Introduction
Compact pickups used to be simple vehicles that provided basic transportation for two people and room for plenty of stuff in a cargo box. Nowadays there are as many choices of cab, bed, engine, drive train and options as there are on full-size pickups. Nissan has led the way in many of these derivations with its Frontier compact pickup. It’s available with a regular cab, an extended cab or a quad (four-door) cab. It comes standard with a four-cylinder engine with a V-6 as optional on 2WD models and standard on most 4WD models. All models are available with a manual or automatic transmission.

Although the 2001 and newer models look different they are essentially the same underneath as those made from 1998 on.

Overview
Datsun, as Nissan used to be called, started importing compact pickups to the US back in 1959. But the diminutive trucks did not really begin to catch on until the mid-1960s. Imported pickups were the first taste many Americans had of owning a Japanese vehicle. They were cheap, reliable transportation especially for first time buyers through the 1970s and 1980s.

Nissan was the first Japanese manufacturer to offer an extended cab pickup in 1977 and it became the first to make its trucks in the US, when it opened a factory in Tennessee in 1983.

The sixth generation truck was first introduced in 1987 and was nicknamed Hardbody. Although the truck has been updated many times over the years the basic design remained unchanged until the introduction of the all-new Frontier for the 2005 model year.

Until 1997, the official name for the truck was just that. In 1998 it was renamed the Frontier and was designated the seventh generation Nissan truck. Along with a name, it got a facelift with a more substantial looking nose and a refined interior.

In 1998 the Frontier was only available with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, producing 143 horsepower. It came with a regular cab or an extended cab, called King Cab. It was offered with 4WD as well as RWD and the transmission was a five-speed manual while a four-speed automatic was optional.

An optional 170 horsepower V-6 was added in 1999 and in 2000 a Crew Cab model with proper hinged rear doors became the first such offering from a Japanese manufacturer.

A revised front nose with a massive integrated bumper and big fender flares appeared on 2001 models. At the same time a 210-horsepower supercharged V-6 was added as a third engine option. In 2002 Nissan dropped the regular cab model due to lack of demand and also redesigned the dashboard. 

Test Drives
1. 2000 Nissan Frontier XE King Cab, 2WD, 4-cyl., Manual, 58,700 miles. Asking Price: $12,060 (Sept. 2004)
The Frontier was almost invisible on the used car lot at this Chevrolet/Cadillac dealership as it was buried among a ton of SUVs. The newspaper ad stated a price of $9,995 while the sticker on the window said the price was $12,060. Upon checking we found the Kelly Blue Book price was $9,620 for a private party transaction, so the price listed in the advertisement was pretty fair.

The salesman did not know anything about the history of this vehicle but it looked to be in good condition with no signs of excessive wear or tear. The blue paint seemed to have plenty of luster and a bed liner, which showed no signs of abuse either, protected the cargo bed. Judging by the fact the carpet was also clean it was fairly obvious this Frontier had not been used as a work truck.

It drove well, although the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is pretty gutless even with a five speed manual transmission. The shift mechanism was precise and the clutch felt fine. The steering was a little vague on center but I think that was a trait with all Frontier models rather than just this one.

This King Cab model had a split front bench seat with a lap belt for a third passenger in the center. It would not be very comfortable for anyone other than a small kid as the gearshift lever and transmission hump are in the way. There are two small folding seats in the rear that are barely big enough for kids, let alone an adult. In reality the rear space is more conducive for storing things than carrying passengers, except in emergencies.

This truck would make an ideal purchase for a first time buyer or for someone looking for a robust work truck.

2. 2001 Nissan Frontier XE King Cab, 4WD, V-6, Manual, 17,100 miles. Approx. Value: $13,400 (Sept. 2004)
This low mileage 4WD King Cab was owned by JP, an 18-year old high school student. He had owned the vehicle for all of two months and had already done 5,000 miles. On a 2,000 mile trip from California to Utah and back he claimed to have gotten 20 mpg, which is slightly better than the EPA fuel economy rating for this model. To his parent’s delight, he had not had any problems with the vehicle. Despite being a 4WD vehicle with a higher ground clearance and bigger tires, JP said it handled better than an old 1983 Toyota pickup he drove previously. Overall he liked the good turning radius and the off-road capabilities best.

