Texas®

For the longest time I’ve been a little confused about how I feel about the Nissan Xterra. Perhaps that’s because it seems to be a little confused on its own.

The first generation of Nissan’s small truck based SUV was introduced in 2000 in the midst of Nissan’s darkest period. Suffering through a full on collapse of the Asian economy. Nissan had fallen victim to the same self-delusion of infallibility that many big companies fall into after decades of success. They started believing their own hype and found themselves overwhelmed by debt.

It became so bad, at one point, Nissan’s product line had not been updated in years, sales were floundering, and quite possibly the strangest automotive savior came to rescue the massive company. French giant Renault came in and partnered with Nissan creating a Franco-Nippon global company referred to as the Renault/Nissan Global Alliance.

At first the mere idea that Renault, which had been an example of a company with a run-away union problem, beset on all sides by strikes and governmental semi-ownership, being anyone’s savior was ludicrous. But after the French government intervened in a series of particularly nasty strikes and corporate revolts in the early 1980’s Renault quietly became a very well-run global company that completely ignored the American market.

Renault was able to bring stability and financial backing to the deal and Nissan really did have some of the most advanced manufacturing abilities, supply chain, and design expertise in the business. A man who is now somewhat of a legend in the business world, Carlos Goshen, was put in charge and Nissan became the company it could only have dreamed about only a few years before.

One of the first new products out of the alliance was the Xterra. Based on the same frame chassis as the “Hard Body” Frontier small pickup trucks, the Xterra hit the market in North America winning the Motor Trend Truck of the year and other accolades. The only problem was Nissan didn’t have a penny to spend on extra marketing and never really reached out to create the image of the Xterra.

That image and the reality of the Xterra (now second generation) is where my confusion lies. The Xterra has been successful, if not a run-away success, in carving out sales in the multi-functional, athletic and adventurous consumer market. You see dozens of Xterras full of dogs, festooned with mountain bikes, canoes and windsurfers strapped to the roof racks criss-crossing their way from softball games to trips to the REI camping store. The adventure sports-minded consumer comprises a huge chunk of their business but the anomaly that they are almost all female makes for a “Huh? How the hell?”.

Nissan managed to land an affluent, well educated, young and mobile market organically. It just grew seemingly by itself as the corporate money was more focused on pumping life into the Crossover market, backing the Rogue and Morano wagon-utes in pursuit of the “soccer mom,” and the counter culture market wrapped itself around the Xterra.

Nissan did toss some of their marketing dollars into music festivals and X-Game festivals, but the legitimate off-road capabilities, ease of use on-road and functionality of the Xterra grew its own market.

The 2011 Xtera PRO-4X provided to Any Driven Sunday is a great example of how building something with the right combination of form and function works really well. It is like driving with an excellent automotive backpack slung over your shoulder. It has dozens of really smart, well conceived and well executed little touches that may not be obvious at first blush. There are pockets, little doors and slots throughout the truck to stick and store the multitude of bits of stuff you don’t even realize you have.

This package is the high water mark on options for Nissan including: leather seating, XM, Bluetooth, GPS, Rockford Fosgate sound system with Ipod/MP3 integration, and pretty much every power option short of air conditioned seats. It is also one of the pricier packages you can load up on at $32,000.00, only the NISMO package comes in higher.

Any full frame truck like the Xterra is going to have a slightly more harsh on-road ride than a “lifted car” crossover, but after spending a week popping and bopping around in the Xterra that rougher ride is just part of the appeal. The truck frame and real off-road abilities on the PRO-4X are just downright fun. As a small UTE the Xterra has the ability to go pretty deep off the beaten path, turn around, and get you home again in one piece.

Side note, The Pro-4X package came with roof-mounted off-road only lights. They are too powerful to be street legal on road and are activated by depressing a switch on the dash when the high-beams are engaged. These are so powerful that when I tested them out sitting in front of my house, I am not sure, but I think a squirrel spontaneously combusted in the tree in front of the truck. It’s like seeing daylight, and yes, they are blindingly bright. This is not something to try and flash at oncoming cars on I-35 as they might blind them and cause a wreck. This is why they are redundantly switched the way they are.

Running with a 261hp truck-inspired variation of Nissan’s corporate-wide 370Z inspired 4liter V6, the Xterra is not exactly a fuel sipper but EPA estimates of 15/20 are really spot on to the reality experienced on, and off, the roads of North Texas.

All these capabilities and real world functionality might just explain why I have been so confused by my feelings for the Xterra. It stems from the fact that the little truck can do so many things well that it has the ability to be a bit of a chameleon. Whether it’s a truck, car, backpack or pelican box on wheels. My confusion, I now realize, was more that the truck can be what ever you want it to be.

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