First Glance at the Nissan Frontier Truck
Nissan has a history as an innovator in compact pickup trucks. The first compact trucks in the US were Datsun (Nissan's original US name) 1000 1/4-ton models in 1959. Nissan pioneered such firsts as the 1/2-ton compact pickup in 1969; the long bed compact in 1975; the King Cab in 1977, the first extended cab compact pickup truck; and the Crew Cab in 2000, the first four-door compact pickup truck. Nissan trucks have been built in Smyrna, Tennessee since 1983.
Nissan compact trucks have worn the Frontier name since the 1998 model year, and the current generation of truck debuted as a 2005 model. It returns basically unchanged since a 2009 cosmetic makeover that brought the truck more in line with the rest of Nissan's truck and SUV lineup.
Frontier is available in five trim levels, with King or Crew Cabs. The least expensive Frontier, the S King Cab, starts at just $17,770 with a 4-cylinder engine, rear-wheel drive and a manual transmission. The most expensive, the SL Crew Cab, starts at $31,650 with a V6, 4-wheel drive and an automatic. That's quite a spread. My PRO-4X test vehicle slotted in at the upper end, due to a healthy dose of off-roading enhancements. My favorite standard feature was the factory-applied spray-in bedliner, which looked indestructible.
Frontier is a good-looking truck, and surprisingly big for a compact. It's almost as big as a Ford F-150 from 10 years ago, which says something about the way pickups have become massive.
In the Frontier Truck Driver’s Seat
The King Cab hits a sweet spot for me. In a pinch, I'd be comfortable carrying a couple of passengers in the jump seats behind the front row (though I wouldn't want to have to sit back there myself), for a short distance anyway. The real benefit of the King Cab is utility. I hate to have my valuable tools and small equipment exposed in the bed of my pickup, and I also hate to compromise the utility of my pickup's bed with a tonneau cover or permanently mounted toolbox. The King Cab provides enough secure, weather-tight space for valuable items, without the cumbersome look and compromised handling of a Crew Cab. It also gives taller drivers a little more room to recline without contacting the back wall of the cab, which can greatly reduce comfort on long rides. The cabin feels airy and spacious, without feeling massive, like the Nissan Titan's does.
Frontier's dash has a workman-like, utilitarian flair. I'm not nuts about the quality of the dash materials, which have a few too many hard surfaces for my taste. But it does have a nice, clean, industrial look. Manual tilt is the only adjustment on the multi-function steering wheel, but I had no trouble finding a comfortable driving position. Your body may vary.
I was comfortable with the level of technology that arrived as part of the standard equipment with my test vehicle, though some features were lacking. No GPS navigation or touchscreen is offered, just a simple, easy-to-operate AM/FM/CD stereo with auxiliary input. Bluetooth hands-free phone integration is standard on the PRO-4X and SL as well (optional on SV models and unavailable on S models). The lack of GPS availability is one of the indicators that Frontier has not been spruced up in quite some time.
On the Road in the Frontier Truck
The on-road/off-road balance is a tricky one, especially with a truck that is clearly intended to be a daily driver. The PRO-4X model gets long-travel Bilstein shocks along with skid plates, electronic locking rear differential and limited-slip. That's a blessing in the dirt, but those long shocks deliver a little bit of a bouncy ride on the pavement, especially with an empty bed. I loaded up about 500 lbs of bagged bark mulch in the Frontier's bed to see if the ride changed, and it tamed the bounce completely. Unless you intend to use your Frontier for actual off-roading, I'd compare the highway ride with an SV or SL model before buying. Your nerves will thank you.
Under the hood, there's just one choice with the PRO-4X and SL models: a 4.0-liter V6 engine that pumps out a healthy 261 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque. A 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel or 4-wheel drive are the other options. The S comes with a 2.5-liter four-banger (152 hp/171 lb-ft of torque), which can also be fitted to an SV. The I4 only comes as a 4x2.
Frontier splits the difference nicely between the full-size pickup driving sensation and the crossover SUV. You still get the sense of being pretty high up in traffic, with a good view of the road. But you don't feel like you're in a massive road hog. It's a comfortable balance that will please a lot of drivers.
I kind of miss the cute compact trucks of the 1980s. I even miss the Chevy Luv truck and the Ford Courier. If I could ever find an early Datsun 1200 in good shape, I'd love to have one in my driveway. They're adorable, and surprisingly useful. Most of the time when I need a pickup truck, I don't take advantage of its full capability. A compact truck would probably serve 90% of my needs, if not 100%. Frontier is definitely capable, and compared to those early compact trucks, it's positively enormous. The competition has thinned in the compact truck business, mostly because you can practically get a full-sized pickup for the same price. Frontier's fuel economy is hardly spectacular, and it starts to look like an unnecessary compromise versus a Titan.
There are a few other compact pickups on the market, too. The most direct and dangerous competition is the Toyota Tacoma, one of my favorites. The Ford Ranger hasn't been refreshed in a very long time, but it is not bad for standing pat. The Dodge Dakota occupies a similar nowhere land between compact and full-sized as Frontier. The Suzuki Equator is a Frontier that wears Suzuki badging and some unique equipment, and has the advantage of a 7-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty on the exact same vehicle for a slightly lower comparable price.
I can easily imagine owners for whom the Nissan Frontier hits the sweet spot. Just the right size, just the right price, just the right look, and just the right level of equipment. I would have a hard time pulling the trigger, though -- I'd be drawn to the full-size pickups, even though I would have unused capacity. That's been the problem for compact pickups all along, and will continue to be until fuel prices force buyers to buy the most efficient vehicle that they can comfortably live with. I'll bet that Nissan will adapt with the times, and we'll be looking at a very different Frontier in a few years. Until then, this Frontier is just off the mark for me.