Terra Firma No Longer

Driving off road has been a part of car culture since the automobile’s inception, mainly because there weren’t many roads to begin with in the late 19th/early 20th century. So for survivability sake, cars had to handle rough trails. Since then, vehicles have been more refined and developed, as well as the roads, but there still has always been a need for automobiles to take on the rough country. This means that we have been developing vehicles for over 100 years that are designed to get us from point A, drive over some mountains, through some hills, and into some woods to arrive safely at point B. Though this may seem difficult, the science behind it is simple, all you need is a few of the right ingredients. You take a stout vehicle with good ground clearance, approach and departure angles, give it four-wheel drive, slap in a power plant with lots of low-end torque, and a drivetrain that can handle it, and have some tough, grippy tires; with all this, you got yourself a sport utility vehicle (in the classic sense). Now, when compiling these ingredients, this usually meant that the manufacturer had the SUV built with a body-on-frame construction(with a few exceptions) to afford the greatest compatibility for each of these systems. Body-on-frame design also had an added benefit to the owners of these vehicles when it came to modification. Since the structural integrity was primarily on the frame of the vehicle; it allowed for the driver to build, modify, and personalize their rig without affecting the rigidity of the vehicle as a whole. It also made items on the vehicle simpler to remove or add on, since everything was bolted to a frame. The formula for an offroader is so simple that it can be found in every manufactuers history. Of course, Jeeps are the first to come to mind; by far the most common off-road vehicles seen on the road and are known for their famous, historic pedigree. But there are plenty of others: Toyota Land Cruisers, Nissan Pathfinders, Suzuki Samurais, and Ford Broncos to name a few.

Suzuki Samuari: departure and approach angle? Non-existent.

I grew to love off-roading through proxy to my father, where weekends were filled with getting whatever four-wheel drive vehicle we had at the time, lost on fire roads, Jeep trails, or farm paths in a fifty-mile radius of home. My first driving experience occurred off the beaten trail behind the wheel of our family Scout 800 in the woods of Wisconsin when I was 14 years old. I took my license test in a 2004 Jeep TJ, and the first car I ever bought was a 2000 Jeep Cherokee XJ that I proceeded to modify for driving trails in Colorado. Needless to say, I have had a lot of trail time. The Cherokee was my pride and joy when I owned it, and it felt like it could take me anywhere there was Earth beneath me.

International Scout, the hipster SUV; a Bronco before Broncos were cool

After 15 years of life, 180,000 miles, and an engine replacement, I decided to pass on my Cherokee to a new driver of the muddy roads. This decision, however, started with a long period of research on what I would get to replace the old XJ. So I started with the first name on the list for “go anywhere” vehicles; Jeep. At this point, the new Cherokee was on sale in the market, and I heard it was offered with an off-road package. Little did I know that meant it had a 1-inch lift, tow hooks, and a 9-speed auto transmission that Jeep’s own website said was “built for economy.” That’s when I realized, that the classic idea of an “off-road” capable vehicle has changed. Granted the new Cherokee is built for mass appeal, not the niche market of driving through mud holes or fire trails. Now, my idea of an off-road rig is not so much something that the vehicle is out-of-the-box ready for the trails, but its something that an owner can build, modify, and personalize to their liking. But the Fiat powertrain and car frame sourced Cherokee was not going to cut it, and though some aftermarket support was growing, I didn't see in it what I saw in the original Cherokee as the "go anywhere" Jeep. So what was left on the market that fit my vague guidelines for an overland vehicle? The Toyota Land Cruiser was way out of my price range and turned into a pseudo-lux SUV. The Toyota 4Runner was closer, but still just seemed like it was a vehicle that would be “too nice” to take off road, and was way too expensive for my budget. The Nissan Pathfinder went the way of the Land Cruiser and wouldn’t be finding paths any time soon (am I right!?). The truck market pricing point has skyrocketed and let’s be serious, you can’t really take a full size truck on any really cool trails for the fear of damaging it.

