Nissan Frontier proves its worth on and off road

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The redesign of the Nissan Frontier pickup in 2005 marked the end of the compact truck segment in the United States. Only the venerable Ford Ranger remains classified as a compact, albeit a very large one.

The segment in reality has grown to mid-size a designation that once belonged only to the Dodge Dakota. This is a good thing because buyers can now purchase a decent-sized pickup truck with more maneuverability, a smaller sticker price and in many cases better gas mileage than the full-sized pickups.

Not only is the Frontier bigger than its predecessor — nearly three inches longer, five inches wider and with an almost 10-inch longer wheelbase in extended cab format — it’s more powerful and has the feel of a full-sized truck.

Now in the second model year of its new iteration, the Frontier comes in just two formats, crew cab and extended cab and with two engine choices, a brawny 265-horsepower V-6 and a 154-horsepower 4-cylinder.

Manufacturers seem to be moving away from standard cab pickup models. A few companies including Nissan have phased them out of the lineup. The extended cab — known as King Cab in Nissan parlance — is actually the 21st Century standard cab. Rear accommodations don’t favor passengers over four-feet tall, but have become a great place to stash cargo including the weekly groceries, overnight bags or a set of golf clubs.

If you need space for more than two riders, opt for the crew cab, which will seat four adults fairly comfortably.

We haven’t driven the 4-cylinder in the new Frontier, but it comes only in the base XE trim level. If gas mileage is an overriding concern, perhaps the smaller engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission is your ticket. It’s rated at 22-mpg city and 25-mpg highway. The V-6 two-wheel drive extended cab is rated at 16/20.

The new Frontier has added a lot of weight with its increased size, but it has also added 55 horsepower. And the 4.0-liter V-6, which develops 265 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque, is up to the task of moving the Frontier in an expeditious manner.

This truck answers the call, be it in city crawl or freeway flying. Zero to 60 has been measured at 8.4 seconds with quarter mile time clocked at 16.6 seconds at 86 miles per hour with the standard five-speed automatic transmission.

Add to those statistics a towing capacity of 6,500 pounds and you have a well-rounded truck.

The fact that Nissan is outfitting all but the base level truck with the brawny V-6 shows it means business in this competitive segment.

We found that our 4X4 model handled well on the road with good on-center feel. Steering was light enough in slow close-quarter driving to be unobtrusive.

The Frontier is built on a frame that has been scaled down from the full-sized Nissan Titan pickup. It features heavy steel and twist-resistant boxed construction that gives the truck a solid, squeak-and-rattle-free demeanor.

The large frame is one reason the Frontier weighs in at a hefty 4,500 pounds in extended cab format, heavier than any other truck in the segment.

But the double-wishbone front suspension and leaf spring rear suspension will reward you with a very acceptable ride, firm but without the truck-like jostle of older pickups. Even our off-road ready NISMO edition with off-road performance Bilstein shocks came with an acceptable road ride. The caveat being that as good as it is it still rides like a truck.

The Frontier carries the same front end and a scaled-down look of the larger Titan. And like the mid-sized Pathfinder SUV — that features the design attributes of the full-sized Armada — the scaled-down version is more proportional and better looking.

Our NISMO tester is designed for the serious off-roader with the aforementioned special suspension setup, locking differential, skid plates and trail-rated tires, and with other available off-road options such as hill descent control and hill start assist.

We found some nice off-road areas northeast of the Napa Valley that put the NISMO equipped truck to the test although we never threw caution to the wind we pushed pretty hard on some seven and eight level rated trails. Performance was very satisfying and everything worked as promised.

After a couple of hours proving our machismo we were just as happy to head back to Calistoga for a late lunch and the thoughts of heavy traffic for the trip home to the East Bay.

The interior is outfitted in quality material, and the dashboard layout is excellent with easy-to-read gauges, three powerpoints up front, a number of storage areas and steering wheel cruise control.

One of the highlights of our test truck was the optional 380-watt Rockford Fosgate premium audio package, which includes eight speakers, two under-seat six-inch subwoofers and a six CD changer with MP3 capability. Extra cost is what we consider a very reasonable $850. Our week’s entertainment was complete with the $325 XM Satellite Radio add-on.

The base XE King Cab starting at $16,505 including destination comes with a paucity of extras. Move up to the SE at $19,705 and some of the stuff you expect in a vehicle these days comes standard including four-wheel disc antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, 16-inch wheels, air conditioning and stereo with CD player. But you still must pay $1,000 extra for power windows, mirrors and locks.

Step up to the LE trim level beginning at $23,255 and the power package is standard along with cruise control and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Our NISMO test truck carried a base price of $27,705 including destination and a bottom line of $30,695 when such options as the upgraded audio system, hill start and descent controls and sunroof were factored in.

We thought the Frontier a bit pricey, but certainly not out of line when compared to the Honda Ridgeline and Toyota Tacoma.