2003 Nissan Xterra vs. 2002 Subaru Outback - which one to buy?

I’m looking for a car that is cheap to maintain.
I have to have something that allows for interior cargo space.
So far, I can find either of these two models for under $8k in clean condition.

I like the Subaru Outback (H6 engine), but I know that more parts can likely equal higher priced maintenance. AWD involves a front and rear differential and a transfer case that can go bad anytime and it has a more complex set up than a basic truck. Then, there’s the computery crap that can go wrong.

The Xterra, if I can get a basic 2 wheel drive should, I’d guess, be fairly cheap to maintain, no? Sure, I loose out on the driving advantages offered by the Subaru Outback and gas will cost more.

I love driving the Subaru, but I’m guessing that once a bunch of rattles, leaks, and other issues start cropping up that I might not be so happy with it. The vehicles in my price range are all sitting at 100k - 120k miles. The Nissan Xterra is a truck. It drives like a truck. I might be happier with it, knowing I won’t have to pay for high priced repairs. I drive rather conservatively with the intention of keeping my vehicle in good condition. It would be a daily driver for the next 18 months.

Even with higher fuel costs (Xterra will likely get 16-19 mpg), I’m thinking I’d be better off buying the Xterra than the Subaru, yes or no?

You have to tell us what your needs are. You want a cheap car with some interior cargo space. Now the cars you are looking at use more gas than average and that offsets any “cheap” car factor. Are you sure you need an SUV or crossover?

If the choice was only between the two, I would say find the one that is maintained best and buy it. Just make sure you take a long test drive in the Nissan, the Xterra’s I tried out were not the most comfortable cars for daily use. They are meant to be off-road cars and built as such.

Gas? I’ve taken that into consideration on costs, either vehicle is fine. I’m like everyone else who hates paying for gas but I can live with it. Gas is a predictable cost factor vs. unintended repairs. For me, “cheap” means no whacky repair bills. I’ve been there, done that with VW’s. If I never had to buy another car, great. I pretty much need something for pt A-B.

I hate all this new technology crap because it simply raises your total maintenance costs. So, I would prefer a simple vehicle, with less crap on it. Something that I can change the oil/fluids and have my mechanic do the rest. I want something that has a high number of parts available.

I’ve driven both vehicles. I have no qualms about driving a car that bumps around a bit. Let’s just say, I’m okay with driving a Jeep Wrangler. Those things are bouncy! They’re not road-cars, obviously. Off-road Xterra? Yes, exactly, that’s why I was looking at them. I was thinking, if it can take that kind of roughing about, then ordinary conservative road driving should mean it won’t break.

I do love the Subie. I’m just a bit paranoid to buy one w/o a warranty. I’ve learned that trucks tend to last. Still, if enough opinions roll in that suggest a Subie will bring solid reliability, I’d go for that one. It does offer better handling. But, my desire for cheap outranks that perk.

Finding either car that’s been beautifully maintained is like finding a needle in a haystack. I’ve been browsing for the last few weeks at listings in multiple cities across the Southeast. I’ve finally come across potential vehicles. Unfortunately, many are from dealers, not private sellers. I really do hate dealers. And then, yes I’m picky about condition. I want something that’s seen the inside of a garage, has been washed, hasn’t any evidence of carting kids around, that sort of thing.


You more have flexibility then you indicate because you are willing to buy a 2 wheel drive, frame based SUV. The Xterra will be a gas hog from the word go, rides and handles like crap. If you can live with 2 d and want a truck, look for a 4 cylinder 2 wd Tacoma extended or extra cab. They should do as well as Subaru on gas and ride much more car like then any Xterra. The latest bunch are limited slip in the rear and will have decent rough road performance. Have a friend with one in Florida and he loves it…seats 4 and rides well. That is about as reliable as you can get and a no brainier if I were looking. Toyota arguably makes one of the best gas 4 cylinder truck motors and truck on the market. Other choices used would be 4Runners and Pathfinders. Reliable, comfortable but not as efficient as 4 cylinders unless you can find a 4 cylinder 2 wd 4Runner, which sounds ideal for you.

If you can find a 6 cyl Subaru, go for that. The 6 is a much better engine than the 4 and the 6 has had virtually no head gasket issues. An '02 4 cylinder Subaru is the one to avoid.

