Introduction Anza Borrego State Park's Coyote Canyon trail gave us a good variety of terrain, including this rock climb. By Josh Jacquot Date posted: 05-24-2006 California's Anza Borrego Desert State Park is hard country. It's no place for those sensitive to sun, wind or cold. There are a lot of rocks, very little water and in the summer one might say it "gets a little hot." It's a place where the paved roads bear names like "Montezuma Valley" and "Peg Leg Smith." The dogs have three legs and the people wear full-brimmed hats and drive Broncos without tops or mufflers. In other words, it's the kind of place perfect for proving off-road vehicles like the 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser and 2006 Nissan Xterra. Luckily, we were there for two days in April. But that hardly made it any milder. There were a few green leaves among the cacti, but the rocks were just as big and the sand was just as deep. Coyote Canyon trail wasn't any easier after a month of rain had enhanced its ruts and made its steep rock crawl look like some kind of sick joke. Then there were the desert byways — hundreds of them. With names like Hills of the Moon, Rainbow Wash, Devil's Slide Lane and our personal favorite, Blow Sand Trail. These faster desert roads gave us a good gauge for each SUV's chassis dynamics at higher speeds. Both SUVs also made the 300-mile round-trip to the state park and back on regular roads and endured several weeks of daily living with editors. Hard SUVs for hard country It's no coincidence that Nissan's Xterra Off-Road is the reigning king of midsize off-road performance. It's got the hardware to deliver the goods: a locking rear differential, brake-based traction control, hill-descent control, hill-start assist, Bilstein shock absorbers, full skid plates and 16-inch BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires. Like any real off-road vehicle, the Xterra has a low-range transfer case, which is activated using a dash-mounted switch. Motivating all that off-road hardware is a standard 4.0-liter V6 that makes 265 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque. Our tester was also fitted with the optional five-speed automatic transmission, Rockford Fosgate Audio system, Sirius Satellite Radio and carpeted floor mats. The tally, including destination charges, came to $29,115. The FJ Cruiser was no less prepared. Upgrade Package # 2 gave our tester the goods for driving in the dirt: A-TRAC brake-based traction control, rear differential lock and huge 265/70R17 Dunlop AT20 Grandtrek tires on alloy wheels. Bilstein dampers are standard equipment, as are skid plates on the engine sump, transfer case and fuel tank. The FJ's high- and low-range four-wheel-drive modes are selected via a center-mounted lever. A 4.0-liter V6 pumping out 239 hp and 278 lb-ft of torque powers the FJ through a standard five-speed automatic transmission. In addition to the aforementioned upgrade package, our tester came with the $1,840 convenience package, which adds remote keyless entry, cruise control, power mirrors, a rear backup alarm, tinted rear windows, a rear-window wiper and daytime running lights. Side curtain airbags, running boards, carpeted floor mats and a tow hitch added another $1,543 in options, bringing the FJ's total cost with destination charges to $29,883. Dethroning the king After 12 days and 2,200 miles of thrashing through the desert, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, hauling kids, mountain bikes and ass, the decision was not easy. On-road performance testing was a virtual wash, as was price, as was our subjective evaluation, which includes a comprehensive look at everything from engine performance to cupholder placement. Before we reveal the winner, a few disclaimers are in order. This test is close. So close that many editors' subjective evaluations tallied in a dead heat. Zero-to-60 acceleration and quarter-mile performance was exactly the same and the $767 price difference is hardly worth considering. The winner was decided based on off-road performance and which vehicle editors would rather drive and be seen in on a daily basis. Those factors combined with the FJ's more modern styling, marginally better interior design and preferred interior materials were enough to sway our scores in its favor. Naturally, this decision comes with a few caveats. If all we were going to do was haul kids and family on the freeway, then the Xterra probably would have gotten the nod for being more usable, having more easily accessible passenger space and better visibility. Most editors preferred its road manners to the FJ's as well. But reviewing these two SUVs without some serious off-road evaluation would be decidedly incomplete. And it was off-road where the FJ's strengths began to shine and we knew we had a winner. It hauled up rocky climbs that made the Xterra breathe heavily, without even breaking a sweat. It was also more comfortable on rough and washboarded roads, and the longer we had it in the desert the more its retro styling looked at home. At the end of one long day in the desert, the attendant at the Borrego Springs service station voiced his disapproval. "Sure is ugly," he offered, looking at the FJ with obvious import-hating disgust. Maybe. But we're guessing it'll go just as many places as his Bronco. And with air conditioning, a real roof and mufflers it'll probably be more comfortable getting there. Second Place: 2006 Nissan Xterra Off-Road Jumping a 4,400-pound SUV isn't first on our must-have desert-experience list, but we did it