Market Spotlight

Buy a Nissan Xterra now—before everyone else catches on

by Miles Massey
4 March 2021 3 min read
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Photo by Stefan Lombard

The Land Rover Discovery officially turned 25 years old in 2019, but it’s not uncommon for drivers of these boxy vehicles to age that much in their first three months of ownership. Sure, the idea of buying one seems appealing—they’re very British and superficially rugged. In reality though, Stephen King couldn’t do justice to the experience of owning a 15 to 20-year-old Discovery. Ford a stream on the Serengeti? I wouldn’t trust one to get me to the local Trader Joe’s  without throwing a Times Square display of dash lights.

So how does one scratch this worthwhile semi-vintage SUV itch without abrading through eighteen layers of dermis? Buy a first-generation Nissan Xterra. Now, before everyone else catches on. 

A post-facelift, round headlight Xterra (2002–04) is what a 1990s Land Rover Discovery would have been (minus the fragile wood and leather accoutrements) if it were assembled with more concern for building an actual reliable, rugged off roader, instead of looking the part in the drop-off lane of a posh Chelsea private school. As it should be, the Xterra is a proper separate body-on-frame, pickup-based SUV. The round headlights that came with the Xterra’s 2002 facelift, are once again trendy, (see the new Bronco/Land Rover Defender). The stepped roof design, asymmetrical hatch glass (to accommodate a bulge for a massive first-aid kit) are all ruggedly appealing.

What really sets Xterras apart from other vintage SUVs is that collectors don’t seem to have noticed them yet.

There’s nothing inherently exciting about the engine choices, the base 143 hp four-cylinder, two-wheel-drive XEs are not particularly useful, and they’re laughably underpowered. The 3.3 liter V-6 SE, (180 hp in normally aspirated form and 210 hp with the optional Eaton supercharger), is a far better bet. But the real attraction here isn’t the prosaic I-4 or the V6; rather, it’s the fact that the Xterra was available with a five-speed manual box, and the take rate wasn’t miniscule—you can actually find manual-box Xterras. 

A first-gen Xterra drives a bit like a similarly sized Jeep Cherokee XJ, which is to say handling is sloppy and tippy feeling, but the Xterra’s V-6 is less agricultural than the ancient AMC I-6, and it has steering and brakes that aren’t largely theoretical. The Xterra’s ride is choppy like you’d expect, fuel economy around town is lousy, and the tow capacity is nothing to get excited about, it maxes out at around 5,000 pounds. 

Like the Cherokee and a Discovery, the Xterra can, with proper mods, be a capable off-roader. Just as important, it totally looks the part, which is something you can’t say for any modern small crossover (save for perhaps a new Bronco Sport). Each model year came with a few really bold color choices like Solar Yellow and Atomic Orange. There’s also a kind of army green and French blue that are cool as well.

You might be thinking the Xterra lacks a certain je ne sais quoi of a Land Rover or a Jeep, but for enthusiasts of a certain age, it has plenty of that intangible appeal. The little SUV debuted amidst a brief design and marketing revival for Nissan in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That round headlight model hit showrooms the same time as the new 350Z, and anyone who spent an appreciable amount of time watching TV in the era remembers commercials showing the truck crushing the outdoors to MTV-friendly soundtracks.

What really sets Xterras apart from other vintage SUVs, though, is that collectors don’t seem to have noticed them yet. People are already heavily sniffing around first-generation Monteros and Troopers to get their cheap Japanese Land Rover fixes (the auction site Bring a Trailer has been no stranger to these), and even the XJ Cherokee, built in multitudes for more than 15 years, is no longer reliably cheap. Meanwhile, not a single first-gen Xterra has seen the light of day on BaT. Six grand or so buys a nice one because they’re simply not on the radar yet. Which is good for you ahead-of-the-curve thinkers, for now, anyway. 

At some point in the near future, a super clean, high-spec, West Coast 2002–2004 Xterra, in a great color, with AWD, low miles, a V-6 and a five-speed will show up on BaT and totally ring the bell. That eventual breakout sale will get people talking about how cool early Xterras are, and then it will be all over. Your first sign that this is imminent? Reproduction Xterra first-aid kits have started to hit eBay. Don’t say I didn’t give you a heads up. 

“Miles Massey” is a pen name. We promise the person behind it doesn’t have a lot full of old Xterras to move.