The Xterra is solid, but you will have trouble finding a 2WD equipped Xterra.

1- 6 cylinder Subaru, 2- 2WD Xterra, 3- 4WD Xterra, a very distant 4th 4 cylinder Subaru.

Having owned a 2002 Outback with the H-6 engine, I can speak with some authority about that model.

In 10 years/110,000 miles of ownership, the only repair that the car ever needed was replacement of a purge valve in the evaporative emissions system, and that was done under warranty when the car was about 6 months old. Other than that, nothing ever went wrong with the car over the next 9 1/2 years, including “the computery stuff”.

The list of trouble-free areas includes the traction control, the electronic stability control system, the ABS, the AWD, the automatic climate control, the power seats, the power windows, the automatic-dimming mirror, and the McIntosh audio system–or, in other words, the parts that some people assume will be the most troublesome. Of course, that is not to say that you wouldn’t have any problems with this particular specimen that you have found. After 100k miles, unusual problems do have a way of showing up with no warning.

Incidentally, in addition to the H-6 engine not being subject to the head gasket problems that the 4-cylinder engine is known for, the six also utilizes a timing chain, rather than a timing belt. That is one of the reasons why I opted for the six-cylinder engine.

I found the gas mileage to be very consistent, yielding a steady 23-24 mpg in mixed highway/suburban driving, and 28-30 mpg on long highway drives. However, the relatively good gas mileage was negated slightly by the fact that premium gas is recommended for that engine. In the winter, I frequently used mid-grade gas, but I did almost always use premium gas during the summer months.

However, no matter which vehicle you are leaning toward, the biggest factor that should convince you to buy one and not the other is the maintenance history of both vehicles. Personally, I think that anyone who buys a used vehicle–particularly one with over 100k miles–that does not come with full maintenance records is being both naive and very foolish. Either one of these vehicles could rapidly turn into a virtual money pit unless it has been maintained at least as well as the mfr specifies. And, even with full maintenance records, I would only buy a used vehicle that had been inspected by my mechanic, in order to detect collision damage as well as developing problems that might not be readily apparent to a non-mechanic.

I owned a '00 2WD Xterra for 50k miles, which is much the same as an '03 other than the shape of the headlights. You could ask on the owners club (XOC) but as far as I’m aware the only issues have been with the exhaust manifold studs, a common problem on the VG30/33 engine. Compared to a Subaru it’s a heavy truck, solid and simple. If you are hard on vehicles I think it would the better choice. It handles well and rides OK, but it really sucks gas. I never got better than 17 mpg.

In my neck of the woods, 2WD Xterras are plentiful.

Yeah, the ride is not that great. It is a truck, after all.

But I suspect it’ll be cheaper and easier to maintain over the years. I also expect most of the independent shops would be more comfortable working on it versus the Subaru.

There are several people on our road who bought the Xterra. Where we live you need 4 wd at least 6 months out of the year and ground clearance the rest of the time. Still, though Xterras fit the bill in those areas, they were sold within x5 years and not replaced with new Xterras which tells you a lot. The one that was kept was turned over to the kids. Biggest complains ? Ride, handling and Godawful gas mileage.
For us, a Subaru would have been better in most ways except ground clearance and towing which was important… Best compromise if you don’t need 4 wd or ground clearance, is a compact car or a 2wd x4 cyl pick up with extra cab. There is nothing to indicate you need more that will give you a better chance of getting a better deal within these constraints. You have only $8 k to spend. In this day and age, poor gas mileage has to be thought of as having an unreliability vehicle. It won’t run unless you make more frequent stops at a station at much greater expense. If that’s not the definition of unreliability, what is ?

Agree, a 2WD Xterra would be less expensive in upkeep, but it would not be my choice.

Any 10 year old car is a roll of the dice even after a thorough pre-purchase inspection although a checkout does swing the odds more into your favor.
However, all things equal and just my humble opinion I would choose the 6 cylinder Subaru.

As to warranty on a used car, be careful about the purchase of extended warranties. If needed, some are good and some are downright scams.
Be aware that any ext. warranty will not pay for wear and tear or maintenance type items and there are often hoops to jump through regarding deductibles and so on.

The post the other day about the gentleman who paid 5 grand for an extended warranty on his pickup kind of made me cringe… :frowning:

Thanks for all of the advice folks.


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