This left three options in my mind for my needs: The Jeep Wrangler, the Toyota FJ, and the Nissan Xterra. I settled on the Xterra. With its’ faux Land Rover Discovery-style roofline and their notable off road prowess, the Xterra had always intrigued me. It also happened to be the best bang for your buck: the Pro-4x model came with a locking rear differential, skid plates (alibiet aluminum ones), Bilstein shocks, and the biggest reason for my purchase: a 4.0L engine tied to a 6-speed manual transmission. All of this on a body-on-frame, classic-styled SUV meant I was sold. As for the others, I considered the Jeep Wrangler, but for the options I wanted, it was too far out of my price range; and the FJ had been discontinued before my search (manufacturing ceased in 2014), and just wasn’t my style. Honestly, I thought it was just downright ugly.

The roof lights look like bunny ears

Less than two weeks after my purchase, the Xterra was already on the road, cross-country to Utah, taking various off road trails along the way. The Xterra handled it all admirably. The 6-speed manual made both on and off highway driving spectacular and the 4.0L made it feel like a mountain goat climbing up a cliff face. It might have been the fact that I had a 15 year-old Jeep as my main comparison, but so far the Xterra was knocking it out of the park compared to the old XJ. The only complaint was that the Pro-4x Xterra maintained a stock ride height, whereas other companies usually bump up the vehicle an inch or two with its off road package. Two inches was really all it needed to stretch its legs on the trails, without the scare of denting those aluminum skid plates.

At the end of the Great Salt Lake

Comparing it to the current king of the market, the Jeep Wrangler, the Xterra would need some more modifications to close the gap. However, the Xterra was not meant to be the niche off-road vehicle like the Jeep Wrangler was, a vehicle who has owned that market for over 40 years. Nissan used the Xterra to cast a larger net over the SUV market. I am not a Jeep hater by any means; most of my time spent behind the wheel had the seven-slotted grille on the front of the vehicle I was driving. I just think that Jeeps rely a lot on their rich, historic past and the concept of having an “adventurous personality” through ownership of a Jeep. This is a fantastic marketing tactic that has people buying them hand-over-fist. Jeep is basically saying “Do you want to look outdoors-y or appear you are going on an adventure every time you turn the key? Buy a Jeep.” But setting aside these ideas of ownership that are advertised by the manufacturer, you can compare the barebones of the vehicle. The Xterra's powertrain of a 4.0L V6, puts out 261HP and 281ft/lbs of Torque, which made near exact as the Jeep's 3.8L. Both vehicles had almost the same Cargo space, towing capability, and features. But performance wise, Xterra was faster, stopped better, had better safety equipment, and more. My point is, if you look at basic ratings that all vehicles usually get rated on in car reviews; stuff like power, handling, comfort, utility, and economy, the Jeep usually hurts in a lot of those categories. What comes to mind is an article I read in either Motor Trend or Car and Driver sometime in the past four or five years where the reviewer of the new Jeep Wrangler JK said something similar to this: “though the Wrangler scores the lowest in the majority of categories compared to its competitors, it will still sell more than double the next nearest contender.” And the journalist was right. The concept of a Jeep is a beautiful thing: you can customize it to fit your personality; you can take body parts off at will to have an awesome summer cruiser; by owning one, people assume you are adventurous; it’s both masculine and feminine, where Barbie owns one as well as GI Joe and it does all of this while still being uncomfortable, loud, handling poorly, and getting bad gas mileage. Even my mental picture of a Jeep Wrangler is a doorless CJ-5 driving along a mountain road during the early summer, which makes me want to empty my pockets for one right now. I firmly believe that if you are an uninteresting person, a purchase of any Wrangler, past, present or future, will automatically give you 25 cool points. But still, it goes against the simple consumer principle of better performing products tend to outsell those they are better than. On the Jeep owner side, the argument is that the Jeep still reigns king on the trails from the factory, which is true by a long shot. And its aftermarket support is probably the largest of any one type of vehicle. However, when I see the soccer mom who lives in the suburbs with a JK, she isn’t hitting the trails anytime soon, yet she got the Jeep over its peers anyway. Thats what is so cool about owning a Jeep and a testament to how good they are at marketing and making a product people want. At the end of the day, people want Jeeps. But what about the Xterra?

