With the popularity of crossover SUVs that drive and handle a lot like cars, you might think truck-based utility vehicles are a thing of the past. But the 2015 Nissan Xterra soldiers on as an SUV in the traditional sense, embodying the adventurous spirit of classic body-on-frame designs. High ground clearance, a fortified suspension and available four-wheel drive with low-range gearing give the Frontier-derived Xterra formidable off-road ability. Furthermore, it’s got a simple yet functional interior with nifty storage features, and passengers and cargo alike get plenty of space.
Drive the Xterra back to back with a contemporary crossover, though, and the aging Nissan seems rudimentary, even crude. It’s clumsy when pressed around turns, and there’s no hiding the abundant hard plastic surfaces in the cabin. Fuel economy also lags well behind what most crossovers offer. At least niceties like Bluetooth streaming audio, smartphone app integration and a 5-inch central display have trickled down to the S trim level for 2015, adding a welcome dose of civility to the Xterra’s no-nonsense formula.
Only a handful of purpose-built SUVs are still available in today’s market. Your primary alternative is the 2015 Jeep Wrangler, which is a beast in the dirt but suffers from a noisy cabin, inferior side-impact safety and even more ponderous on-road driving dynamics. The 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee is a highly refined alternative, but it’s considerably pricier, as is the 2015 Toyota 4Runner. Buyers simply looking for year-round peace of mind and light-duty trail capability would be wise to consider all-wheel-drive, car-based crossovers like the Jeep Cherokee and Subaru Forester. But if you want serious off-road skills and find the Wrangler a bit too extreme, the 2015 Nissan Xterra is a uniquely appealing option in this price range.
The 2015 Nissan Xterra’s 4.0-liter V6 engine produces plenty of torque, which is an asset whether you’re merging onto the expressway or tackling low-speed off-road obstacles. This isn’t the most refined engine on the planet, but to be fair, refinement isn’t really what the Xterra’s all about — unless you’re comparing it to the Wrangler, that is. The available 6-speed manual shifter is a novel feature these days, adding to the Xterra’s fun factor for drivers so inclined.
The combination of rugged body-on-frame design, generous ground clearance, a long travel suspension and the four-wheel-drive system’s dual-range transfer case guarantees the Xterra’s sure-footedness when the pavement ends. When driving on pavement, you’ll likely notice that the ride, while reasonably comfortable, isn’t as smooth as that of a typical crossover SUV. Likewise, the Xterra lumbers a bit going around tight turns, and its steering is on the slow side.
The 2015 Nissan Xterra is a four-door, five-passenger SUV available in three trim levels. The entry-level X and midrange S trims are available with rear- or four-wheel drive, while the Pro-4X is four-wheel-drive only.
The X comes standard with 16-inch steel wheels, rear privacy glass, roof rack side rails, full power accessories, air-conditioning, cloth upholstery, a 60/40-split folding rear seat, cruise control, a tilt-only steering wheel, Bluetooth phone connectivity and a six-speaker CD sound system with an auxiliary input.
Stepping up to the S adds 16-inch alloy wheels, a driver seat with adjustable height and lumbar, a first-aid kit, an "Easy Clean" washable cargo area with floor cleats and ceiling hooks, a 5-inch central display screen, an iPod/USB interface, Bluetooth streaming audio, satellite radio and NissanConnect smartphone app integration (including hands-free text messaging and Facebook, Pandora and iHeartRadio connectivity). The four-wheel-drive S also gets a roof-mounted gear basket (optional on lesser models) and a front haul hook.
The hard-core Pro-4X adds an electronic locking rear differential, hill-start assist and hill-descent control, unique 16-inch alloy wheels and off-road tires, Bilstein shock absorbers, skid plates, automatic headlights, foglights, roof-mounted off-road driving lights, roof rack crossbars, distinctive cloth upholstery, heated front seats (with a fold-flat front passenger seat), a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with a built-in compass, a navigation system with a rearview camera and a nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system. Leather upholstery is optional on the Pro-4X, but you’ll lose the fold-flat front passenger seat if you spring for it.
The Pro-4X’s mechanical and infotainment upgrades are unavailable on the lower trims, but some of its additional features (notably the foglights, crossbars and auto-dimming mirror) are optional on other Xterras. A hatch-connected 10-by-10-foot folding tent with free-standing capability is among the many dealer-installed options.
Like the rest of the vehicle, the 2015 Nissan Xterra’s cabin has a rough-and-ready vibe. The hard plastic surfaces aren’t particularly warm or attractive, but they make sense in a car like this, simplifying the clean-up process after a long day of outdoor activity. The X trim’s lack of a height-adjustable driver seat is disappointing, and a tilt-only steering wheel across the lineup can make it harder to find a cozy driving position. While there’s ample room for four adults in the Xterra’s two airy rows, most car-based crossover SUVs offer nicer accommodations and a more extensive list of creature comforts.
When it comes to hauling gear instead of people, the Xterra shines with a versatile cargo hold that has a storage box under the load floor for items like a first-aid kit. Nissan actually gives you a first-aid kit in the S and Pro-4X, and these trims also boast an Easy Clean cargo area with handy tie-down cleats and ceiling hooks, along with optional sliding cargo-net dividers that utilize the floor’s built-in tracks. There are 36.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seatbacks, while folding them down expands that to 65.7 cubic feet — both solid numbers.
Additionally, the Pro-4X’s standard fold-flat front passenger seat makes it possible to squeeze in long items with the rear liftgate closed, and oversize or muddy gear can be toted up on top with the beefy roof rack’s available gear basket and crossbars.
The 2015 Nissan Xterra is equipped with antilock disc brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags and side curtain airbags. The Pro-4X also offers hill-descent control and hill-start assist.
In SUVS brake testing, an Xterra Pro-4X stopped from 60 miles per hour in 139 feet, a poor performance by mainstream standards but typical for an off-road-oriented SUV with all-terrain tires. For reference, the Jeep Wrangler recorded a comparable 140-foot stop.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Xterra its highest score of "Good" in the moderate-overlap frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests. The Xterra also earned the second-highest score of "Acceptable" in the roof strength test. Its seat/head restraint design, however, was rated "Marginal" (second-lowest) for whiplash protection in rear impacts.
Every 2015 Nissan Xterra features a 4.0-liter V6 engine rated at 261 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque. The X and S trims come standard with rear-wheel drive, but a four-wheel-drive system with low-range gearing is optional. The Pro-4X is only available with four-wheel drive.
The four-wheel-drive S and the Pro-4X offer either a 6-speed manual transmission or a 5-speed automatic. The rear-wheel-drive S and both X configurations (RWD and 4WD) are automatic-only.
In SUVS performance testing, an Xterra 4WD with the automatic transmission accelerated from zero to 60 miles per hour in 7.7 seconds, average for a V6-powered midsize SUV.
The Xterra RWD returns an EPA-estimated 18 miles per gallon combined (16 city/22 highway). Adding 4WD drops fuel economy to 17 miles per gallon combined (15 city/20 highway), regardless of transmission choice.
Legitimate off-road prowess; versatile interior with innovative cargo features; available manual transmission.
The 2015 Nissan Xterra is one of the last truly capable off-road SUVs. It’s also a tolerable daily driver, but there are better choices if you don’t plan to regularly exploit its ability in the dirt.