How My 2006 Nissan Xterra Became a Lawn Ornament

 

In 2005 to celebrate her impending graduation from medical school the Wife decided that she wanted to buy a new car. Since she is obsessed with Africa, her idea of transportation is this:

(photo credit: Muda Mrefu)

Of course we didn’t have the money for a Land Rover, particularly one that comes with dents from rhinos, so she ended up settling on a Nissan Xterra. I wasn’t very keen on the truck. Although I had nothing against Nissans the Xterra got terrible gas mileage (17-19 mpg at first) and seemed to be more truck than she needed. But Wife gets what Wife wants, and so we used the USAA car buying service to find and price the Xterra she wanted. We drove to the dealer after settling on a car and price, but as we sat down the dealer refused to sell us the truck at the price negotiated by USAA. Our first mistake was not walking out, but with a youngster in tow and a crest-fallen wife I tried to negotiate the deal myself on the spot – which means I got screwed. I ended up paying about $2,000 more than planned for a stripped down model instead of the fully appointed one USAA promised.

At first things went okay.  The Wife took the truck up to northern Pennsylvania on her rural rotation and the truck seemed to enjoy the rough roads. We quickly learned that while the exterior of the truck was pretty tough the interior suffered from flimsy plastic and vinyl. Within weeks there was our first casualty: the cupholder snapped off from rear of the passenger console.  On one of the maintenance runs to the dealership we asked for a replacement. They said since we broke it, it wasn’t covered by the warranty. They wanted to charge us $500 for the cupholder. A few months later the dog’s claws had punctured through the vinyl cover of the console; also not under warranty – but we spent $400 replacing the vinyl.

The sound system that came with the truck was terrible. Everything that played sounded flat and almost mono. First I replaced the speakers, and there was no change. Then I replaced the car stereo with the exact same Panasonic model I used in my ‘99 Honda. While music sounded better there was something about the truck’s acoustics that just ruined it. It didn’t matter if you were listening to Bach or Bad Brains the sound always seemed smashed together with no bass or treble highlights to speak of.

But hey, we’re adults. We can live with bad sound. What we couldn’t deal with was the gradual decline of the car as soon as the warranty expired. The wheels ate bearings like tic-tacs to the point where once the mechanic needed to heat the axle in order to free them. All four wheels had their bearings and associated control rods replaced at least twice during our 8 years of ownership.

For some reason the car couldn’t maintain alignment which caused me to burn through tires, a problem I exacerbated by buying larger alloy wheels. Yes I am an idiot. I thought that bigger tires would provide the Wife a better ride. All I did was jack up the cost of each tire by $30; there was no change to the ride. I tried to rotate the tires every few months and had the truck aligned about twice a year but never managed to get the treads to wear evenly. Several times I had the car aligned and brought it back to the shop immediately afterward only to be shown the computer printout stating the truck was aligned. It reached a point where I simply thought the roads were made concave and maybe higher center of gravity trucks were more sensitive to this than my Honda.

Small problems continued. I ended up downloading the manuals on the Xterra and hanging out on internet forums, doing the repairs myself. But then the big hits started coming.

First it was the rear differential, setting me back $2400 and a week of a car rental. Soon after that the check engine light started glowing and a trip to the dealership confirmed I needed new catalytic converters for $3,000. At this point the truck was just over 120,000 miles. I ended up replacing the catalytic converters elsewhere with non-OEM cats for $600 but that didn’t fix the problem with the codes. An investigation determined that the 2nd generation Nissan Xterras have cast iron exhaust manifolds bolted onto a cast aluminum engine. Since aluminum and iron expand at different rates, the manifolds tend to develop cracks which allow air into the exhaust. This extra air passes through the catalytic converter and makes the oxygen sensor report the catalytic converter is bad. Another $1000 problem.

On March 30, 2014 while on a business trip the heater stopped blowing warm air. A few minutes later the engine temperature spiked but then returned to normal, and after another 50 miles the heater began blowing warm again. After returning home I took the car to a local mechanic who discovered the transmission cooler within the radiator had failed, allowing radiator coolant to mix with transmission fluid. $600 replacement of the radiator and two system flushes later the transmission slips out of gear, often at critical moments like while turning in intersections. The car suddenly became undriveable, and I had to park it in my field.

