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Nissan takes fast-track to crunch time

By Marc Stengel

MAY 3, 1999:  In one sense, things couldn't be better for the embattled Nissan Corporation. Everybody knows just what has to be done, and when: Save the company...NOW! There is no time for head-scratching, no excuse for mooning over extraneous distractions. This is crunch time; and when the star-spangled Nissan Xterra SUV rolls into showrooms on or about June 1, the sound you'll hear beneath all the hoopla will be the creak of teeth gritting, fists clenching, and fingers crossing throughout Nissan's global outposts.

In automotive terms, at least, the Xterra represents something of a geopolitical putsch within the corporation. For all of Nissan's storied and turbulent history in North America, this new compact sport/ute is the first Nissan vehicle to be conceived, designed, and built entirely in the U.S. Judging from conversations with Nissan executives at the Xterra's media debut last month in California, the vehicle's fast-track gestation of just 29 months is part-vindication, part-retribution for the company's failure to back a winning horse lately. Nissan has finally concluded that its once intrepid Pathfinder has grown too louche, cozy, and expensive for the Xtreme Sports generation. Xterra is meant to change all that.

I have every intention of describing as accurately as possible the characteristics, quirks, and conveniences that give the Xterra its unique qualifications within the crowded SUV category. There is, however, only one indisputable fact upon which the fortunes of Xterra are destined to hinge: price. If Nissan can convincingly fulfill its promise to start Xterra's pricing "under $17,500," and if a base Xterra XE V6 with 4WD and standard A/C and ABS does indeed cost $20,500, many heads will turn and many Xterras will sell. If not, oh well...another trendy, Johnny-come-lately SUV for the boneyard.

And that would be a shame, because Xterra is an xtremely clever, functional, and entertaining variation on the standard sport/utility theme. Underpinnings derive from the Smyrna-built Frontier pickup: Available are the same 2.4-liter inline-4 (143 HP) and 3.3-liter, single-overhead-cam V6 (170 HP) that you'll find in the pickups. Ditto the marvelous five-speed manual and adequate four-speed auto transmissions. What Nissan manages better than anyone else is a fluid, nearly perfect match between the V6's powerband and the manual transmission's gear ratios and clutch/shift feel. Since genuine off-roading is a learned technique and not just a glib sales pitch, Xterra's supple powertrain is likely to assist and reassure many of the SUV first-timers that Nissan is targeting with this vehicle.

Let's not rule out trendiness altogether. Even at stand-still, the Xterra appears vaguely xtraterrestrial. There's the obvious stair-step roof line, of course, designed to accommodate the elevated "stadium seat" placement of the rear three-passenger bench. But don't go thinking this feature is the result of sober market analysis and focus-group research. If you look closer, you'll see a beefy and ambitious roof rack that incorporates a novel and windswept storage basket. According to spokesman Jason Vines, this unique superstructure is the brainchild of Nissan's designer-demigod Jerry Hirshberg, who is said to have conceived the rack first, then to have exclaimed, "Now let's design a vehicle to go under it." The rack features movable cross braces and rates at least a 125-lb. load. The storage basket holds 30 lbs. worth of soggy wetsuits or muddy hiking gear and is easily removable. Together with step rails under the rocker panels, these tubular extrusions come standard on the SE model. For the base-level XE, they're part of a "Utility Package" of options estimated at $1,000.

In these gadget-glutted times, Xterra is determined to excel as an automotive fanny pack of sorts. Nissan has made a phenomenal effort to anticipate every possible stowage whim of its target market. In addition to fairly traditional cargo bins in back, there's a unique "backpack" or inset pouch within the tailgate. A "shirt pocket" sewn into the upper left side of the front passenger seat is ideal for sunglasses or maps. Tie-down hooks literally punctuate the entire interior from floor to ceiling. There are even integral interior racks in the floor of the cargo hold that accommodate two mountain bikes, mounted fully upright.

With utility at the forefront, it should come as no surprise that Xterra drives like a truck. This is not to defame; it is to set aright the misperception that all four-wheel-drive vehicles are created equal. With their puny car-based platforms and all-wheel-drive systems, Honda's CR-V and Toyota's RAV4 are essentially adequate for traipsing down a gravel road to grandma's house. Xterra opts for a much beefier full ladder frame from the Frontier 4x4 pickup. A two-speed transfer case shifts into real four-wheel-drive with real high and low gear ranges. Shift-on-the-fly is possible (into 4WD High) up to 30 mph. Springing is taut for the independent front wishbone suspension and solid beam rear. As a jaunt through California's unforgiving Hollister Hills wilderness area attests, the Xterra's generous wheel-travel translates into Sherpa-like sure-footedness even over "turtlebacks" that would high-side a lesser chassis.

After a day of mud-ballin', the Xterra rewards the drive home with a tolerably smooth cruise along the freeway and up to 100 watts' and six speakers' worth of monster stereo. Do not, however, expect the kind of luxo-plush ride many high-end SUVs have adopted. And despite Nissan's braggadocio about ample "countermeasures" against road noise, the one that works best is simply to jack up the stereo. The Xterra, let it be said, is not about slipping off to a nice quiet rendezvous anyway. It's about livin' large, pushing the envelope, taking things to their illogical extremes. It's about saving a company...NOW!

Impulse buying

In case you haven't noticed, modern autos are becoming increasingly computer savvy: Full-auto HVAC systems provide set-and-forget climate control; with "fly-by-wire" technology, the lowly accelerator pedal can "tell" an engine to "go!" by remote electrical impulse; GM's OnStar and other GPS navigation systems can follow your car's every move and hiccup.

Now comes word that car marketing is going electric. For the first time, an automaker is offering "electronic cash back" on designated models via an Internet coupon. Buick Division is posting $500 coupons for select Regal sedan models at the GM BuyPower site (www.gmbuypower.com). All that's required is a brief "registration" for demographic purposes, and the coupon is issued. Another Internet promotion at www.buick.com features a Buick car giveaway using downloadable "game pieces." So far dealer reaction according to Automotive News ranges from "The Internet is fine, but it's another maintenance item" to "It's bringing in a good audience [without] a lot of expense."

Meanwhile, as interactive Internet auto marketing struggles to invent itself, there's troubling news that virtual auto advertising is already off and running: According to Advertising Age, "the age of digital cars has arrived." TV spots for Pontiac Division are the industry's first to employ sophisticated computer-generated (CG) images of a virtual vehicle in place of the real thing. One just has to wonder: If they can sell it without really showing it, can you buy it without really paying for it?

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