Reviewing your own cars is usually a big no-no. When a person plunks down their own hard-earned cash, it makes things personal. And when things are personal for a reviewer, there are usually just two outcomes. They either love their car with all their heart or they hate it with such a passion that they want it, and all others like it, excised from the planet. Extreme examples, of course, but even when they do their best to moderate their passions, self-reviewers still tend to skew one way or another. That leaves it to the reader to sort fact from fiction. But hey, no problem! Americans are good at spotting spin, right?
I say up front to make it abundantly clear that, should you dare to read further, all thirty years of Nissans being discussed in this article occupy spaces in my own driveway. The fact that I own several, and that I seem to consistently keep adding more, should tell you how I skew. I like Nissans. If you want a more unbiased review, maybe I can write to Doug DeMuro and beg him fly out to give them all Doug Scores or something.
The three vehicles in question represent a significant period of time. And while one of these things is clearly not like the others, with a little imagination all three generally fall into the same category. The first is a 1991 Nissan D21 “Hardbody” truck and is an SE V6, four-wheel drive with an automatic transmission; the second is a 2001 Nissan X Terra SE, also a V6, four-wheel drive and also with a conventional automatic transmission; and the third is a 2019 Nissan Rogue Sport SL, AWD, but with a 2.0 liter 4 cylinder and a CVT. The Hardbody and the X Terra are traditional body-on-frame off road brutes, while the Rogue is a modern, car-based “cute-ute.”
1991 D21 “Hardbody” SEV6 4X4
There is little question among Nissan enthusiasts that my 1991 Hardbody is “Peak Nissan.” Introduced in 1986, the Hardbody, so named because it features double wall bed construction, was sold in the US for more than 10 years. The smallest, least optioned versions of this design, 4 cylinder two-wheel drivers, were neither fast nor flashy but they were extremely popular runabouts that saw honest service in huge numbers. Top of the line SEV6s 4X4s, like the one I own, were on a different level (even then) and survivors in nice shape are fairly sought after today.
Highly susceptible to rust, most Hardbodies I see these days suffer from corrosion issues. Unless they are from regions where road salt is not used or have been meticulously kept, most are in deplorable shape. I am fortunate in that the truck I purchased is a west coast, one owner rig that looks to have been both adult owned and garage kept. But even so time has taken a toll. The clear coat is beginning to have issues and the paint, which feels and looks thin, is easily scratched. Also, most of the plastics, both on the interior and under the hood, have hardened to the point of brittleness.
Like most old trucks, my Hardbody has had some mechanical issues. I have kept up with the repairs and been aggressive about maintenance. Also, when I have had the chance, I have made improvements. Among the many things I have done is to apply a new rubber seal to the sunroof, installed new shocks, took it to a mechanic to address an annoying oil leak that I thought was a rear main seal replacement (but which turned out to be a bent oil pan flange), replaced the torque converter, did the timing belt, water pump and tensioner, and dealt with an exhaust leak that turned out to be two broken exhaust manifold studs. I also did the wheel bearings, went completely through the brake system and, because I get a little OCD and tend to overdo things, added drilled and slotted front discs.
Despite its advancing years, my Hardbody has never failed to start. A few years ago, it made the trip from Seattle to Northern Virginia without missing a beat and, although it is not my everyday driver today, I often use it around town. In the role of “an old truck,” where it hauls things to the dump and makes the occasional run to Home Depot, it performs superbly.
Inside, the seats sit low but the extended cab makes it roomy enough for my 6’1″ 250 pound frame. I seldom put the kids in the side mounted jump seats but when I have done so they have been OK for short trips. One feature I like is the steering adjustment, which has a two-way lever that offers the ability to fine tune and lock in a preferred position and a quick flip-up capability that gets the wheel up and out of your way in one swift move. I’m unsure if this was problematic had some other issue, but I note that neither of the two “more modern” Nissans, to their detriment, offer this feature.
Driving dynamics are OK so long as you understand that you are driving an old truck. It can be jarring, rough and can seem a little tippy if you decide to whip it around like a sports car. In normal, everyday old-man driving, however, it remains planted on city streets and the bumpiness is just a part of its charm. When you step on the accelerator there is power, but it takes some time to turn that power into speed so it’s not exactly spry but not a rolling road hazard, either.