Hail to the King, baby

The Xterra was marketed as the Generation X adventure-mobile. It was named after the Nissan sponsored off-road triathlon race, however, it also filled the mid-sized SUV market for Nissan. This meant that, along with those who want to strap a kayak to the roof of their Xterra, there was also that person who just needed a small SUV that was good at driving through the snow. Now, in the off road community, the Xterra assumed the role as the Nissan Pathfinder’s replacement for the off road world. The 1990’s Pathfinder was a strong, very capable SUV off the paved street, but by the 2000’s it gained weight and was going the way of many older SUVs by becoming a grocery getter and sports practice car; now it is basically a minivan. The aftermarket took off with the Xterra and though it’s not at the Jeep level, its’ performance market is very healthy in off road modifications and trail gear.

Nothing like a little bit of dirt on a new car

But how does it handle the off road in stock form? Now, taking the Xterra to the OHV park in stock form as I did soon after I purchased it, raised a lot of eyebrows in the more “hardcore” crowd who were towing trail rigs to the park. A buddy who happened to be at the park as well, pulled up next to me to point out “are you really going driving here with that??” Now, having near a decade of driving off road in various Jeeps and vehicles, I had a good judge of the capabilities and limits of the Xterra, and though I may have taken his comment personally, it was probably more along the lines of “that’s a new car” rather than a slight at the fact that it was an Xterra. Needless to say, I did get stuck. I underestimated what looked like a shallow creek crossing that turned out to be nothing but a foot and a half deep of mud. But the rest of the day was no problem for this mountain goat. At the end of the day I had the three other Jeeps and a Tacoma TRD impressed with how the stock Xterra kept up.

Delicious mud

Less than a month and a half after my purchase of the Xterra, Nissan announced that it would no longer make the Xterra after the 2015 year, meaning that the Xterra went the way of the Toyota FJ, which ceased to exist after 2014. Leaving Jeep as the only reigning champ for the classic definition of body-on-frame off road SUV. With the loss of these two models, it definitely showed the end of an era. Now a lot of people may agree that this “era” being referenced is that of the gas guzzling “true SUV,” but I think it is more than that. I think it’s the sign that what we think of as automobiles are changing. Most of the fingers point towards fuel economy being the killer. Government mandated restrictions and sales figures in the cost-benefit analysts for these types of vehicles are no longer a viable product for the companies who manufacture them. A lot of people will get up in arms saying that they shouldn’t have killed them off, that the company neglected marketing the vehicle as well as giving it simple tech upgrades to keep it competitive and I believe that is true. However, the writing on the wall stating that the SUV market was changing, had started many years ago. Sales figures started strong when these vehicles came out, but over the years they slowly dwindled down despite face lifts and new body styles. The market has been going the way of Europe: consumers want smaller, efficient cars with amenities and features. Cars aren’t that much of a utility, or transportation, as they are an accessory to the owner nowadays. You can see it in advertisements where the biggest print is what type of “infotainment” the car has. Another indicator I noticed was when I looked at some cars and SUVs recently for my wife, and all I saw were CVTs as the sole transmission option across the board for most manufacturers. That was something that shocked me; that I was finding it difficult to locate any reasonable priced car with a “normal” automatic transmission. The death of the manual has been a long time coming as we all know, but to see automatics disappear so quickly definitely means times have definitely changed in the automotive landscape.

Still keeping up without a problem

So the Xterra goes the way of the dinosaur and the vehicles before it. False rumors pop up that Nissan will bring back the model, but I don’t foresee that happening. And if they did bring it back, it would be in name only, similar to that of the old Jeep Cherokee in comparison to the new one. I feel lucky I grabbed one before the model’s final demise and I have a huge sense of pride in owning one of the last big engine, manual transmission SUVs to be produce for the foreseeable future.

14,000 feet at Mosquito Pass

But who is to say this is the last we will see of these robust beasts. Henry did just toss his hat into the ring…