A powerful 4.0-liter V6 comes on all but the base model. Nissan's V6, rated at 265 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque, tops any straight-5 or V6 the competition has to offer, and rivals the output of the Dodge Dakota's optional V8. Pair this with its strong chassis, and the Frontier offers up to 6500 pounds of towing capacity and 1500 pounds of payload. Yet it's maneuverable and easy to park.
Frontier is available with rear- or four-wheel drive, and in either King Cab or Crew Cab configurations. King Cabs come with two forward-facing rear seats and a 73.3-inch standard bed. Crew Cabs feature a roomy passenger compartment with amenities much like those you'd expect in a sport-utility vehicle, yet still provide a truck bed nearly five-feet long, even with the tailgate in its upright and locked position.
Frontier offers a Nismo (Nissan Motorsports) model, with special shock absorbers and tires, underbody component-protecting skid plates and an active traction system with technologies such as hill descent control and hill start assist.
Frontier was redesigned and launched as an all-new model for 2005 and there are no significant changes for 2006.
Nissan Frontier XE King Cab 2WD 5M ($15,600); SE King Cab 2WD 6M ($18,500); SE King Cab 4WD 6M ($21,200); SE Crew Cab 4WD 6M ($23,350); LE King Cab 2WD 5A ($22,300); LE King Cab 4WD 5A ($25,000); Nismo King Cab 2WD 5A ($22,100); Nismo King Cab 4WD 6M ($23,750); Nismo Crew Cab 2WD LE ($23,900)
Frontier uses a bold grille design noticed by other drivers as it emerges and enlarges in their rear-view mirrors. Body-colored steel fender flares contribute to the Frontier's presence.
All Frontiers have four-door access to their passenger compartments. King Cabs have rear-hinged auxiliary doors while Crew Cabs have four forward-hinged doors much like those on a sedan or sport-utility vehicle. (There is no regular cab version.)
Frontier cargo beds are 18 inches deep and 44.4 inches wide between the inner fenders of the rear wheels, as well as 58.8 inches wide at the tailgate and 61.4 inches wide between the tops of the bed rails. Beds are 73.3 inches long on King Cabs and 59.5 inches long on Crew Cabs. All Frontiers have tailgates equipped with a door-style lock.
A spray-on bed liner and Nissan's Utili-Track cargo security system come factory-installed on Crew Cab and LE King Cab models. Utili-Track includes special C-section rails: two in the bed floor, one along each top inner edge of the bed side rails, and one in the top of the bed header panel. Sliding cleats can be locked into position within the rails to secure a variety of cargo shapes, sizes and configurations. It's a great system and Nissan offers accessories that lock into it.
The front seats are comfortable yet supportive. The driver grasps a nicely sized steering wheel with a rim that has a tab-like enlargement on each side, right where you want to rest your thumbs to maintain a proper 9 and 3 o'clock driving position. The gauge array is large and complete, and has been dressed up a bit for 2006 with satin-chrome outlines around the dials and air vents. Controls for heating and ventilation systems have large knobs that are easy to find and to use. Similarly, the knob for switching between 2WD, 4WD, and low-range 4WD is easily accessible.
Defroster vents on the A-pillars are designed to quickly clear side windows in winter or humid weather conditions. Sun visors have extenders to help cover the full width of the side windows. A deep dotted matrix behind the interior rear-view mirror helps protect the driver's eyes when driving into the sun.
A covered storage tray sits on top of the center part of the dashboard. The Frontier has a pair of glove boxes, with additional storage in the door pockets and center console. Three power outlets are provided. Cup holders have removable inserts so they can handle large beverage containers.
Unlike earlier Frontiers, the new model has a standard, lever-operated handbrake, easy to grab even in the winter with gloves on and preferable to the pull-handle style used on some competing models.
Passengers riding in the back seat of the Crew Cab shouldn't be complaining about being cramped, not with 33.6 inches of legroom. Adults riding in the two forward-facing rear seats in the King Cab might not be eager for a long drive, but still have more than two feet to stretch their legs.
Entry into the rear seat is aided by grab handles built into both B-pillars (the vertical pillar alongside the front seat backs). Rear-seat passengers in all Frontiers have access to a pair of cup holders. The windows in the rear doors of Frontier Crew Cabs power down all the way.
Storage containers are built into the nearly flat rear floor beneath the rear seats in both cab styles, and the seat bottoms can be flipped up to provide additional cargo space.
The Nismo off-road model we drove seemed as capable at highway speeds as it was driving through nearly two feet of rushing water flowing from creeks across Texas ranch roads. The Nismo's trail capabilities include a 31.5-degree approach angle.
Technology further enhances its worthiness off the beaten trail. Hill Descent Control walks the vehicle down steep descents. Hill Start Assist holds your position when you lift your foot off the brake while heading uphill. Limited-slip traction control helps redirect engine torque to the non-slipping drive wheels on low traction surfaces. It operates on the rear wheels on 2WD Nismo models and on all four wheels on 4WD models.
On the road, Nissan's Vehicle Dynamic Control can help the driver avoid accidents. It's set up to allow a little more sideslip than some electronic stability control systems, and we prefer this approach. Similar electronic stability control systems from other manufacturers often intervene too quickly to suit advanced drivers, but Nissan's VDC reminds us of the system in Porsches, effectively helping the driver maintain control without feeling it has taken over.
The speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering provides good feedback. The Frontier was stable and sure even when driven aggressively around curves. We found the brakes effective. The four-wheel disc brakes use big brake rotors for efficient cooling in repeated hard use.
The Frontier's 4.0-liter V6 engine is rated at 265 horsepower at 5600 rpm, which makes it the most powerful V6 in the mid-size pickup class. It provides 45 more horsepower than the largest engine available in the Chevrolet Colorado, 29 more horsepower (and while using regular fuel) than the V6 in the Toyota Tacoma, and 5 more horsepower than even the strongest V8 available in the Dodge Dakota. (The Dakota V8s develop more torque, however, important if you plan to pull a trailer.)
Nissan's six-speed manual and five-speed automatic transmissions are well-matched to the V6 engine, allowing the driver to exercise all of that power.
The Frontier XE's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine generates 154 horsepower, which is certainly adequate. In fact, it's 85 percent of the power produced by the 3.3-liter V6 available in the previous-generation Frontier.
The Nissan Frontier, all-new for 2005, boasts the most powerful V6 engine in its class, useful innovations such as the Utili-Track cargo securing system and spray-in bedliner, a comfortable cab and attractive styling. We think it's one of the best trucks in this class, sharing that mantle with the Toyota Tacoma.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Larry Edsall filed this report from Austin, Texas.