Because of its age and its status as an ‘80s icon, maybe not on par with Marty McFly’s custom Toyota but close enough for those of us who prefer Sprite over Seven-Up, this is a fun truck to own. It gets smiles and draws the occasional positive comment while, at the same time, remaining a practical choice for the homeowner who doesn’t have to move huge loads. As the oldest of the three vehicles being reviewed and the only “real” truck, it feels the most primitive. Even so, the Hardbody must go down as one of those iconic vehicles that brought Nissan into the modern age. Peak Nissan, indeed.
2001 Nissan X Terra SE
As the Pathfinder was birthed from the Hardbody, the X Terra was birthed from the Hardbody’s replacement, the Frontier. Advertised back in the day with the tagline “Everything you need, nothing you don’t,” the X Terra is a small SUV with room for five. With two distinct generations, a 1999 through 2004 “early” model and a 2005 through 2015 “later” model, the X Terra has, thanks to its body on frame construction and overall decent four-wheel-drive capabilities, found favor with the off roading community. Models from both generations are still common on the road.
I acquired a 2001 X Terra SE V6 as a vehicle for my soon to be licensed son for two reasons. First, I wanted something that my son and I could work on together. It’s nice to have the occasional father-son moment and, I think, a person tends to take better care of their vehicles when they have some sweat equity. Second, even in this era of over-inflated used car prices the first-generation X Terras are pretty good deals. Unless you are buying from a dealer, seeking a pristine example, or trying to source one of the slightly harder to find Supercharged models, you can find X Terras in the mid-Atlantic region between $2,000 and $4,000 all day long. I paid $2,200 for my son’s. Fairly cheap, but for reasons that will soon become clear I do not consider it to have been “well bought.”
Mechanically the X Terra is driven by a derivative of the same VG30 series V6 that drives the Hardbody. A more modern engine that aids troubleshooting via it OBDII port, this engine feels and sounds different than the one in the truck. According to the internet, the X Terra’s engine has more horses, but my butt-dyno tells me it makes its power in a different way. While the truck gives good low and mid-range, the X Terra needs more revs and the net result is that I need to get on the gas harder and hold it there longer. This is the opposite of my normal driving style and feels odd. But on the plus side, whenever I put my foot down in the X Terra I am rewarded by the sound of the VG revving as the power comes on. It sounds great, honestly, almost like a Z car minus the spooling turbos.
Fully sorted now, the X Terra was a mess inside and out when we got it. On the short test drive it was obvious that it had been neglected but it seemed to do everything just fine. Once I got it home and was able to take it out for a longer run, however, it became apparent there as an issue with a misfire. A cheap code reader and some internet sleuthing pointed me a couple of different directions. Adding ground wires to the fuel injection system, as recommended by a Nissan TSB, cleared the codes but even so the vehicle remained difficult to start and ran like crap. After tinkering with it and losing patience, I took it into a shop where they gave it a thorough going over and determined it needed a new distributor. They also measured low fuel pressure and dinged me for a new pump/sending unit. There were other things too, like a leaking power steering hose that had to be repaired, but sometimes, when you have a pending state inspection, you have to pony up.
Shops are always expensive, but I am lucky to have a place close by that I trust. While I ended up paying more for the repairs than I did the actual vehicle, the X Terra now starts and runs like a champ. On my own, I did other things, too, including full brakes (this time without the fancy new rotors), shocks, a set of manual Mile Marker hubs, and the timing belt, tensioner, and water pump. I also put in new headlights, wired a set of LEDs in place of the driving lights, and did countless other small things like replacing all the lug nuts.
My son helped with a lot of that work. We also completely gutted the interior, pulled and power washed the carpets and took out the seats, removed the skins, and put them through the washing machine. We worked on the dash, which was chipped and discolored around the heater controls, ran down some electrical gremlins, and put in a modern double DIN stereo. I suspect that new speakers will be on the Christmas list this year.
Outside we removed the running boards, which look like heavy steel tubes designed to protect the body from off road impacts but were, in reality, cheapo aluminum pieces that only added style (while restricting actual ground clearance). The vehicle’s plastic cladding had been retouched and was in good shape overall but, like the Hardbody, the paint is thin and prone to easy scratching. Unlike the garage-kept Hardbody though, much of the clearcoat on the hood has gone missing.
