VANCOUVER – The Xterra may be exiting Nissan North America Inc.’s lineup, as sales of body-on-frame midsize SUVs shrink and stringent fuel-economy rules loom.

“Xterra’s in a tough segment; the segment’s falling apart,” Larry Dominique, vice president-advanced product and product planning and strategy, tells Ward’s during a media event here.

“There’s one high-volume vehicle left (in the segment) and that’s (the Jeep) Wrangler,” he says. “Everybody else has dropped out due to really low volumes. With (new U.S. corporate average fuel economy rules) Xterra’s going to be a tough vehicle to keep around.”

Dominique says Nissan officials “love” the off-road-oriented Xterra and will try and retain the vehicle “as long as we possibly can.”

The Xterra, last redesigned in ’05, is located in the Ward’s Middle SUV segment, while the Wrangler is placed in the Small SUV group. Sales in both sectors have dropped dramatically in the last decade, Ward’s data shows, as models were nixed or changed over to a car-based platform.

Middle SUV sales fell to 211,042 units in 2009, down from a 10-year record of 1.65 million in 2000, while small SUV deliveries hit 175,007, nearly half the decade-high of 343,755 reached in 2002.

Nissan sold 88,578 Xterras in the U.S. in 2000. In comparison, deliveries through July of this year tallied just 12,186, still good for a 42% increase over year-ago.

The U.S. government is mandating auto makers achieve a fleet-fuel-economy average of 34.1 mpg (6.9 L/100 km) by 2016. Under this scenario, Nissan is looking to balance its portfolio to reflect a more fuel-efficient vehicle mix.

The auto maker’s goal is have its high-volume passenger cars, such as the Sentra compact and Altima midsize models, “overachieve” in CAFE, Dominique says, in order to continue offering less fuel-efficient vehicles.

“We’re trying to offset 30,000, 50,000, 70,000 Titans,” Dominique says of annual sales of Nissan’s thirsty fullsize-pickup truck.

Despite 2016 CAFE rules, Nissan’s two other midsize light trucks, the Pathfinder SUV and Frontier compact pickup, don’t appear to be in danger. “(The) Pathfinder will live on,” he says. “How it will live on, wait to see. There’s no reason to get rid of a 3-row crossover or SUV.”

The Frontier is the No.3 best-selling compact pickup in the U.S., behind the Toyota Tacoma and Ford Ranger, and Nissan successfully sells the truck and its variants overseas, as well.

“With Frontier, we have 12% (U.S.) market share in compact light trucks,” Dominique says. “We’re one of the innovators. We’re not leaving that segment. It’s an important segment for us globally.”

Compact-pickup trucks make up 30% of Nissan’s global sales, he says, citing their importance in Mexico and Latin America.

The Pathfinder and Frontier are enjoying the same 2010 sales boom as the Xterra and other U.S. light trucks, which is credited to this year’s low gas prices. Through July, Frontier sales were up 48.5%, while Pathfinder deliveries rose 22.7%.

Nissan is adding new colors and changing some trim-level nomenclature on ’11 Frontiers, Pathfinders and Xterras. To celebrate the Pathfinder’s 25th anniversary, a Silver Edition model is available with leather seats and special 17-in. wheels.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com