When I was a kid, my dad drove a 1978 International Scout II. Twenty years ago, no one wanted the things. They were pigs—crude, thirsty, and prone to leaving their body panels in rusty piles behind them—and as a result, a masochist like my father could pick up five or six of them for less than the cost of a decent set of tires. But there was something about the way they drove, far from the coddling Explorers, Tahoes, and Grand Cherokees that clogged the roads back then. The Scout was a truck, and it had no interest in hiding the fact, of convincing you otherwise. It rattled and clunked and envied hay wagons their civility. It was perfect. We loved it.
Skip forward a few decades, and the universe seems to have discovered the truth Dad knew all those years ago: There’s something sublime about going nowhere fast in an old goat. Solid Scouts, and their analogs, the thick-metal Defenders, Broncos, CJs, Blazers, and FJs, have all skyrocketed to ludicrous money, putting them well past the reach of hobbyists without five digits to spend on a sorted four-wheel-drive toy. But the charm of bouncing around in an old metal can is inversely proportional to the price tag. Worrying about door dings in a vintage off-roader tends to dilute the experience.
All of which is why I recently found myself eying an advertisement for a 2000 Nissan Xterra. The thing looked like a time capsule, used but clean, with low miles and a $4,000 price tag. When I called the owner, he said it had been listed for a month, and if I came with cash, he would let it go for $3,500. I never paid much attention to these Xterras before; they always struck me as sluggish, inefficient, and less capable than alternatives such as the Toyota 4Runner or square-body Jeep Cherokee. But they are also widely available with half the miles and for thousands of dollars less than either of those two.
The little Xterra is the same age now as Dad’s Scout was when he first got it on the road, and it’s strange to see just how much everything has changed over the course of nearly 20 years. When I opened the door, I found a simple cabin with three dials for the HVAC, one for the radio, and not much else. There’s no honking screen dominating the dash, no rearview camera because, unlike the rolling fortresses of today, you can actually see out of the Nissan. The glass is large, sight lines are great, and the vehicle feels small. I can reach every door handle from the driver’s seat, but there’s plenty of room for four adults and their camping gear.
Nissan began Xterra production in 1999 at its Smyrna, Tennessee, facility, which means the truck was stitched together an hour or so down the road from the place we called home back then. The company turned out 88,578 units in 2000 alone, a record that stood until production ceased in 2015, which is why, if you start looking, you’ll notice these Xterras are everywhere. Early models were available in two trims: a base XE and an up-level SE. Nissan offered the Xterra with either a 2.4-liter four-cylinder or the 3.3-liter V-6 found in this truck. Options included an automatic transmission and four-wheel drive with a legitimate, manual-shift transfer case. Early models were also available with a limited-slip rear differential.
At its core, Nissan’s SUV is little more than a Frontier wagon. It shares all of its mechanical components and a fair portion of its sheetmetal with the company’s determined midsize pickup of the same model year. That means it drives like a truck, and although that phrase would cause any modern crossover to blanch and rush from the room, it works here. It’s more than the tall ride height: While CUVs like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Chevrolet Equinox simply drive like lifted cars, the Xterra feels capable. The suspension moves around over uneven terrain, the stick axle doing its best to articulate through gullies and over stones. Nothing about the experience comes across as detached or filtered, and that makes it fun.
This particular example is the cherry of the group, with a five-speed manual transmission, four-wheel drive, and the limited-slip rear. With 170 horsepower at its command, it’s not spry, but it’s more than adequate for bopping around the county. Decent midrange torque helps make up the gap. The very notion of a 4,000-pound SUV with less than 200 horsepower is laughable in today’s age, when everything on four wheels needs to be able to outsprint the exotics of yesteryear, but like the Scout, the Xterra doesn’t need to win any drag races. That is not what Nissan built it for.
It has an astounding turning radius, a product both of its short wheelbase and of being assembled when manufacturers assumed their customers understood that top-heavy four-wheel drives were not slot cars. But it is relatively civil, with an independent front suspension and niceties like cruise control, air conditioning, intermittent wipers, and power windows and locks, all of which work. It’s also relatively safe, with dual air bags, antilock brakes, crumple zones, and the like. I would hesitate to put my wife and daughter in an old International for a weekend trip through the mountains; I have no such qualms about the Xterra. It manages to straddle the delicate line between off-road relic and functional, modern vehicle.
But that wasn’t why I brought it home. I handed the owner $3,500 because the Xterra is a glimpse at a different time, one that we’ll likely never see again. While there are a handful of legitimate body-on-frame off-roaders still for sale today, nearly all of them have moved beyond their simple, inexpensive roots, instead being outfitted and priced like the luxury vehicles they’ve become. The Xterra is a reminder that some of the most endearing machines ever built fall far short of today’s definition of a good vehicle. Rather, they are crude, thirsty, and lovable all the same.