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Ever since my Mo came oh so close to letting me down last December way out in the middle of no where in Death Valley, I've been pondering a change. When I first got my Mo, the intent was primarily for schlepping my kids around and my self to and from work, plus the ability to tow a race car in due course, and a nice cruiser for those frequent road trips south from San Jose to LA. Only as a distant after thought was off-roading on my mind...I figured since I needed the towing ability, it had to be an SUV, so some mild dirt road exploring would also be a fun thing to do. Well, after barely 14 months of ownership I've burned 38,000 miles into the OD taking road trips to Death Valley, The Grand Canyon, much of Utah, and Joshua Tree National Park, venturing WAY off the beaten path exploring ghost towns and hot springs and abandoned gold mines and the like. I had no idea I would have this kind of fun slipping through sand and stumbling over rocks, and Nissan really didn't design the Murano for this kind of work. So with the recent alternator failure and irritatingly being forced to turn back on a few trails to protect my Mo's soft belly, news of the all new, Titan chassis based 2005 XTerra looked very interesting indeed.

Now I realize that to die hard off-roaders I'm comparing apples to orangutangs, since one is a real 4x4 on a truck chassis while the other is a unibody wagon with a lift kit and part time electronic AWD. But they are both mid-sized VQ powered Nissan SUVs, and they both have at least the potential of doing all my day to day tasks along with additional fun. Yes, I would have to trade away a lot of comfort and convenience for a real 4x4 system, 5000lb towing capacity and that "Solar Yellow" paint job, but if the truck chassis could come even close to being as much of a joy to drive as my Mo then I might easily jump at the more rugged Nissan sibling. So as the new 2005 XTerras started arriving at local dealers over the past few weeks I finally found an Off Road edition at Capitol Nissan here in San Jose and headed over for a test drive this evening.

First impression when walking up to the front is "BIG". While the Murano has the sharp shark nose, this thing has a huge wide flat bull-dog nose, bulky fenders and tubular roof rack making the thing look massive in comparison. Funny thing is that the Murano is actually bigger, both in width and a substantial amount of length and wheel base. I'm not complaining though, I hate the Murano nose and really should have dressed it up with a brush guard eons ago, while the XTerra has the perfect brawny look to match it's intended design purpose.

Hopping in the driver's seat though, my hopes started fading fast... The driver's seat went back JUUUST far enough for my 6'2", 34" inseam frame to rest my feet comfortable on the peddles, while the Mo has miles of leg room and I actually have to cinch the seat forward quite a ways from the stops to get comfy. The nifty blue weave cloth on the Off Road model seats was neat, but the seat didn't hug me right, not even the slightest bit of lateral support. Trying to sit behind my self sunk my knees deep into the driver's seat back upholstery, at least a couple inches less room than the Murano. Also the rear door openings are very narrow with the rear wheel well hoop intruding big time, making egress a challenge. Even the front doors are fairly narrow, which means with my drivers seat rolled back to the stops I had a very large (maybe twice the size of the Murano) B-Pillar right next to my head forming a huge blind spot.

The rest of the interior is very utilitarian, a blunt cliff like dash with simple dial controls and gauges, and plastic plastic everywhere (by design, I know, easy to wipe down), and a comparatively unfriendly steering wheel with a much narrower hoop to wrap your hands around (only the SE gets a Murano and 350Z like thick leather wheel). The one big bright spot on the interior was the one spot on the door without hard plastic, the elbow rest; oh my my my did it feel good compared to the Mo's brutally hard arm rest. The mirrors for whatever reason didn't really give me a confident feel for the corners of the vehicle and what was around me, and also the middle rear-view mirror was too low, interfering with the direct level line of sight for my tall frame.

Kudos to the Fleet Manager who saw me come in, he just threw me the keys and said go take the only Off Road they had directly from the show room floor for a test drive, they would keep an eye on my Murano until I came back :D.

