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2000 Nissan Xterra

The Nissan Motor Company has had its troubles of late. Although rumours of a predatory takeover or of an imminent demise were exaggerated, the Japanese automaker did take a big hit during the recent Asian monetary crisis. Saddled with a stale and often uninspired inventory, the company found itself strapped for cash.

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The Nissan Motor Company has had its troubles of late. Although rumours of a predatory takeover or of an imminent demise were exaggerated, the Japanese automaker did take a big hit during the recent Asian monetary crisis. Saddled with a stale and often uninspired inventory, the company found itself strapped for cash.

In response, Nissan has mounted a "What, me worry?" public relations thrust and announced a spate of new products and improvements. For example, there is an impressive 2000 Maxima already on sale (reviewed by Jim Kenzie in these pages last week).

And Pathfinder, which has long been promised some much-needed additional horsepower, will get a 3.5 L truck version of the hot 3.0 L Maxima V6 sometime next winter.

However, the two vehicles intended to bring Nissan back into the public's eye are trucks. In reality, they are both year-2000 variations on the Frontier mini-pickup.

Xterra presents sport utility bodywork extending behind the Frontier's nose and cab.

The Crew Cab simply extends the body to accommodate full rear doors and a rear bench seat – at the expense of the length of the pickup box.

Although the concepts existed before the crisis, the vehicles have been hustled into production. Both are targeted at what Nissan labels the "backpack generation," fad-prone people in their late teens through middle 20s.

Brilliant marketing? Or a shameless attempt to rush in and sell a lot of vehicles in a vulnerable and previously unrecognized niche?

After a week spent in each vehicle, I admit to being charmed by the Crew Cab, but perplexed by the Xterra. We'll start with the sport-ute and deal with the four-door pickup in two weeks.

La Jolla, Calif.-based Nissan Design International's concept for the Xterra is simple enough. Go back to the roots of the sport utility and you'll find the truck-wagon; wagon-style bodywork on a pickup chassis. Tough, cheap to build, practical.

NDI's chief designer Jerry Hirshberg, however, reportedly took further inspiration from his observations of active, sport-minded young people.

In this group, sport utilities are rare; pickup trucks and full-size cargo vans dominate the scene. The reason? For these kids, SUVs cost too much and the tight confines of today's SUV cargo areas can't get the job done. (I, too, have failed to weasel mountain bikes and windsurfing gear into a variety of sport-utes.)

With versatility in mind, the Xterra's rear body shape is defined by a tall hatch door. The rest of Hirshberg's design self-consciously avoids any hint of the luxury-tinged sport utilities piloted by the kids' parents. With its roof pipes and basket, its angles, bumps and bulges, it purports to celebrate function with minimal regard for form.

Well, it's fine for form to follow function if the form functions.

On the Xterra, we're given chunky bolder-than-thou fender extensions where the Frontier 4×4's lips would have been okay.

A storage pocket stamped into the tailgate is cute, but it should have been larger. The truck's height makes it difficult to heave stuff onto the roof rack. And the side pipes along the rocker panels are mounted too high to be steps and too close in to assist in safe access to the roof.

The plumber's-nightmare rack system gives the illusion of function, but can't equal the practical ingenuity of aftermarket products from Thule and Yakima.

Inside, the front of the cab is identical to the comfortable and well laid-out Frontier. The rear seat, however, lacks both knee room and under-thigh support.

Folding the rear seatbacks results in a long cargo hold. But to get the floor flat, the seat bases have to be removed and there is no storage for them. Moreover, clumsy seat-base latches make the removal inconvenient and reinstallation a pain.

Performance can best be described as adequate.

Driving around in the Xterra is pleasant enough. The cabin is quiet, the sound system is excellent and the 3.3 L 170 hp engine works in well-tuned concert with the automatic transmission.

But it won't win any awards for braking or acceleration and, if pushed into a corner, the tires signal their defeat with a loud moan.

Off the road, the Xterra responds to the height and size of its body, feeling slightly tippy and heavy when compared to the Frontier SE 4×4 which handles the boonies with ease and grace. (Right to brag, Wheels, Aug. 15, 1998)

Nissan has set the price at $28,998, add $1,200 for the automatic. That's competitive if you simply peruse the list of amenities like dual airbags, a/c, six-speaker CD, power windows, locks and mirrors plus a first-aid kit that fits in the tailgate bulge. But $30,198 is not cheap in anybody's budget.

Illusion or reality, Hirshberg's thesis ultimately breaks down with the assumption that the backpack generation will think that the Xterra is cool.

He forgets or ignores that this age group has a history of setting its own automotive style.

Postwar, they built the first hotrods using inexpensive and available cars left from the '30s. In the '60s they kicked the windows out of ancient station wagons to transport their surfboards.

The van craze of the '70s got started when some kid lined his Econoline with shag carpet.

A segment of the current generation has created a colourful new art form using the Honda Civic as a medium.

But I doubt that the backpackers would describe the Xterra as cool even if one of their number had built it in his parents' garage.

Since infancy, Hirshberg's target niche has been subjected to an intensive barrage of brand identification. Although seduced by it in their tenderest years, growing up, today's young people have become openly suspicious of any corporate attempt to define their way of life.

Few Canadian backpackers have access to $30,000. Fewer still will part with that money because a middle-aged Californian style-setter thinks they should.

I've long been an admirer of Jerry Hirshberg's freewheeling automotive creativity, but the Xterra, under-conceived and under-executed, may be evidence that he has overstayed his tenure, that Nissan has been under his Svengali-like thrall for too long.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae prepared his assessment based on driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by Nissan Canada.

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