anyway. After two days of heavy off-road use, we realized why Nissan's Xterra is the darling of the midsize SUV class. Cruising down the freeway after bouncing the Nissan off almost every rock in the desert we realized that it truly is the do-it-all machine of the segment. The simple fact is that many buyers will prefer the Xterra's four full-size doors, road manners and cargo area to the Toyota FJ Cruiser's styling and interior. And the difference off-road? Let's just say that a difference, to be a difference, has to make a difference. For many buyers, the FJ's better dirt manners will matter little. Differences that do matter The Xterra's interior is a utilitarian design and it gets the job done. Inside, the Xterra simply feels smaller than the FJ. Not cramped, really, but there's a definite feeling of compact packaging that the squarish FJ doesn't have. Dimensionally, the Xterra is 2 inches narrower and it's especially noticeable in the front seats. But then there are the full-size, full-functioning rear doors. Getting in and out of the rear seat is far easier than in the FJ. The Xterra's flat-folding rear seats are complemented by a passenger seat that also folds, further expanding the cargo area into the front of the vehicle. There's also 7.3 cubic feet more cargo capacity behind the upright rear seats. The Xterra has a definite advantage when it comes to visibility in virtually every direction. Confident lane changes in the Xterra are easy and there's no closed-in feeling like we occasionally felt in the FJ. The Xterra has a straightforward layout that, before driving the FJ, seemed fine. The instruments are clear, complete and easy to read, albeit smaller than the FJ's. The heating, A/C and ventilation controls are made up of three knobs and two buttons. But drive it back-to-back with the FJ and there are a few niggling details. At the end of two weeks we discovered that what seemed like comically large knobs and switches on the FJ were actually easier to use than those in the Xterra. They also had a precise, quality feel that wasn't present in the Xterra's controls. The road numbers Lots of throttle keeps the Xterra floating across the sand, but neither SUV succumbed to dune-bogging during our two days in the desert. With 265 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque from its 4.0-liter V6, the Xterra is a quick SUV. That's 26 hp and 6 lb-ft more than the FJ. But its 0-60 and quarter-mile times are identical to the FJ's at 7.6 and 15.9 seconds, respectively. Realistically, this is as quick as any off-road vehicle needs to be. With this kind of acceleration the Xterra never lacks passing power. With five speeds in its automatic transmission and a considerable torque curve we never encountered a situation where we needed more power — on- or off-road. All that power comes at a price in the Xterra. It averaged 14.7 miles per gallon during the 1,294 miles we logged. The boxier-but-lighter, less-powerful FJ averaged 15.9. Impressively, the Xterra is equally confident when it comes to on-road handling. Make no mistake, it's not a Porsche Cayenne, but given its tall, soft tires and long-travel suspension, it's more than respectable when it comes to tossing around on the pavement. It felt confident relative to other SUVs through the slalom. Solid steering feel and predictable limits added up to a 61.2-mph slalom speed, which is faster than a Buick Lucerne and only slightly slower than the Hyundai Azera — both full-size sedans. You can't say that about many 4x4s with a low-range transfer case. The FJ, for comparison, could only manage 56.3 mph since it was electronically limited by Toyota's stability control system, which can't be disabled. When it comes to stopping, the Xterra wasn't quite as capable or as confident as the FJ. Although its 60-0 distance was only 4 feet longer than the FJ's, its pedal was softer and didn't offer the confidence of the Toyota. The dirt on the Xterra This climb made the Xterra think twice, but with some careful driving (and a little help from various electronic traction aids) it reached the top. Drive the Xterra down a sand wash, washboard-ridden dirt road or rocky trail and you'll be ecstatic about what it can do. Hit the same road in the FJ Cruiser a few minutes later and you'll be less impressed by the Nissan. The Xterra is still excellent, but it's not quite as capable or as comfortable as the FJ. The Xterra isn't as confident on hard-pounding washboard roads where damper tuning and suspension travel translate to controllability, feedback and ride comfort. Nor is it, ultimately, as capable when it comes to rocky axle-twisting climbs and descents. We put the Xterra's locking rear differential to good use on several rocky climbs and never encountered any terrain that would bring it to a stop. However, it was clear that the Nissan had to work harder up these climbs than the Toyota. Its leaf-spring rear suspension doesn't offer the same articulation as the FJ Cruiser. Usability of the four-wheel-drive system wasn't as good as the FJ either. The Xterra's dash-mounted switch allows on-the-fly shifting to four-wheel drive. Shifting to four low required putting the transmission in neutral and flipping the switch further. Functionally, this was not a big deal, but an electronically controlled transfer case just doesn't offer the same confidence in the system inspired by engaging low range with a lever. The button-activated rear locker always took longer to engage in the Xterra than in the FJ as well. The Xterra's hill-descent control is a nice feature, but has