Day 17: Xterra xtra

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South America » Chile » Arica & Parinacota » Arica
December 18th 2012
Published: December 20th 2012
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I know that there are a least a few blog followers who share my passion for anything with an internal combustion engine and 4 wheels and I said I’d write a bit about the Xterra we’ve been travelling in. If cars isn’t your cup of tea skip this one!

Well, I’m very impressed. So much so that I’ve started looking at what Nissans are available for when we finally make it back to the UK. The Xterra would be wasted in the UK really. It’s best on uncertain or gravel surfaces, but has been remarkably smooth on the tarmac too and it’s really roomy. Last time we came here to Chile was 3 years ago and we did the 10 hour trip in our tiny 3 door Toyota Starlet, so it’s been great to have the space to spread out.

The Xterra’s never been available in the UK. The nearest you’ll find is the Navara Pick-Up truck. That’s the same car but with different clothes on. The engine is a remarkable quad cam, variable valve timing 4.2L V6. It’s got loads of power and an average of 21 MPG (UK Gallons are 4.5L for the USA readers!) for our 4500 miles so far I think is pretty good considering how fast we’ve been going and how loaded we are. But in the UK that would be scarey money to spend on petrol if it was your regular car, although that’s about what the Ice Maiden gives you isn’t it Nige?

I’m not normally a fan of traction control systems as they generally seem to be about stopping you having fun. The system on the Xterra does stop you having fun, but sits there like a silent guardian angel. Once or twice we’ve hit an unexpected slippery bit of road and there’s a little flicker from the system light and the brakes get applied to the appropriate wheels and the throttle gets taken from you for a moment, no drama, all sorted out for you. If you want to have fun there’s a big “Off” switch in the centre of the dashboard. Technically it doesn’t switch the whole system off. It allows you to slide but uses the rear brakes to stop the inside wheel spinning so effectively works like a limited slip differential. Impressive it is too.

There was a long gravelly section on the border with Argentina and Chile and I drove that with the traction control off and 4WD engaged. It was amazing that you could feel really secure and still be doing fast A-Road speeds. It felt like playing Colin McRae but for real!

The suspension is a budget set up with independent front set up (with coils) and the rear is a live axle with leaf springs. It does a good job on the whole but can give you a nasty shimmy through the whole car at low speeds crossing diagonal gullies (like when there’s a drainage channel crossing the road diagonally). Apart from that it works really well and feels very stable. If you want full independent suspension all round you have to pay significantly more and buy the Nissan Patrol, (or a Toyota Land Cruiser, or something from Solihull). Once you’re on gravel it feels fantastic. When I’ve been on my own I’ve tried pushing hard on tarmac and it’s not very nice! I don’t think it’s helped by the Nankang Tyres (!). It’s fine up to a point and then all of a sudden the tyres start howling and say “you’ve got to be joking” and give up!

I’ve kept an eye on the tyre pressures. They’ve dropped a few pounds some days, but I think that’s been due to coming down altitude. I was interested to see how cold pressures relate to hot pressures. The recommended cold pressure is 35psi. I’ve been running the rears about 38 as it’s pretty loaded at the back there. 35 on cold tyre = 40psi on a tyre that’s been driven at 70 or 80mph for a few hours.

The auto transmission is really good too. I’ve never owned an auto before (and technically I don’t either now as Andrea is the owner if you remember, but I did own it for a while!) but have driven lots. The old 3 speeders were often hideous. This one is 5 speed and suits the whole car really well. I really like having my left foot free just for braking. You can be really smooth onto and off the brakes if you overlap the throttle a bit. It means that making good progress on windy roads is much smoother for the passengers.

I got caught out a bit by one fast bend in the mountains and a bit of left foot braking helped it round nicely. That saying the traction control would probably have sorted it anyway. You can do the usual thing of locking the gearbox down into 4th, 3rd, 2nd or 1st which gives you some engine braking on those long descents when the brakes can get a bit hot or for going up long hills where in full auto mode it can end up hunting between a couple of gears. Useful for overtaking too as you can change down ready to pass without having to wait for it to change down for you once you start accelerating. The only thing I don’t like is that if you want to move out and overtake something and put your foot to the floor it always changes down. I’d like a little steering wheel mounted control that allows you to hold the gear you’re in and not change down: the engine gives you loads of low down grunt. I really like the way you can engage 4WD on the move with just a little switch, sometimes handy for getting up a slippery bit of curb or when you come across some gravel for a few miles.I think most 4WD manufacturers have been doing that for a while now. Beats having to stop and wrestle with the transfer case controls or even having to get out and engage locking hubs. Of course Land Rover fans will point out that you don’t need to do that if you’ve always go 4WD, but I like having the option for rwd, it’s more fun. You still have to stop to engage low range.

Before the trip Boyzee and me fitted some high performance brake pads (EBC Yellow Stuff) but even with those the brakes don’t feel as I’d like, especially with a big load up and travelling at some high speeds with animals loose on the roads. That’s the only criticism but to be honest I’ve found the same with most big 4WD cars apart from the Range Rover. I think the discs need to be drilled or grooved to let the gas from the pad material escape. I drilled the discs on our big blue Chevvy Truck some years back and that seems to have worked fine.

I’ve experimented with cruise control and come to the conclusion I don’t really like it much. I wondered if it would make it too easy to fall asleep with less to concentrate on, but I didn’t find that a problem. I remember MS saying that all the driver aids in F1 allowed you to push harder and with Cruise control it allows you to concentrate more on things other than maintaining speed. The problem comes that even on roads without much traffic on you keep having to turn it off when you come across a lorry that’s passing another and then re-start it and it’s just a bit too jerky when it swithes off for my liking.

It’s not used any oil the whole 4500 miles although it’s looking pretty dirty now and will need a change when we get back. The temperature gauge has never budged from normal, even when climbing up in the desert with the air con on.

As I said I’m very impressed and will look into buying Nissan again. I seem to remember that the Almera might be a dark horse. Very bland image, but sharp handling? Anyone know?



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