawler.com   -   IH8MUD.com