The Nissan Frontier is a midsize pickup truck that offers notably good power, the capability to tow a fairly good-sized trailer, and a variety of trim levels and features that should appeal to a wide range of buyers. There are two engine choices: A 2.5-liter four-cylinder of 152 horsepower that is EPA-rated at 19 mpg City, 23 mpg Highway with the manual transmission, and a quite strong 4.0-liter V6 of 261 horsepower that, with two-wheel drive, is rated at 20 mpg on the Highway.
The Frontier is available in two body styles – a King Cab with rearward-opening rear doors and flip-up rear seats, and a Crew Cab with a conventional four-door layout. Depending upon trim level, the Crew Cab is available with a short or a long cargo bed; all King Cab versions have the longer of the two cargo-bed sizes. The Frontier is available with two-wheel or four-wheel drive, has a maximum towing capacity of 6,500 pounds and a maximum payload of slightly over 1,500 pounds.
The Frontier is a stylish truck, yet clearly a truck meant for work, and in a tidy size. In front is a distinctive grille and over the tires are pronounced fender flares that give it a certain robust appeal. Inside is a continuation of the purposeful look, with all the controls in places that make them easy to reach and operate. Interior storage space is enhanced with a dual-level glove-box arrangement on the passenger's side.
We found the interior comfortable and well arranged, with good rugged standard fabric upholstery. The King Cab's wide-opening auxiliary doors give access to the two small folding seats, while the four-door Crew Cab has a three-person bench in the rear (three, that is, depending upon the sizes of the persons) that offers decent comfort but limited legroom – remember, though, this is a midsize pickup.
The ride is good with all models, and we drove them all, including the PRO-4X Crew Cab with off-road shock absorbers and rugged trail tires. The handling is tight and fairly nimble. On gravel roads, we found the 4WD works well and enhances traction and control.
For 2010 the changes are focused on standard safety and security features. Side-impact airbags and side-curtain airbags are standard on all models, and Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), Nissan's electronic stability control that can help reduce skids on slippery surfaces, is standard on all Frontiers with the V6 engine. Other changes include the availability of a five-speed automatic transmission on XE models, the addition of two-wheel or four-wheel Active Brake Limited Slip (ABLS) as standard for all SE and LE trim-level V6 models, and the addition of Hill Start Assist and Hill Descent Control as standard on all SE and LE models with four-wheel drive and the automatic transmission. Finally, there is a new color, Night Armor.
There's a family resemblance between the midsize Nissan Frontier and the full-size Titan, but the Frontier is two feet shorter and feels it. After climbing out of a Titan and into a Frontier, it seems like a nice, tidy size that is probably perfectly fine for most light to moderate jobs, unless you need an eight-foot bed for work or need to tow a big trailer.
The grille, headlights, front fascia and alloy wheels convey an assertive look. The fender flares are big and smooth. The front end is clean, and the wheels have a lot of style. The Crew Cab looks rugged and purposeful with the optional roof rack.
King Cabs have rear-hinged auxiliary doors behind the front doors, for access to the two small forward-facing seats. Crew Cabs have four full doors and a roomy and comfortable rear passenger compartment that seats three. The standard-length King Cab cargo bed and the longer Crew Cab bed are the same, at 73.3 inches, or just over six feet; the standard, shorter bed for the Crew Cab measures 59.5 inches, or just under five feet.
The available Utili-track Bed Channel tie-down system uses five rails (two on the floor and one on each side and forward bulkhead) and cleats that slide in the channels, and allows all kinds of cargo to be tied securely in place.
The instrument panel places all the necessary controls where they are easy to see, reach and operate. The standard seat fabric is rugged and very livable, and reasonably easy to clean – depending, of course, on what gets spilled on it.
The PRO-4X has stylish red stitching on its black fabric seats. The bucket seats fit well; hours could be spent in them pleasurably, presuming they're not all off-road hours, but even if they were, the PRO-4X would make the time bearable on the backbone.
The front seat layout is excellent, with a console having gauges that are attractive and easy to read, and controls that are easy to operate. The center console is deep, there are cubbies forward of the shift lever, cupholders galore, good armrests and door handles, and a very thoughtful dual-level glovebox that offers lots of storage space. The nice steering wheel has optional controls and short sturdy stalks, and there are convenient grab handles on the A pillars. The vinyl dashboard is less attractive in brown, but just fine in black.
