2012 Nissan Xterra great for adventures, impractical for families

2012 Nissan Xterra 2012 Nissan Xterra Photo Credit: Cars.com

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The Xterra certainly has its place in the world: It's a go-to SUV for the uber-rugged sort. I can see my 20-something brother driving this five-seat SUV (if only he'd hold down a job to pay for it); he'd throw his mountain bike in the back, skillfully traverse seemingly impassable terrain, then toss his muddy gear into the plastic-lined cargo area before meeting his girlfriend for a romantic ramen noodle dinner. He might even shower first.

The rough and tumble 2012 Nissan Xterra SUV should appeal to many for whom power windows, a radio and hill descent control are all they need in life -- but there are dozens of evolved crossover models that are better suited to how most of us live.

The 2012 Xterra doesn't have any notable changes versus last year's model. The Xterra comes in three trim levels: the entry-level X and the slightly better equipped S, both of which are available in either two- or four-wheel drive, as well as the Pro-4X, which is available only with four-wheel drive.

EXTERIOR

The Xterra was designed to rise high above rough rocks and boulders, and it's definitely better for rock crawling than for zooming around cities and highways. While its super-high ground clearance has a place in the natural wilderness, in urban and suburban jungles, it's just a pain. Without running boards (available as a stand-alone option and included in the Accessory Value Package), it was nearly impossible for my girls (ages 9 and 11) to climb up and into the Xterra on their own. They could barely reach the handle located high up on the doorjamb. They most certainly couldn't reach the grab handle inside the car, above the rear door, to help hoist themselves inside. Instead, they had to use the armrest on the car door for leverage and hope they didn't close it on themselves in the process.

2012 Nissan Xterra Photo Credit: Cars.com

Getting out wasn't much easier. The back door's opening is so narrow along the floor that my girls consistently tripped over it trying to get both their feet out. Taking a tumble out the door from a 22.2-inch step-in height could be disastrous.

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For families using the roof rack on the Xterra's stadium-stepped roofline to stash outdoor equipment (or the kids when they're bad), a built-in step near the Xterra's rear bumper facilitates roof access.

INTERIOR

The Xterra's interior is pretty basic. As Nissan says, it has "everything you need and nothing you don't." There were a few nice touches on my Pro-4X model, such as Bluetooth connectivity and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. While the Bluetooth paired easily with my phone, the voice-activated controls weren't quite so forgiving. An auxiliary jack allowed me quick access to my entire music library.

Storage inside the Xterra is functional. There are two cupholders up front, a smallish center console with coin storage slots, a few open bins up front to store random stuff, like my phone and lip balm, storage pockets and bottle holders in the two front doors, and a sunglasses holder above the rearview mirror. Backseat passengers are basically out of luck when it comes to storage. There's a storage pocket on the back of the driver's seat only, plus two cupholders. That's it.

The Xterra's washable, plastic-lined cargo area is quite large, and it also has a plastic underfloor storage bin to stow wet and muddy things. A tie-down system features 10 hooks on the floor, sides and roof of the cargo area, so all your outdoorsy gear can be secured efficiently.

The Xterra's roofline creates plenty of headroom for rear passengers. My two daughters had plenty of legroom -- once they got through that ridiculously narrow door.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

SENSE AND STYLE

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Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Not Really

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): None (for me)

Behind the wheel Driving the Xterra takes me back in time. It's an old-school SUV, the kind that existed before crossovers thankfully diluted the general truckiness of the SUV class. The Xterra is all truck, all the time.

There's a lot of engine noise, along with wind noise resulting from the Xterra's boxy shape. The ride is rough, bouncy and generally primitive, and that's on the highway. As you might expect of a tall truck, you experience quite a bit of tilt and sway when cornering in the Xterra.

While some people like manually switching their car in and out of four-wheel drive, as you must in the Xterra, I prefer more evolved vehicles that are intuitive enough to know for themselves when power is needed to any or all of the wheels. I've got enough jobs to juggle as it is. Switching a car into four-wheel drive just to get out of my barely icy and slightly inclined driveway, then switching back out again when on dry city streets, somehow doesn't top my priority list.

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On a couple of occasions (namely, highway driving in adverse road conditions and three kids in the back), I opted out of the Xterra for my own little all-wheel-drive car with winter tires because I felt uncomfortably floaty and disconnected from the road in the Xterra.

The Xterra Pro-4X that I drove got an estimated 15/20 mpg city/highway. That's with the five-speed automatic; the six-speed manual transmission raises the city figure to 16 mpg. The rear-drive model is rated 16/22 mpg.

SAFETY

The 2012 Nissan Xterra received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's top rating of Good in frontal and side-impact crash tests, and Acceptable in the roof-strength test. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Xterra three out of five stars for rollover resistance, but it hasn't performed crash tests. (While most crossovers now have four-star rollover ratings, off-road-oriented SUVs like the Xterra more frequently score three stars, indicating a higher rollover propensity.)

The Xterra's standard airbags include dual front and side-impact airbags for the front occupants and side curtain airbags for the front and rear seats. As is required of all 2012 models, the Nissan Xterra has standard antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control.

For families installing child-safety seats, the Xterra has two sets of Latch anchors in the outboard backseat positions, biased slightly toward the center rather than right up against the doors. While the lower anchors are buried pretty deep in the seat bight, the standard fabric upholstery is flexible enough that you should be able to maneuver a Latch connector through without too much trouble.

Children in booster seats will have to deal with seat belt buckles on flimsy nylon straps. They'll have to twist and hold the buckle with one hand while trying to insert the buckle end with the other hand. This can prove challenging for younger kids with less dexterity. The center seat belt in the backseat extends down from the roofline rather than the back of the seat, making it better suited for taller children or for kids in high-back, belt-positioning booster seats.

The Xterra doesn't offer a backup camera, a safety feature worth having on this car because the risk of backovers is potentially higher due to the Xterra's height and, by extension, the driver's decreased rear visibility.

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