its limitations. On most descents it manages vehicle speed well and allows the driver a level of control that wouldn't otherwise be available. However, hit a descent where you're dropping wheels off tall rocks with the risk of rubbing the chassis or suspension bits, and you'll need to use the brakes heavily. We managed to fade the Xterra's brakes on one very slow rocky descent. The problem was compounded by a lack of modulation control in the Xterra's soft brake pedal. The final word Sometimes driving down the creek is easier than simply driving through it. Nissan offers an exceptionally versatile vehicle in the Xterra. It's quick, powerful, convenient and capable. And if the Toyota FJ Cruiser wasn't equal or better in most of those areas, the Xterra would still rule the roost of midsize SUVs. Plus, the guys at the Borrego Springs gas station seemed to hate it less than the FJ. In this case "better" might just be in the eyes of the beholder. Vehicle Tested: 2006 Nissan Xterra Off-Road 4dr SUV 4WD (4.0L 6cyl 5A) MSRP of Test Vehicle: $29,115 What Works: Four usable doors, flat-folding rear seats, excellent road manners. What Needs Work: New SUV, same old styling; soft brake pedal. Bottom Line: An excellent tool of utility both on- and off-road. First Place: 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser The FJ is well damped and exceptionally stable during antics like this. Toyota makes a near perfect compromise with the 2007 FJ Cruiser. It will haul the kids and groceries around town, capably and comfortably cruise at freeway speeds, and then tackle Blow Sand Wash with the same authority as our friend in the goosed-up Bronco. And he doesn't have a roof or mufflers. What's more, the FJ's retro-safari styling offers a unique twist that's distinctly lacking in its competition. Price, quality and measured on-road performance all play out favorably as well. Together, those factors are enough to give it the win. Less power, equal performance With 9.6 inches of ground clearance, the FJ gets the job done in the rocks. The FJ's 4.0-liter V6 is rated at 239 horsepower — 26 less than the Xterra. However, that difference didn't matter when we measured acceleration. The FJ was the Xterra's equal in both 0-60 acceleration (7.6 seconds) and through the quarter-mile (15.9 seconds). It probably didn't hurt that the FJ was 107 pounds lighter on our scales as well (4,403 pounds vs. 4,296 pounds). In measured handling tests like the slalom the FJ fell short. Its numb-on-center steering feel didn't win many fans and it didn't offer the same feedback or confidence as the Xterra. Not that weaving through cones at highway speeds matters much in an SUV, but potential buyers should know that Toyota's philosophy when it comes to this kind of performance is to err on the side of caution. The FJ's stability control can't be switched off, so its 56-mph slalom speed is considerably slower than the Xterra's 61-mph pace. We excluded these numbers from the performance scores used to calculate the winner since they have little relevance in the class. Braking performance, however, does matter. And it's an FJ strong point. All FJs are fitted with 12.5-inch front rotors modulated by gnarly four-piston calipers. These are serious brakes for an SUV and it shows in the FJ's braking performance. Outright distance from 60 mph is only marginally better than the Xterra at 123 feet, but pedal feel is well above average in this segment. Getting dirty We couldn't find any water deep enough to test Toyota's claimed fording depth of 27.5 inches. On paper the FJ looks nearly identical to the Xterra. Approach and departure angles are similar for both rigs (34/30 degrees FJ, 33/29 degrees Xterra). Ground clearance is almost the same as well, at 9.5 and 9.6 inches for the Xterra and FJ, respectively. Both have locking rear differentials, comparably sized off-road tires (FJ: P265/70R17, Xterra: P265/75R16) and brake-based traction control on all four wheels (functional with the rear-differential locker turned off). The FJ's wheelbase is 0.4 inch shorter, but its overall length is 5.2 inches longer. Even with near equal hardware the differences and limitations of each were obvious once the going got ugly. The FJ had a decided advantage in ugly axle-twisting situations by being better able to keep its tires on the ground. This single factor made enough difference in its off-road capability that even the novices in our group were comfortable tackling aggressive rock-crawling trails in the FJ. Those big four-piston calipers made a difference as well. The FJ's brakes were easier to modulate and had better heat capacity than the Xterra's, making it easy to drive down rocky descents that required careful brake work. Blasting down fast fire roads, the FJ's ride was softer but still very well controlled. Damping in both vehicles is superb, but in the FJ, less abuse gets through to the driver. This, in combination with a lower, wider stance, translates into more confidence when driving fast through rough terrain. One logbook entry noted that "in the Xterra you notice the higher center of gravity. It's good off-road, but you have to work it. It's just not as much fun." The FJ's otherwise conservative tuning disappears when the four-wheel drive is engaged. With the front axle turning, stability control is switched off and drivers are free to spin tires and slide sideways with reckless abandon. Get it in the sand and it comes to life with plenty of power and willingness to rotate on the throttle. Functional inside and out The FJ's large climate