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2004 compact suv buyer's guide - comparison shopping for women, sport utility reviews
by Martha Hindes

Nissan Xterra
Nissan Xterra  SUV

There's nothing "Xtreme" about Xterra for '04. Major changes in horsepower from a hefty kick in the engine were last year's adjustments on Nissan's heavy duty compact sport utility. But the qualities that have made it appealing for just about any setting still keep this rugged truck (yes, truly a truck) in prime time lineup.

In the "you pick your battles carefully" genre, Nissan inched its way forward in bits and pieces with the current Xterra, as much attention was diverted toward the launch of the company's first full-size pickup truck in '04 where it plans to stake a claim. But that doesn't detract from the Xterra's rugged and functional spot in a segment populated more and more by creampuff contenders touting sumptuous ride and civilized handling over the requisite guts for going off-road. In the "in-your-face" macho spirit that seems to define Nissan these days, the body-on-frame Xterra doesn't compromise on rugged looks or ability, particularly in four-wheel-drive rendition, even if it stumbles at times in refinement.

As before, there are three engine options, from an OK inline four-cylinder mated with a manual transmission on the $18,000 base model, to supercharged 3.3 liter, V-6 oomph. And nothing looks quite like Xterra, with it hunky "shoulder" line, powerful face and Nissan's penchant for tell-tale bumps. There's a "power bulge" on the hood, and a first-aid kit safety bulge in the rear. With time on your hands, consider checking the online "X" message boards that give the vehicle a kind of cult status. Among topics? Another bump. The requisite "steering wheel snap," or the "thump in the (road) bump" that accompanies Xterra beyond the reaches of civilization.

If you travel on-pavement, you probably won't need the tow hook, but could welcome the optional side-curtain airbags and in-cabin microfilter. If you bounce along untrod trails, you'll surely appreciate the tire pressure monitor system even more, part of the optional Dynamic Control Package Nissan added in '03. Few things are as annoying as finding out the hard way a tire is totally flat, especially when help is far, far away.