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Comments

  • Jeff says:

    I have a 2011 pro4 x 6 speed manual with 150,000 miles. I don’t think anyone could make me sell it. It flat tows behind my motorhome, without any of the problems that most vehicles have when it comes to being flat towed,
    Since it’s new new I might have spent $1000.00 on repairs. Couldn’t ask for a better value vehicle at $32,000 new.
    Thanks,
    Jeff

  • antonio petracca says:

    Love the article.. thanks

  • James says:

    I have one that I am working on 154000 doesn’t need much work 5 spd goes like a tank in 4wheel

  • Frank Frey says:

    Would like to have one someday 2010

  • Terry M. Hickman says:

    As the owner of several Xterras ,the AWD 5 speed is the holy grail almost impossible to find

  • Brian says:

    Love my Xterra!

  • Camille Carrigan says:

    I have a 2000 5 speed 4wd Xterra. Isn’t that considered first generation?

  • Joe says:

    with AWD, – no. RWD with 4WD option.
    2000-2001 VG33 is 170HP, 2002-2004 is 180 HP
    Couldn’t you find one in better condition to take a picture of … that one sucks. 😉 Clean up the headlights, , missing the center caps, Use some paint on the bumpers and grill. Missing the Nissan sticker on the wind dam, wheels look like no one ever polished them out. If you take care of it, even now, it’ll look like it just rolled out of the show room. They are that good. “handling is sloppy and tippy feeling,” Do some freakin maintenance on it. I prefer it with the side trim. They handle great with non-worn out front end parts and decent tires. They tow just fine … maybe not 5000 pounds up hill but never had a problem. It looks as fresh, as a truck, as it did when it came out… not 18-20+ years old. Owned two non-stop for 20 years It looks like crap.

  • Zmega says:

    I agree completely. Great off-road trucks. They won’t be making more of them!

  • richard brown says:

    lovely article. i also appreciate all of your posts leading to min.

    i’m a datsun guy (still have my ’73 240z), along with my ’00 super black xterra/v-6/2 wheel drive/five speed…just turned 250k miles. purchased it with 16k miles as a high school graduation present for our son, with the caveat that once he obtained a post college job and was looking for a replacement car, i’d want to buy it back.

    miles, as you note, nothing over the top with these but i absolutely love it. what is interesting is this generation of nissans were big on hard interior surfaces but fortunately, mine has remained quiet. years ago, purchased four sets of the xterra neoprene seat cover sets from an online nissan dealership; they are period-correct and very functional.

    typical japanese quality; simply stay 5-8k miles ahead of the required timing belt package and 4k mile oil changes and one is good for the long haul.

    hope each of you continue to enjoy your respective x’s; never thought of them as ‘collector-worthy’, but then again i just love driving them.

  • Marc Gottlieb says:

    They are great 4X4 trucks and the prices have gone a little nuts. They are selling for what they cost new. I’ve been looking for a clean low mileage one for about two years.

  • Glen Gordon says:

    Known as the “transmixer” in the automotive repair world due to all of the transmission problems. Also, don’t forget the rust issues. Comparing this vehicle to a Land rover and it’s capability is a joke.

  • Liz M says:

    Have a 2012 Pro 4-X with 34K miles. 6 speed, 1 owner. I had a pathfinder and a 2006 Xterra before this one. All manual transmissions. These are great trucks, absolutely reliable and no issues.

  • David says:

    I have a 2006 6 speed manual Xtarra and love it it’s only a 2wd but I go off road all the time take my kayak to the river and have never had a problem

  • Tiffany G says:

    My first one (2001) lasted 5 years after the “strawberry milkshake” issue with the transmission. I bought another one (2006)after that one. I’m considering upgrading to a 2015 Pro-4X which is my dream car!

  • Dave says:

    I own a 2007 “X” (base model) 6 speed, that I have upgraded a bit with
    alloy wheels and chrome step rails on a “Super Black” ( that appears as if it just rolled off the line). In my opinion its a “stunner”
    I’ve gone off road with “Jeep friends” and it is just as capable showing great power for rock climbing or just going to the grocery store, Love it!

  • Peter Testa says:

    I have a 2002 SC/SE 4WD with the 5-Speed in Solar Yellow. I bought it the second it came online. I believe less than 4% of production came in this spec.

  • Debora Howk says:

    I have a v6 2004 Xterra 4×2. It’s has over 200,000 miles on it and it runs like new.

  • Bridget says:

    I have a 2003 w/ 100,000 5 speed took forever to find it… love it…
    I

  • Erik Odegard says:

    shhhhhhhhhhhh don’t say anymore these are good rigs and easy to wrench on and take a beating

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