control knobs and secondary controls combine with high-quality materials to give its interior an edge over the Xterra. The FJ's interior is among the nicest in the class. It's a perfect mix of functionality, retro styling and quality materials. The instrument panel utilizes large white-faced gauges with a center-mounted speedometer. The slightly smaller tachometer is to the left of the speedometer, with coolant temperature, fuel and voltage gauges to the right. It's an attractive, easy-to-use arrangement. Heating and A/C controls are similar in design to the Xterra — everything is managed by three knobs and two buttons — but the FJ's knobs are larger and easier to find when you're bouncing across the desert. Plus, we liked the body-colored housing around the stereo and climate controls. The FJ's rear seats, which are a 60/40-split-folding design, don't fold completely flat. Flat folding hugely increases the function of an expanding cargo area, and packaging it into the design of vehicles in this segment should be a design priority. Although the FJ does offer marginally more cargo space with its seats folded (66.8 cubic feet vs. 65.7 cubic feet), the Xterra provided a more usable storage space thanks to seats that fold completely flat. Its rear doors, however, aren't as easy to use as the Xterra's conventional doors. Rear-seat passengers are at the mercy of the front passengers when it comes to getting in and out. The real deal This sand dune didn't even faze the FJ. We used low range and lots of throttle to get through the sand. The FJ is exactly what it claims to be: the most distinctive and capable 4x4 in the Toyota lineup. It has ample power and reasonable road manners and can go virtually anywhere a sane person would want to take it. It's competitively priced, gets better fuel economy than the Xterra, and has better interior design and materials, all of which gives it an edge. Our friend in Borrego Springs probably wouldn't want either one, but should he be forced to choose between these two Japanese off-roaders, our money is on the FJ. He might think it's ugly, but it beat his Bronco up Blow Sand Wash. Vehicle Tested: 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser 4dr SUV 4WD (4.0L 6cyl 5A) MSRP of Test Vehicle: $29,883 What Works: Retro styling, modern functionality, class-leading off-road performance, better mileage than the competition. What Needs Work: Sherman-tank visibility, dump-truck steering, Mazda RX-8 rear doors. Bottom Line: Potent off-roader with enough style, utility and performance to win our hearts Second Opinion Senior Content Editor Erin Riches says: What I liked most about this test was the lack of compromise. Usually, when we conduct an SUV comparison, there's a weak link in the group, a truck with street tires, a soft suspension or no low-range transfer case. Not so in this test. Both of these trucks come equipped from the factory for a full day's work in the sand and rocks. They're both tough and immensely capable, though Toyota's FJ Cruiser is a little more agile in the rough, scrabbling over rocks with the dexterity of a primate. And the FJ is the one I'd tell my friends to buy, whether they're game for off-roading or not. It looks the part of an adventure vehicle inside and out, and since you can't hit the trails every day, staying in the mood is important. The FJ also has a smoother highway ride than the Xterra, higher-quality interior materials and roomier quarters up front. But the Nissan Xterra is the one I'd buy. Sure, its styling is dull and industrial, but I like its more traditional driving position, which provides better sight lines, whether you're out on the trails or in an urban parking garage. In addition, its steering is more accurate than the FJ's, and even though I'm single, I like the convenience of its real backseat. Sloppy interior fit and finish is my major complaint about the Xterra, but everything feels solid enough that I'd give the Nissan the benefit of the doubt. But I'd have to get it in the sand every weekend. Director of Automotive Testing Dan Edmunds says: In a past life, I spent a bunch of weekends out in the rocks, giving my four-by the "desert pinstripe package." Sadly, I had to sell my rig to offset a new, humongous SoCal mortgage. Temporarily truckless, I treated this test as an extended test-drive. To me, the Xterra is classic rock, reminding me of the original Lenny Kravitz-themed ad campaign. Like the song, it was kinda cool and hip when it first came out. But now, even though it's been improved in many ways, this truck seems like an old tune I've tired of. Sure, the off-road package has Bilstein monotube shocks, a lockable rear differential, antilock brake limited slip (ABLS) and hill-descent control, but the latter masks a slightly fast crawl speed, while the diff lock seems a crutch for so-so articulation. The FJ Cruiser, on the other hand, manages to look thoroughly modern and retro at the same time. Call it pure classic rock-crawler. The FJ's coil-spring rear suspension produced more articulation, and its Bilsteins gave us a better ride on washboard dirt and paved highways alike. Similar traction aids are here — a locking rear diff and A-TRAC, Toyota's quicker-acting brake-based limited slip — but because of that extra articulation, we could get deeper into the gnarly stuff before using them. As someone who would actually use it for its intended purpose, the FJ Cruiser is the one I'd spend my equity line on. It rocks on the rocks, and looks cool doing it. As for the Xterra, let's just say that "I want to get away."