It turns out the Nissan Xterra has a transmission computer that actually sits in the transmission fluid pan. As some of you PC geeks may know it is possible to submerse computers in oil or distilled water and have them work just fine. That’s because many oils and distilled water are non-conductive, so while it may look scary, as long as the computer is designed properly for the cooling medium, all will be well. Nissan engineers in their ultimate wisdom decided this was a good idea in the second generation trucks, although the computer was outside the transmission in the first generation trucks. Also they decided to embed the transmission radiator within the engine radiator. This should be no big deal; my Honda has the same configuration. What my Honda does have that the 2nd generation Xterra lacked was a well-made radiator. Nissan’s radiator was defective, and Nissan knows it.

So you have a computer embedded in transmission oil that is cooled through the radiator which uses a 50-50 mix of ethylene glycol and water. The transmission radiator within the engine radiator failed, allowing the antifreeze to sink into the transmission. This caused the overall fluid level to dip. Since the engineers also designed the heater to pull warm coolant from the top of the radiator, the drop in fluid kept the heater from warming up. Only when the engine had warmed up in the cold March air did the fluid expand enough to feed the heater.

But the damage was done. Transmission oil is non-conductive but antifreeze is, and the mixture shorted out the computer. The mixture of green radiator coolant with transmission fluid has even earned a name in the Nissan aficionado community: the Strawberry Milkshake of Death (SMOD) – because that’s exactly what it looks like. Pop off your radiator cap and you’ll find a milky reddish mix. But it’s far from delicious, and Nissan got sued over it.

In 2012 Nissan reached a class-action settlement whereby it extended the warranties of Nissan Xterras and Frontier pickup trucks to 80,000 miles full coverage, 90,000 miles with a $2,500 copay and 100,000 with a $3,000 copay. The meager offerings to Nissan owners only prove what I’ve always believed of class action lawsuits: they are income makers for lawyers and not for the plaintiffs. I never received notice of the settlement nor was I notified of any recall related to the problem.

By this point I was well past the settlement terms. So I did what I’ve done successfully many times in the past: I wrote a letter. I wrote to Jose Munoz, head of Nissan North America.

 

Mr. Muñoz, I grew up loving Datsun. When I see a 280z on the road I notice that I’m not the only one who turns his head to watch that legend slide passed. My very first car was a 1983 Sentra that I bought and taught myself how to drive stick on while leaving the dealer. I put 90k on that car while in college and it never let me down. So as I grew older I always considered Nissan whenever I needed to buy a new or used vehicle.

I like my Xterra. It’s a good solid car with the exception of the damage caused by a poorly engineered transmission cooler. Living in rural North Carolina I need the Xterra to safely take me and my family where we’re going on and off the roads. But the cost of the repair just doesn’t make economic sense and is too much for me to justify putting into the vehicle no matter how much I like it. Still, the idea of scrapping it just offends my environmental sensibilities. This car has many miles left on it before it ends up in a landfill, but I can’t risk driving it until it’s fixed.


 

Weeks passed and on Friday I heard back from Nissan North America.

 

Actually I didn’t get this letter in the mail, although that was the gist of a curt call I had from Meghan at Nissan North America.

So now the Xterra sits in the field waiting for me to decide what to do with it. Replacement of the transmission would run about $3,000. Then there’s still the check engine light issue to deal with plus  new tires for another $2000. $5,000 into an 8 year old car with over a 150,000 miles doesn’t make sense.  I’m driving my ‘99 Honda with close to 200,000 miles on it to dealerships pricing Toyotas and Hondas, and when asked whether I have a trade-in I don’t mention the Xterra because I don’t even know how I’d get it to the dealer to trade in.

As I wrote to Jose Munoz, she is a good looking truck. I can see her from where I write. No rust. No paint issues that a good buff couldn’t fix. She loves the dirt and the North Carolina dust, and she doesn’t look like a suppository the way other SUVs do. When the wife heard about my dealings with Nissan she texted me, “So sad I loved my Xterra but she has broken my heart.” But the wife has a new romance in her life, an Italian Fiat 500 convertible. And I have my trusty Honda CRV which I had ordered specially built for me from Saitama Japan. I’ve sworn the Honda will leave me through my cold-dead hands considering how little trouble that car has given me in 15 years of ownership.

I grew up in an era when few cars made it to 100,000 miles. I’ll never forget pushing my 1983 Dodge Omni into the Toyota dealership in 1987 at 45,000 miles. The car my mother bought with that trade was still going when she traded it in at 150,000 miles. Today used cars often have over 100,000 miles on them. But there are some around like the Nissan Xterra which might look good on the outside but just aren’t built to last the way Toyota 4Runners and Honda CRVs are. It’s been a long, expensive lesson for me.

If I had run that truck into the ground rest assured I wouldn’t  have wasted time writing Nissan, but the fact that it has been a money pit since the warranty expired shows Nissan cannot stand up to its Japanese and European competition in terms of quality.