That’s a lot of bad, but now that it’s completely up and running again the X Terra is not a bad little car at all. Smelling all Downy Fresh inside, with its neat stadium style rear seats that allow passengers to look over the driver, and with decent tunes in the dash, the interior is a nice place to be. The interior plastics have remained supple and the console box is tall enough to serve as an actual arm rest. The front seats are low but comfortable and their velour responded will to the washing machine. New rubber floormats will help protect the carpet we worked so hard to get clean.
The steering wheel, which is luxuriously fat because designers in the new millennium have realized that everyone prefers girth, is adjustable but not tiltable and, unlike one of my favorite features in the older truck, does not easily flip up and out of the way. Also, since I am nitpicking, the heater/cooling controls with their neat little retro radio-like knobs border on the ridiculous. Likely they were OK when new, but when called upon to move the 20 year-old cables that open and close the various doors that control air temp and direction, they are pretty pitiful. I should also add that the X Terra feels slightly more cramped inside than the truck, probably because of the thicker door panels.
On the road, the X Terra feels very car-like and has nice road manners. It always feels planted and, while almost the same height as the truck, surefooted. Getting it to go, as I previously noted, requires more aggressive pedal inputs, and while it never feels fast it does alright. Overall, I think it is a fine driving little ute.
Nissan was right to say the X Terra offered everything you needed and nothing you didn’t. That philosophy made the vehicle a budget proposition then and it so remains today. But, while I like the style and the overall basicness of the X Terra, I don’t think I would choose one for my own daily driver. Maybe that’s because I am getting older and want more spaciousness and comfort in my vehicles. But that’s just me. For a younger person who is still thin and limber and who wants something stylish to get them from point A to point B, I think the X Terra hits just the right spot.
2019 Nissan Rogue Sport SL
Almost twenty and thirty years newer than the other two vehicles in this “review,” the Nissan Rogue Sport SL is an entirely new generation. It is Captain Picard’s Enterprise NCC1701D compared to Kirk’s stalwart NCC1701 or the odd NCC1701B that Ferris Buhler’s buddy, Cameron, Captained in the very crappy Star Trek 7 “Generations.” Not body-on-frame, not powered by a version on the VG series of V6 engines, and thanks to Nissan’s use of the questionable CVT, not rowing any gears – even automatic ones – the Rogue Sport is a clear break with what came before.
The closest “old” Nissan with which I can compare the Rogue is the Murano, which was sold one market niche above the X Terra beginning in 2003. One of the first Nissan car-based crossovers, the Murano was equipped with a V6 and, unfortunately, featured a CVT that was the subject of a class action lawsuit.
As a close relative to the Murano, the Rogue Sport that graces my garage does so under a cloud of suspicion. Although I worry about its long-term prospects, we got what I think is a lot of car for a good price and decided to take a chance. We live with the hope that, with regular servicing and judicious use, we can avoid trouble. Also, given how little we drive these days, I figured it will be a long time before we have to deal with anything serious, anyhow. I may regret that, but I guess we’ll see how that plays out. I’ll keep you posted.
Because we bought the Rogue new, there is no lengthy list of work to report. The purchase process went smoothly enough and we got a fair trade in for my wife’s only sightly used Versa Note – which I liked but which she decided was too small and dangerous. We bought a leftover previous year’s Rogue in early 2020, before the car market went crazy, and I arranged my own financing. The plan is, as it is with every vehicle we buy new, to hang onto this for at least ten years. So long as my wife doesn’t intervene again, I think we can accomplish that.
I very much like Nissan’s current design language. Their vehicles look poised and athletic and seem to be put together with care. The V force grill – I am a sucker for those pithy marketing terms – dominates the front fascia and splits the bumper without looking gawdy and out of place. Well placed accents and lighting give the face of the vehicle a pleasant look, although the daytime running lights give it a permanent set of “angry eyebrows.”
The overall shape of the Rogue Sport is nice and body lines are subdued compared to what is appearing on similarly priced offerings from the Koreans. Black trim along the bottom is a good trick that helps fool the eye into removing some of the body’s thickness. The wheels on this car look wonderful.