His main criticism was the “goofy” front end styling. Certainly in an attempt to make the truck look more aggressive and modern Nissan designers did create an unusually bulbous front grille and bumper for the 2001 Frontier.

In a brief test drive we found the vehicle did not handle as well as the 2WD model, which was not surprising given the higher center of gravity. However it felt just as smooth and certainly did not bounce around as much as 4WD trucks from a few years ago. We did not have a chance to go off-road so could not try the 4WD. It cannot be activated on dry roads as it’s very much a part-time system designed for off-road use only.

As the decal on the side of the bed proudly states, this is an ideal off-road vehicle for anyone who needs to do serious off-roading and have a pleasant vehicle for everyday on-road use.

3. 2001 Nissan Frontier XE King Cab, 2WD, 4-cyl., Manual, 35,240 miles. Asking Price: $11,000 (Oct. 2004)
The third Frontier we test drove belonged to Kate, a 60 year old woman. She had only had the truck for nine months and in that time she’d driven 6,000 miles. Like the kid with the 4WD model, Kate had no problems with the truck. She was the second owner and it was obvious that the previous owner had also taken great care of the vehicle as there were no scratches or dings.

Like both the other test vehicles this Frontier had a bed liner. In all cases they were factory options and were obviously installed by the dealers when the vehicles were sold new. Also, surprisingly perhaps, this specific model had a manual transmission. Around half of all Frontiers sold between 1998 and 2001 were fitted with a manual so the odds of finding three in row was still unusual.

Certainly if you can cope with a manual transmission it’s the better choice as it gets the most out of the four-cylinder engine and provides better fuel economy. If you must have an automatic look for a Frontier powered by a V-6 engine as it will be more satisfying.

Unlike the other 2WD Frontier this example had front bucket seats with a center storage unit with three cupholders in place of a minimalist center seat. Being a King Cab model it had the two small rear side facing seats with lap belts for adults (with no legs?) or kids.

All three examples included air conditioning, which was installed in more than 95% of Frontiers sold during this period. They also all had manually operated windows, even though power windows and door locks are available as an option on the XE models.

Market Overview
During the past decade sales of all compact pickups have declined. The Nissan Frontier has pretty much followed the same pattern as the Ford Ranger, Chevrolet S-10 and Toyota Tacoma, the top sellers in this segment. However, with sales of over 100,000 per year the Frontier has remained one of Nissan’s most popular vehicles.

Approximately one quarter of this generation model came with 4WD, about one third of buyers opted for manual transmission and around 60% had a V-6 engine from 2000 on. Three quarters of Frontiers sold between 1998 and 2001 were the XE trim and a slight majority were King Cab models until 2001. The Crew Cab then became popular with almost half opting for this configuration.

Even if it isn’t the top selling compact pickup, the Frontier has attracted favorable reviews from consumers and media who’ve rated it well. In 1998 it was rated in the top spot in the compact pickup segment in the J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study. Intellichoice selected the 2000 Frontier XE King Cab as “The Best Pickup 2WD.”

Resale values of the Frontier are above average according to several sources.

Conclusion
If you want an extended cab pickup with room for two small passengers in the back the King Cab Frontier is an excellent choice and this model is the easiest to find on the used market. Most of them came with a four-cylinder engine and around half have a manual transmission. This may not be ideal combination for many buyers so they tend to be available at lower prices than models with a V-6.

The Crew Cab model with proper seating for five people is a good family vehicle for those who need to carry cargo more suited to a bed than the back of a SUV or minivan. Base model Frontiers are ideal for a single person who doesn’t want to do much more than haul occasional stuff around and not take long trips.

Pickup trucks used to be bought for hauling stuff, but nowadays they are just as likely to be used for personal transportation. Obviously one that has had a hard work life will be scruffier than one that’s never carried much more than a sofa or two. Because of this prices can vary tremendously as condition is likely to play a much bigger role than with a ordinary family sedan.

The all-new Frontier introduced for the 2005 model year is quite a bit bigger. Consequently there should continue to be a healthy demand for this generation Frontier as there are people who still want a smaller truck for day to day use.

 

©2005 AutoTrader.com L.L.C.

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