Executive wheels: Simplicity with street and mountain sensibility

2012 Nissan Xterra Pro-4X

What with the vagaries of Colorado weather, I was glad to be in a SUV frame of mind. I got that way because I drove the 2012 Nissan Xterra Pro-4X. It is possible to get a Nissan Xterra with two-wheel drive, although I would doubt seriously you could find one, or even order one, in Colorado.

The Xterra was always intended to be a more rugged, even Spartan alternative to the more refined and city-fied Pathfinder SUV. As such, it has always had that bulge in the rear gate that inside contains the first aid kit, presumably there because you might need some first aid while out in the woods off-roading. I didn’t off road and don’t very often, but you can easily see that the Xterra could handle some pretty tough terrain.

What impressed me the most about this Xterra is simply that it is, well, simple. As an auto reviewer with a column called Executive Wheels, I get a lot of pretty high-class stuff, and it is amazing these days to get a vehicle that doesn’t have an LED screen, navigation and all kinds of other whiz-bang toys. Some things I have driven are electronic showrooms that happen to drive.

The Xterra, however, featured a relatively normal radio (it came with XM satellite radio), and the classic knobs and buttons that easily change and store channels, and then the same setup to run the A/C and the heat and the fan speed. Not much to distract the driver from the task at hand.

There is also a switch – a dial – that takes the vehicle from 2WD to 4WD, and then a button for locking the 4WD in those off-road situations. Pretty straight forward. This Pro-4X is the top-of-the-line in the Xterra offerings: there’s the X and the S, in two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive each, and then this one. I can’t really tell the difference other than some Pro-4X badging and what they call Pro-4X Specific Seat Fabric. The fabric seats are nothing special, but seem durable, and the seats have ample size and they are quite comfortable in a stiff truck-like manner.

I drove the Xterra around town and out a little on the highway and found it to be relatively nimble. It feels quite heavy and very stable, but the steering wheel is a little on the largish size which would dissuade me from doing any racing maneuvers. All Xterras are equipped with a 4-liter DOHC V6 engine rated at 261 hp, and while it certainly isn’t a race car from speed point of view, this SUV had plenty of power and felt as though it had enough torque to agilely climb steep terrain (the torque, for the torque-a-philes, is rated at 281 ft.-lbs.)

The rear passenger doors on the Xterra have always featured door opener handles up on the side, mounted vertically, rather than horizontal in the normal fashion, I suppose a kind of affectation that some designer back in 2000 thought was cool. Personally, I don’t like it, and just about everyone who rode with me mentioned that it was odd. Not bad; just odd.

The rear seats in this five-passenger vehicle are quite roomy, and getting in and out of the back is very easy. In the way back, under the liftgate, is a smallish cargo area lined with plastic, so it is easy to see that you could throw wet and dirty gear in these and not give it a thought. The rear deck opens to reveal a storage place, but it is so tiny – so shallow – that I wonder why they bothered.

Overall, I liked the Xterra – more than I remember liking it when I reviewed it before – and probably because it was so simple; it seemed almost retro. For a Nissan, it is a pretty quiet ride, which surprised me. About the only downer is that the gas mileage is not good – it is rated 15 mpg city/20 highway – and in all of the comments from Xterra owners I saw this issue was a universal problem in mostly a sea of great comments.

While it is a simple vehicle, the Pro-4X did come with some modern touches. The aforementioned XM radio, of course, and the radio here is a Rockford Fosgate audio system with AM/FM/6-disc CD changer with 8 speakers, and it is MP3/WMA capable. It also sounds great (aided by the low-noise factor). The vehicle also comes standard with Bluetooth hands-free telephone system, and for an additional $260 then put an iPod interface cord in the center console. And, as is now usual, keyless entry, power doors and windows.

I should mention the heat and the A/C since I got to use – had to use – both in the span of 36 hours. Wonderful. As I said, easy to operate, and the heat comes on quickly and makes the interior into an oven if you want, and the air conditioner blasts with the best.

You can get a base model Xterra in two-wheel drive for $25,210, and the base 4WD for $27,260. This Pro-4X model carries a base price of $30,370 and all they added was the iPod thing, $120 for floormats, and $810 in destination charges, for a bottom line of $31,910. That seems expensive until you consider that everything is expensive in the automotive world these days, but when you look around at what is out there that is a competitive price. I think you get a little bit more – and a lot more luxury – for a similar price with a Kia Sorento, but then you wouldn’t get a Kia Sorento for off-roading.

For someone with a city drive and a mountain sensibility, the Nissan Xterra is a must-see.