Inside, the two-tone interior of our Rogue offers pleasing shapes and thoroughly modern features. A touch screen dominates the center stack and offers several different functions while the smaller screen that splits the analog speedometer and tach inexcusably omits a digital speedometer in favor of other asinine bits of info that I think fail to apprise the driver of anything worthwhile. The heater controls are attractive and, with two dials on the outsides of the controls, look like an old-fashioned radio. But the functions feel odd as the fan speed is raised and lowered by button while the two dials are used for specifying separate temperatures for the left and right sides of the cabin. Perhaps that is a small issue, but it just isn’t instinctive as I tend to leave the temp alone once it is set but often adjust the fan speed.
There are a ton of safety features. Cameras are hidden all over and can be used to compile a top-down view to help you park. The blind spot warning lights are nice as are back up sensors, lane departure warnings and automatic emergency braking, but I think the camera that tracks lane positioning intrudes too far down from the top of the windshield, restricting my field of vision and making the cockpit feel cramped.
Adding to that too-tight feeling are large A-pillars, high windowsills, thick doors and a wide center console. Perhaps this design is intended to make the Rogue feel more sporty and if that was the intention it does a good job, but it also makes it feel small inside. So far, around town, that hasn’t been an issue but I am concerned that on longer trips my ability to shift my feet around would be limited and that I would begin to feel cramped fairly quickly.
Performance wise, the Rogue Sport is a slug. The engine spins up nicely when you push the accelerator, but its output feels anemic. In the Hardbody and the X Terra, there is a correlation between noise and acceleration but in the Rogue, there is none. It just makes noise while the CVT works its mystery and leaves you waiting. You definitely don’t want to pull out in front of someone. Off road – well, I don’t even want to think about off road because this is a vehicle that doesn’t belong up any road that isn’t graded.
In overall quality and value, despite its lack of grunt and the small issues I complained about, I think the Rogue Sport is a good deal. Unlike the X Terra, the Rogue has everything you need and a bunch more cool stuff, too. Comparing the Rogue to the older two vehicles shows just how much technology has been added over the years and how that technology has been integrated into so many different areas.
Purchased for and used almost exclusively by my wife, the Rogue is another example of a vehicle that is right for the person who uses it. If I were buying one, ’80s/’90s guy that I am, I’d want something akin to a Sentra SE R version with more power, a manual transmission, and, while we are at it, better sightlines with a little less camera intrusion into the windshield. Make it so, Nissan. Make it so.
So much of automotive design is fashion and there is truth, I think, in the idea that nothing looks so dated as the cutting edge of yesterday’s fashion. Both the Hardbody and the first-generation X Terra were good looking vehicles when they were built and while there are some nice design cues present, nothing about either of them was on the cutting edge. If anything, they were conservative and so they remain good looking vehicles today. Whether the Rogue Sport will look as good in twenty or thirty years remains to be seen. While I like it’s look today, I think that earlier generations of the Rogue fall a bit flat.
Mechanically, both of my older Nissans have held up reasonably well. My truck has had the advantage of being well cared for its entire existence, but I suspect that the X Terra’s life was not always easy. In any case, I have to give Nissan props for designing vehicles that can be worked on. Despite the neglect the X Terra suffered it was reasonably easy to put back into shape and, while It did cost money, did call upon many of my mechanical skills, and did consume a lot of time, it was surprisingly DIY.
Whether or not the Rogue will hold up in a similar fashion is the question that everyone who purchases a new Nissan these days must ask. Given others’ experiences with Nissan’s CVTs, there is reason to be concerned, for sure. I will do my best to stay on top of the maintenance in the hope that the one in my garage will serve us long and well. In years to come, however, I doubt that neglected Rogues will be as easy to work on as the X Terra has proven to be. Maybe that is the nature of modern things, though, increasingly sophisticated but increasingly fragile.
So there you have it. Three Nissans, two not so different and one totally unlike the others, but each of them good enough for a little fun. No “gotcha” moments but an interesting look at how things have changed and maybe some food for thought. Thanks for reading and y’all make sure to check the torque on those lug nuts, OK?
My thanks to Jack for continuing to provide this forum and for his continuing willingness to accept the articles I sometimes write. Sorry that this one was so long. I look forward to any comments or questions below.