Commentary: Bring Back The Nissan Xterra…Please?

Did you know that Nissan had sold off-road ready vehicles as far back as 1962?

The second-generation Patrol was sold at Datsun dealers until 1969 as a competitor to the Toyota Land Cruiser, Jeep CJ-5, International Scout, Land Rover Series IIA, and the Ford Bronco. One would mistake the rough-and-ready vehicle with a Land Cruiser or a Land Rover. Maybe, even a Jeep. 

The 1960s was just the beginning of a craze where people needed to seek other ways to have fun. The former military "Jeeps" were the way to get across the desert, deep into the woods, or up into the mountains. 

Nissan’s four-wheel-drive know-how was put on hold in this country due to a host of new regulations coming out of the Nixon Administration. By 1980, Nissan reintroduced its venerable four-wheel-drive system on their Datsun 720 series pickup trucks. It arrived just as Toyota began to utilize the Land Cruiser’s system for their Hi-Lux pickup truck stateside. It showed that Nissan can compete where other off-roaders roamed. 

From the next-generation Hardbody pickup trucks came the Pathfinder in 1985. These true SUVs were equipped with the same robust four-wheel-drive system as in the pickup trucks. This would be the way forward for the next couple of decades.

However, Nissan fielded a true off-road runner in the 1999 Xterra. Built on the same pickup truck platform, the shorter Xterra did what the Jeep Wrangler and Toyota 4Runner was truly capable of. In fact, they were seen as the middle ground between the two. It certainly helped Nissan’s cause to offer the Xterra with great off-road capability and prowess all the way through its final year of sale in this county – 2015.

Let’s recount what transpired in the past six years. The off-road ready vehicle business is growing. The Jeep Wrangler still leads the pack in sales. Although the Mercedes-Benz G-Class can do anything off-road, only a small handful actually do take their six-figure machines away from the tarmac. Not to mention that the Toyota 4Runner still sells strongly even after a decade in production in its current guise. 

In the past couple of years, Land Rover and Ford introduced their new off-road runners. With the Defender and the upcoming Bronco aching to take their first crack at the Rubicon Trail, other manufacturers have held back on adding to the newfound freedom these vehicles are delivering to a new generation of enthusiasts. Including an Italian importer posed to bring the Russian-built UAZ Patriot over to our market. 

Perhaps it is time for Nissan to rejoin the off-road party.

Recent reports said that Nissan dealers want an Xterra-type of vehicle to bring customers back to their showrooms. I couldn’t agree more. With not sticking to the Xterra past 2015 may have been a wave of where the market was going, other manufacturers took advantage of its absence. Jeep and Toyota continue to have strong sales of their warrior vehicles – even if they end up at shopping malls and office parks instead of off-road parks. 

Now, there is an opportunity to do so. Nissan just revised the Navara pickup truck for markets outside of the USA and Canada. They are also set to introduce a new Frontier mid-sized pickup truck for our market in February.

Currently, Nissan sells a Navara-based SUV called the Terra in Asia and the Middle East. I doubt that will be the one our customers want to go off-roading in. 

What North American customers want is a redux of the Xterra. It could be built off of the Frontier’s platform and use the new 3.8-liter V6 to power it. This platform and engine would be ripe for a Wrangler/Bronco/4Runner fighter from Nissan. 

As for design, maybe Nissan should revisit the Xterra’s best qualities to shape their off-road warrior. It was tall, slab-sided, astoundingly practical, and absolutely rugged. If you meld the exterior and interior design elements of the 2021 Rogue, the 2021 Armada, and the former Xterra, you have that next-generation off-roader in view. 

Sounds like a great formula for such a vehicle. However, would a successor to the Nissan Xterra sell as well as these three potential rivals? 

Consider the opportunity Nissan has to capitalize on this segment again. Jeep sold over 200,000 Wranglers in 2020. Toyota sold over 120,000 4Runners last year, too. Ford is sitting on 190,000 reservations of the Bronco family, in particular the two- and four-door Ranger-based future icons. 

Now, let’s look at Nissan’s sales performance. Last year, they experienced an annual sales drop in 2020 by 18 percent from the previous year. While volume was down, the sales losses were better than in 2019 when brand sales dropped by 28.4 percent from 2018, where sales rose by 7.8 percent. 

Again, I will ask the question…why wouldn’t Nissan want to jump into this segment when their dealers are begging for such a vehicle to sell at their dealerships? 

The answer should be as simple as "why not." Bring back the Xterra…or, something that reminded us of those 1960s Patrols and those generations of Nissan’s off-road warriors! After all, there is production capacity opening up soon at the Canton, Mississippi plant…

Photo by Randy Stern

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