When I pushed that Dodge into the Toyota dealership I swore off American cars. Almost thirty years later I have not purchased a car made by Ford, GM or Chrysler. Nissan now joins that list.

Why complain? Why waste my time with all this writing? Because the only reason why we don’t pitch cars at the 100,000 mile mark today is because we stopped putting up with badly made cars in the 1970s and 1980s. Today there are many high quality vehicles on the road, but they are only there because consumers expect and demand them. If we let the automakers get sloppy the way the US automakers did in the 1960s and 1970s and don’t hold them to a higher standard of quality, then we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

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13 Comments

  1. desolder:

    I have a 2007 Xterra and I wasn’t aware of the SMOD problem before reading your blog! Thanks for the heads up. I’ll have to keep an eye on my transmission fluid. Perhaps I’ll replace the radiator now as a precautionary measure, since I already have 90K miles and I might be pushing my luck at this point. According to http://www.carcomplaints.com/Nissan/Xterra/, 2005-2007 are most affected.

    So far I’ve only had two major problems with my Xterra. The first was with the timing chain guides wearing out prematurely, causing the engine to whine loudly. Nissan replaced it for free just a month before the warranty was set to expire! I dodged an expensive bullet there. The second was with a bad ignition coil that caused the engine to misfire. I replace it myself after researching how to do it on the internet (ain’t the internet great!). Unfortunately the misfire it might have damaged my cat converter, because now I’m getting a bad cat code (P0420 code). The $3000 quote from the stealership to replace the cats is a huge ripoff. They are not that expensive, nor are they that difficult to replace.

  2. Scott Kirwin:

    desolder
    Visit this link to learn more about the P0420/P0430 codes. You’ll probably run across one of my postings about these codes because my X suffered it too.

    http://www.clubxterra.org/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=22

    Your cats may be fine; it may be a bad O2 sensor or as in my case, cracked exhaust manifolds.

    The stock exhaust manifolds of the Gen2s are cast iron; the engine of course is aluminum. Both get extremely hot and since they are made from different materials expand and cool at different rates – and cracking results. The cracks allow air into the exhaust which can cause the O2 sensor to register the P0420 or P0430 code. I replaced both of my cats with aftermarket ones, and the code reappeared within weeks. Luckily I only wasted $600. My tranny went bad before I got around to replacing the exhaust manifolds with new headers.

    My X is still sitting where the picture shows it. It’s worth roughly the cost of a new transmission and given I still have to fix the exhaust manifolds plus anything else that likely will go wrong, I’m not going to fix it. Instead I’m running my 1999 Honda CRV 2WD which will hit 200,000 miles in the next week or two. When that goes I’ll probably trade in its corpse along with the X for either a low mileage CRV or a Toyota 4Runner.

    But I’m done with Nissan. I shouldn’t have had to learn as much about trucks as I did owning one of their POS vehicles. I can’t tell you how many other components I ended up replacing that I didn’t mention in the post above. Window regulators. Window switches. Rear hatch pistons. Bearing joints… Visit http://www.clubxterra.org/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=22 . They helped me out a lot.

  3. The Razor » Blog Archive » To My Wife’s Patients: Things She Can’t Say To You – But I Can:

    [...] another couple of decades. We do have 4 cars though: One is a subcompact she bought used. One is a Southern Lawn Ornament, broken down at 170,000 miles. The other two (mine and my son’s cars) have 200,000 and [...]

  4. desolder:

    As a followup to my previous post, I finally dropped off my Xterra at a local mechanic and he confirmed the front right cat was broken up and gone. It had overheated and disintegrated, the particles clogging up the secondary cat. The clogged secondary cat was putting up a lot of backpressure on the right bank and causing those cylinders to misfire, throwing a P0300 random misfire code in addition to the P0420 cat code.. A replacement cat from Nissan cost $1350, but my mechanic was able to get an aftermarket CA legal cat for $850. Total cost was $1400. I can’t get too angry with Nissan since it was my fault for continuing to drive the car while the Service Engine light was flashing. Oh well, lesson learned.

