The big news from Nissan this year is the redesigned Altima sedan. Already popular with buyers, the ‘98 upgrades have made it even more appealing. But while this humble family sedan is taking most of the spotlight, Nissan’s pickup truck designers have been readying a little news of their own. It’s their all new compact pickup truck, the Frontier. Could Nissan have yet another winner on its hands?
Considering America’s almost insatiable appetite for pickup trucks, it’s certainly possible. But unlike many of its high-dollar, sport truck competitors, the new Nissan Frontier is aimed at the dollar conscious end of the utility and personal use market. Budget-minded people who actually use their trucks for both work and play.
To that end, Nissan has built it on a ladder-type frame that’s been substantially reinforced over the last generation pickup. And then topped it with a longer, wider, sturdier looking body, that features a considerably larger cab.
And a largest in its class double wall bed with integral tie-down hooks, holder slots for both vertical and horizontal load dividers, and a heavy-duty tailgate that would be at home on most full-size work trucks. All to let the Frontier carry up to 1,400 pounds of cargo, and tow up to 3,500 pounds.
The Frontier is available as both Regular and King Cab, in standard XE and SE trim. We tested a pre-production XE-grade 4-wheel-drive King Cab version, which offered 50.7 cubic-feet of interior space. The roomy cockpit, in keeping with the Frontier’s functional orientation, is plain but comfortable.
The utilitarian dash isn’t pretty, but it looks sturdy, efficient, and modern. It features dual air bags, with a cut-off switch for the passenger side unit. The front bucket seats are a bit short on thigh support, but offer plenty for the back. The fold-down arm rest with storage is well done, but our test truck lacked the optional tilt wheel feature. Which made it hard for drivers to see the sparse gauge cluster. Not even a tachometer.
However, we liked the simplicity of the straightforward heat and ventilation controls. And found the available cassette stereo to be easy to use, but set a bit too low in the dash. There’s space under it for an in-dash CD player.
The King Cab’s rear storage space is rated at 14.4 cubic feet. Loading is easier from the passenger side, due to its forward sliding seat. This also allows you to reach one of the two fold-down, child-size-only, jump seats.
To haul both passengers and cargo, Nissan has initially equipped the Frontier with a 2.4-liter, dual-overhead-cam, 16-valve 4-cylinder engine. It makes 143 horsepower, and 154 pound-feet of torque, just edging out other brands in the compact power war.
Ours was bolted to the standard 5-speed manual transmission. A 4-speed automatic is also available. But with over 3,000 pounds of 4x4 to move, managed to reach 60 in 11.4 seconds. The quarter mile took 17.7 seconds at 75 miles per hour. The engine was harsh and buzzy under hard acceleration. And while strong off the line, quickly ran out of steam. The notchy action of the 5-speed manual gearbox and lack of a tachometer really held us back.
The Frontier redeemed itself, however, on our handling course, proving to be quite nimble and easy to drive. The double wishbone front, and leaf spring rear suspension, mated with standard power steering, not only gave it a capable feel on the track, but out on the road, delivered one of the smoothest, quietest rides that we’ve ever experienced in a compact pickup, let alone a 4-wheel-drive one.
Brake testing delivered stops from 60 that averaged 127 feet. This was accomplished with the Frontier’s front disc/rear drum setup, which features standard 3-channel ABS on 4x4 models.
And while we’re talking 4-wheel-drive, we had to take the personal use Frontier off road. As at the test track, the modest engine and rubbery shifter slowed progress. But we were very impressed with our XE 4x4’s 9.3-inches of ground clearance, ample suspension travel, and comfortable ride. As well as its fat BF Goodrich tires, on stout 15-inch aluminum wheels. We also agree with Nissan’s choice of simple, reliable manual locking hubs, in place of the electronic on-the-fly systems used in more expensive, totally leisure oriented pickups. But we advise serious 4-wheel-drive fans to wait until the Frontier’s optional V6 engine arrives next year.
But those that prefer a practical, easily insurable 2-wheel drive compact truck can buy now. Frontier prices were not available when our road test was being assembled, but we expect them to be very close to last year, with the base Standard-grade 4x2 Regular Cab costing only $11,500. XE King Cab models should start at $14,500, while adding 4-wheel-drive could pump it up to a still affordable $18,000.
So like its 4-door sedan relative, the Altima, Nissan’s new Frontier pickup is aimed at a very practical audience. Folks for whom cars and trucks are more tools than fashion statements. The kind of people that are still common enough to make Nissan’s humble little Frontier a very uncommon success.
Engine: 2.4-Liter, Dohc, 16-valve 4-Cylinder
Torque: 154 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 11.4 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 17.7 Seconds @ 75 MPH
60-0 MPH: 127 Feet