AUSTIN, TX – When Nissan North America Inc. launched its Xterra midsize SUV in the U.S. in 1999 as a ’00 model, it aimed the vehicle solely at college- and post-graduate-aged men.

The vehicle’s sporty, muscular styling, in combination with its off-road abilities, was exactly what was called for to reach this coveted audience.

The price was affordable at about $18,000.

However, Nissan now admits the vehicle actually sells better to women than men (55% female buyers), and the average age of buyers is about 37, as opposed to the targeted mid-to-late 20s demographic.

Xterra gets Nissan truck family grille.

For the Xterra’s first revamp since its launch, Nissan stays close to the original design with the ’05 model, making few changes save for the vehicle’s front grille, which now bears Nissan’s signature truck family angled strut V-shape.

The rear-panel bump-out remains to accommodate Xterra’s first-aid kit, and so do the C-pillar-mounted door handles.

Wheel-well flares get bigger, and the overall vehicle has slightly sharper edges for a more aggressive stance. As with Nissan’s other light-truck offerings, it boasts the same ladder F-Alpha, fully-boxed frame.

Nissan is offering three trim levels for ’05 Xterra: the base S, which replaces XE; the mid-range SE and new Off-Road.

Buyers are expected to favor (55%) the entry-level S, while SE will make up 30% of sales and Off-Road 15%.

The vehicle is available with 2- and 4-wheel drive. Models with 2WD should account for 58% of sales, Nissan says.

In a media test-drive here, the Xterra performs on road as expected from a truck-based SUV, occasionally jostling its passengers. But an off-road drive through various ranch lands demonstrates the vehicle’s tight control in the super-slick mud resulting from recent torrential downpours.

The all-steel double-wishbone front suspension with stabilizer bar and rigid rear suspension with under slung leaf and stabilizer bar are carried over from the previous Xterra.

New for ’05 is a locking rear differential and Bilstein shocks. Hill descent control (HDC) and hill start assist (HSA) are standard on the Off-Road trim.

Nissan’s now signature 4L V-6, available in nearly all of its U.S. light-truck offerings, does not provide the same gold-star performance in the Xterra as in the new ’05 Pathfinder.

However, it appears more powerful in the Xterra than in the Frontier compact pickup, accelerating well off the line without as much hesitation.

Power grows as the engine churns out 265 hp and 284 lb.-ft. (385 Nm) of torque vs. the 210 hp and 246 lb.-ft. (334 Nm) of torque put out by the previous-generation Xterra’s supercharged 3.3L V-6.

Nissan decided to drop the underpowered 2.4L, 4-cyl. engine, which executives admit likely will lead to a base price increase in the ’05 model, possibly putting the new-generation Xterra out of reach of many young buyers.

Two new transmissions include an electronically controlled 5-speed automatic and a 6-speed manual.

The new-generation Xterra’s wheelbase jumps 2 ins. (5 cm) to 106.3 ins. (270 cm), overall length increases slightly by 0.3 ins. (0.8 cm) to 178.7 ins. (454 cm), and 1.2 ins. (3 cm) is added for a total height of 74.9 ins. (190 cm).

Interior space increases as well, as shoulder, hip, leg and headroom all grow. Xterra’s 60/40 split second row has stadium-style seating and can fold flat by removing the seat cushions. A fold-flat front passenger seat is standard on SE and Off-Road trims.

Interior quality could be better, as pre-production Xterras had gaps of varying sizes in their hard-plastic panel joints. The dash is spartan, in step with Nissan’s no frills, “everything you need, nothing you don’t” philosophy for the vehicle.

New roof rack basket keeps items dry.

To increase the Xterra’s functionality, Nissan has added a variety of smart features. They include an enclosed basket on the roof rack to protect items from rain, mud and snow and bumper side steps that allow for easier access to the roof.

The Xterra’s rear cargo area features an Easy Clean floor, which offers 10 tie-down hooks, as well as an Utili-Trak system featuring two channels similar to that of Nissan’s Titan fullsize pickup truck.

Nissan likes to say the Xterra is in a “segment of one,” boasting no direct competitors. That likely will change with the ’06 launch of the production-version Toyota FJ Cruiser SUV. For now, Nissan can rest easy.