That 4.0L VQ pulls off the line WONDERFULLY, wow, it would probably bust our CVTs into a million bits. It seems to run out of breath towards the top end, but this motor has been stroked and retuned to be more of a truck motor, so no surprises there. While first gear pulled very hard, it did have a funky shuddering harmonic vibration in the drive line around 5000-6000RPM, but strangely only in that gear so I don't think it was the motor misbehaving. I look forward to test driving the 6-speed and seeing if it has the same issue.

The suspension was a bit softer over the bumps than my SE Mo, but body roll was substantial and highly annoying. While the steering was reasonably precise for small changes, if you pulled on it at all when at speed there was a big delay while the beast took a set and then started to actually turn, and if you snapped the wheel back again it would again continue to turn for a fraction of a second while the chassis & body sorted them selves out. Very very disappointing. Yes I know that it's unfair to bang a truck chassis so hard for being a truck chassis, but I had high hopes for Nissan to pull off some magic like they did when the turned the Altima into almost an AWD sport sedan in the Murano. They certainly made an improvement from the old XTerra, but IMHO not nearly good enough for me. To add insult to injury in the road feel department, the brakes seemed soft and far less powerful than the Mo, with lots of nose dive, making me feel none too confident about emergency maneuvers. Add the poor road manners to the poor visibility and it simply was not a pleasant drive.

After the test drive I took my Mo on exactly the same route as I did with the XTerra and the difference was immense, better steering and control, far better cornering, much better visibility, smooth VQ+CVT power...ah it was wonderful, I fell in love all over again. The only down side is that it was readily aparent how noisy my Kumho STX tires have become, need to figure something else out because the 4x4 werrwerrwerr is getting worse. :(

So I clearly ended up disappointed, but in many ways that seems mostly due to my inflated hopes that the Nissan suspension wizards could work some magic with a live rear axle, not really any fault of the XTerra's. It's a great machine for what it is, but being at heart a sports car kinda guy I need more pleasure and control (and by extension, safety IMHO) from my daily drive than what a truck chassis can offer. Add the spartan interior and small back seat and the 2005 XTerra for me is simply a no-go. What to do from here? I guess it's time to start talking to fabricator friends of mine about building a skid plates and sliders, mount up brush guard and tow hitch, figure out some way to stuff an R185 LSD under the rear end, and paint my Mo Solar Yellow and go have fun in the dirt like Nissan's "Urban Jungle" commercials never intended.:4:
 

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Good review and interesting read... I like the idea of real skid plates, but what would you do about the CVT air deflector?
 

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If the size of the Murano and brutishness of the Xterra both appeal to you, maybe you should consider looking at the new Pathfinder. It scored very well recently in Car & Driver's offroad comparison, and seems to have a level of luxury at least equal to the Murano. The Pathfinder has the same trucky underpinnings as the Titan, Armada, Xterra and Frontier, so it should satisfy your inner adventurer.

Just a thought
 

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i tested the new pathfinder as well... it doesnt even come close to luxury & space the mighty MO has to offer. ....
with my seat fully at its back position, i wasnt able to hop into the back without some struggle... but in murano, its not a big issue at all (im 6'3" so i usually keep myself as the guinea pig for leg space in cars)

the engine did performed really well on the hwy @ 90 -- 100 km/h but again, it was the quiteness & luxury of murano which overcame any superiority of pathfinder.... however the thing i liked in pathfinder was it came standard with an in-dash 6 cd CD/MP3 player... which i would love to see in the MO.
 

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I felt the same after driving a 2005 4Runner for a week. At first I thought hey its not so bad. Then when I got back into the Murano, wow what a difference. Murano is roomier, smoother, handles better, and much much more comfortable.
 

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Discussion Starter #6
For the front skid plate I would actually build in a CVT scoop, but a little more contoured to ride up over things instead of just going "Chunk! Oh, there's the curb" like my metal 2003 scoop does ;) .