  5. Molly Unmollified:

    Your conclusion is perfect, but I’d add an additional point of gratitude. You finish by explaining why you bothered to write this story, and I hope other people realize why it’s important to complain publicly and not throw in the towel after they’ve been screwed over by a company. In the event of a legitimate problem, of course. The value of fighting something like this publicly is so much greater than the time it takes to write it out and/or follow through to the top with your complaint. It is important to make a real problem known publicly for all of the reasons you stated – we DO have superior cars now because the public refused to stand for anything less. And we DO only achieve change if we follow through. But I cannot thank you enough for writing this cautionary tale for others. It’s too late for me, but this post might save someone else from buying an inferior manufactured product or having to deal with a problematic company. I hope that people realize this isn’t about Nissan making a few cars with a manufacturer mistake (albeit a pretty huge and wide-spread one), but it’s also about how they HANDLED the problem (refused to take responsibility for their errors or even their pointlessly recommended repairs that still failed, and didn’t honor their consumers with any legitimate compensation) after it happened. I can’t believe that this issue was so common, handled so poorly, left so many people out thousands of dollars, and STILL didn’t go any further.

    But the additional point I wanted to make was gratitude. I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to write your entire story down and share it on a public forum. I knew the problem wasn’t an isolated incident that affected only my car, and I passed on the lawsuit because the potential benefit I could receive was pennies to what I’d have to spend, but hearing someone else explain the frustration they went through and how they eventually dealt with it is immensely helpful. This is such garbage for Nissan customers, and I’ve been going back and forth for some time now about whether or not it’s worth it to fix the car (and how) in order to sell it or continue driving it, and I guess I have to be grateful that I didn’t waste money on a repair that would ultimately fail me anyway. But so much of this was really helpful new info to me, and I just wanted to thank you for sharing. I am angrier than I was before I read it, but only because so many people people got screwed and Nissan basically told them all to … “piss up a rope”. How is THAT legal? This can’t be over yet for them…

  6. Scott Kirwin:

    Molly
    FWIW I was recently on the market for a car to replace mine that went to Honda Heaven at the ripe old age of 200,000+.
    I didn’t even consider replacing it with a Nissan.
    Although I’m sure Nissan doesn’t care, they will if others do.
    Thanks for sharing your story.
    Scott K.

  7. alex:

    Thank you for writing this experience with us. I was just about to buy this car but now i won’t .

  8. Eve Hunt:

    Thanks for sharing this. I was not aware of this. I have nissan altima which was creating engine light problems so didn’t get solution to this. I just made one small change of buying new catalytic converter and bought it from here – http://www.ebay.com/itm/172184765112?item=172184765112&viewitem=&vxp=mtr. My problem get solved.

    Some times big problem can be solved from small decisions

  9. Hankmyster:

    Scott,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I too have a 2007 Xterra. I bought it mid-January 2013 as my older daughter’s first car with about 70,000 miles on it. About 2 or 3 months ago I dreadfully learned about Nissan’s SMOD problem, which clearly Nissan has been aware of (at least since 2012), and by extending the warranty (to save face) admitted to the manufacturing flaw. Luckily (I think), my problem started, when the car had less than 100K (and more than 90K) miles on it, so we ONLY had to pay $3,000 to get the problem fixed. I don’t think, I have never felt so lucky to pay this much money to fix a known manufacturing flaw, of a trusted company!

    For what its worth, my story is similar to yours. I am in the process of writing Mr. Muñoz and a few others at Nissan North America, whom should be interested and concerned about their customers’ satisfaction and loyalty. I’m fairly certain that I will receive the same genuinely concerned and caring response as you did from such customer focused and trusted manufacturer. Depending on their response (or lack there of), I am seriously considering and contemplating filing a small claims law suite for the $3k. In Alabama, it will cost about $150, to file the lawsuit for damages of up to $3K in small claims court here. I am fairly certain that it will probably be fruitless, but it will be worth it for the principle of making a point. And to be a PIA that has to be addressed. I believe it will cause them to allocate and spend some sort of resource to at lease have my letter read by someone other than just a gatekeeper and be forced to address it, even if it is to tell me to “...piss up the rope”. Again, just wanted to tell you thank you for sharing your story.

    Hank M.

  10. Scott Kirwin:

    Hank
    Thanks for telling your story. I have struck Nissan off my list and since writing this have purchased 2 vehicles from other manufacturers. Good luck with the lawsuit.

  11. L.J.:

    My 2007 nissan xterra radiator box cracked open and leaked coolant throughout tranny lines last week destroying the transmission. 6000 dollar repair bill. Nissan aware of defected rad boxes causing this catastrophic problem. I contacted nissan canada. I was told to piss up a rope as well. Piss on nissan more like it.

  12. Scott Kirwin:

    Since my experience I have bought 3 cars. None of them have been Nissan. In fact I wasn’t surprised to see that Nissan is now ranked near the bottom of the US when it comes to quality, just above Fiat.

  13. jeff mccollin:

    thanks to all had 1st gen but manual trans only (if) go w/2nd gen

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