We spent some time in a Crew Cab model and feel that rear-seat passengers should do just fine. They'll have cupholders, map pockets, grab handles, and an optional folding center armrest, although not necessarily a lot of knee room.
The rear seats in both the King Cab and Crew Cab fold up, and the front passenger seat folds flat, to create additional cargo space.
We got into the Nissan Frontier after stepping out of a full-size Titan, and we must say that the Frontier made the Titan feel huge. And for the week we were in the Frontier, it never felt too small. So we might suggest that among the first things you should consider in choosing a Frontier (or any truck) are the size of the bed you need, and the seating capacity. (That's assuming you don't need the full-size Titan for towing.) Remember that tailgate extenders are available, if you occasionally need a longer bed for larger cargo.
On the road, the all-aluminum dohc V6 engine has very strong acceleration when you put your foot down; as it should, with its 261 horsepower. At 4.0 liters, it's a larger version of the award-winning 3.5-liter engine that's used in other Nissans. It has all the right stuff: Aluminum block and heads, Teflon-coated pistons, Continuous Valve Timing Control (CVTCS), Nissan variable Induction Control System (NICS), silent timing chain and micro finished camshaft and crankshaft surfaces, digital knock control system, and 105,000-mile spark plugs.
There's 281 pound-feet of torque, but it is isn't fully there at lower rpm, so you do have to put your foot down to find all the power, and that doesn't come without a price in fuel efficiency. With four-wheel drive and an automatic transmission it's EPA-rated at 14 mpg City and 19 mpg Highway, so if maximum fuel efficiency is your goal you probably ought not to be looking at a truck in the first place.
The four-cylinder engine with manual transmission gets an EPA-rated 19/23 mpg. It's available in a nicely equipped SE King Cab, so this might be a choice for a buyer who needs a tidy truck but not a whole lot of power.
The five-speed automatic transmission shifts in and out of fifth gear frequently, even at fairly low speeds during casual driving, but always smoothly and often invisibly. A manual mode would be useful, but isn't available.
On the highway, we drove Frontiers with both the short and long wheelbase, as well as our week in the PRO-4X with the off-road Bilstein gas-charged shock absorbers and big BFG trail tires, and we didn't encounter any bumps or situations that made us say: This thing rides like a truck.
The handling is also good, tight, never flabby or wallowy. The chassis is a boxed-in steel ladder frame, with double wishbone front suspension and solid rear axle with leaf springs.
The part-time four-wheel-drive system, which can be easily shifted on the fly, is there to be used. Don't even think of driving off the pavement without engaging it, because it makes a world of difference. Even when you don't need it to keep from getting stuck, it transforms the Frontier; on gravel roads the Frontier in 2WD may not be at its best, but in 4WD it's stable.
On those gravel roads, riding as a passenger in a 4WD King Cab, we found things a bit rough. Later, driving the PRO-4X for a couple hours on fire trails in the Pacific Northwest, no problem. Lots of fun. The good seats were a relief. But that's when we most would have liked a manual mode in the five-speed automatic transmission.
We also got on a closed off-road course, with specific steep challenges. We used 4WD in its low range to get over some ridges and ruts, and found that it allowed higher speeds than some other systems; but also found that it wasn't really needed except in the most extreme situations, because 4WD in high range is good.
We tested the Hill Descent Control that allows you to travel down a steep hill and rely on electronics to slow and keep the truck safe and steady at about 5 mph, with throttle control and ABS automatically applied, meaning all the driver has to do is steer. If you live in a place that has snowy and icy hills in winter, HDC could be of real benefit.
Hill Start Assist allows you to start moving forward on a steep uphill, without coasting backwards. It keeps the brakes applied for two seconds after you lift your foot off the brake pedal. However, with an automatic transmission, starting on hills is not really a problem, because you can use two feet on the two pedals.
The Nissan Frontier offers a lot for a midsize truck, namely a lot of power, payload capacity and towing capability, though with a price in fuel mileage. The Frontier interior is comfortable and arranged well, and the rear seat of the Crew Cab offers good room for three passengers. Off-road, the Frontier is very capable, with its two-speed transfer case using part-time 4WD that can be shifted on the fly, plus Hill Descent Control on some models. It rides and steers well on gravel roads in 4WD, and on pavement, its ride is nice and its handling tight. It's a very commendable truck in its size and price class.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com.