The Pathfinder actually has an even smaller back seat than the XTerra by a hair. The Armada & Titan Crew Cab have a much bigger back seat, but the front seat gets yet another inch smaller which would be uncomfortable to drive for me, plus those two are simply too big for my garage and life right now.
 

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The squished feeling of the Pathfinder, Xterra, etc., is due to the high floor/low ceiling design. This is a key component of the differences between the "rugged" SUVs and the more roadworthy, car-based vehicles. The reason the MO is easy to get into and out of is because of it's car-based origins. The floor is low and the roof is high, enabling effortless ingress/egress. That nice low floor, however, sacrifices ground clearance, which is amplified further by the Murano's low hanging muffler and CVT scoop.

"Rugged" SUVs, such as the 4Runner and Xterra, have high floors that allow the engineers to tuck all the goodies up and out of harms way for off-roading adventures. To keep the center of gravity relatively low to avoid tip-over, the roof can only be so high. The result is a vehicle that is 6 feet tall with a sardine-can interior. To me, that was one of the most significant drawbacks to the 4Runner. That and the fact that you can't get NAV w/ the 6-cylinder engine.

Every vehicle selection is going to involve some kind of trade off. The furthest offroad I will ever go is the grass parking lot at the "u-pick" pumpkin patches. To me, that ruled out all the trucky and rugged SUVs, as well as the wanna-be SUVs that look rugged but really are not, such as the Pilot. I would imagine that the VW Touareg would have been great, even with the 6, if VW hadn't weighed down the vehicle with all the off-road tack-ons. I am sure that most Touareg owners will never see the great yonder, and they are just wasting their money on the excessive mechanics to carry around and spoil their gas mileage. The Murano is near perfect for me because of its excellent road manners and ability to handle snow, rain and light "near-roading" experiences, such as annual pumpkin picking excursions.

I'm certainly not knocking folks who buy and use the off-road SUVs off the road. I do find it comical when I see soccer moms driving Land Rovers and Xterras. The challenge here is that many of the requirements for true off-roading are vastly different from the requirements for roadworthy sport haulers which (admit it now) represent the next-generation family wagon.

Once again, I'm not looking to diss anyone. I have a lot of respect for this forum and everyone who participates - this is a class act. My opinions are obviously my own, and apply to my situation only. Everyone's mileage will vary.
 

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I've taken rental cars off roading... Drove one through the unpaved washed out sections of Mulhulland Dr. in Socal and as I was entering, a guy in a big jacked up 4x4 looked down at me and said "I wouldn't be taking that in there..." I responded, "It's OK, it's not mine!" and gassed it..

I didn't hurt the car, but did have to be careful in a couple of spots.

So the Murano with skid plates, maybe a temp guage on the CVT and a remotely operated trap door for the vent would make me happy for most casual off roading.

If you build the skid plates, I definately want to see them.

Might want to do something with the resonator/muffler in the middle, too.
 

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Discussion Starter #9
Well said Mike, unibody and truck based SUVs are two different things, and unfortunately it seems never the twain shall meet when it comes to the positive attributes of both, at least for now.

You're absolutely right Jaak, that center muff is going to be history, but it's also in some ways protecting those plastic gas tanks, so skid plates are really going to be a priority.

Another PITA is how the rear sway bar comes down so low under the rear diff, not sure what to do about that yet either.
 

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I think this is a very good discussion. However, I find it amusing how on the 4x4 forums, the discussions are how to make their high SUVs handle better or go faster. On this board, we do the opposite by wanting to make our good handling quick SUV more offroad capable! :D
 

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MightyMo - The Jeep GC is a unibody and is very "offroad capable"...I haven't driven the '05 with the independent front suspension plus "Hemi" but I hear it's awesome....also lots of $$$$.
 

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Discussion Starter #12
Oh, and I'm heavily anti-american made when it comes to cars unless we're talking Shelby or Saleen.

:D

But you're right, I have heard that some of the Jeep stuff is trying new dual-use chassis designs, maybe I should go test drive one for fun...
 
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