As changes loom, bargains beckon.

by Helen Hutchings

No cute or fancy names here. The Hardbody appellation is long gone. There's nothing to evoke images of lofty mountains, high plains or low deserts. Just a simple declarative name: Nissan Truck.

But what this vehicle lacks in romantic or adventuresome nomenclature, it makes up in variations on the basic compact pickup theme. The Nissan Truck is available in four two-wheel drive models and three that offer four-wheel drive. And that doesn't include the options, packages and accessories that can be added to further personalize this pickup to buyer preferences.

If this is your first foray into the realm of vehicles with open cargo boxes behind the passenger compartment, it's a good idea to think about what you're going to do with it before you make choices. Does the idea of a truck appeal to you as a lifestyle or image vehicle? If so, you can save a fair amount of money by eliminating features that rarely apply to general transportation use -- 4WD, for example, or the optional 31-inch tires, good for off-road use but less suitable for street driving than the standard P235/75R-15 radials.

If it's going to be a working vehicle, what does it need to carry and/or tow? How many passengers are likely to be on board on a regular basis? Like most pickups, the Nissan's range of options and packages can accommodate a good many needs.

Walkaround

Created at Nissan's U.S. design facility in La Jolla, California, this was one of the first compact pickups to anticipate the trend toward a slightly rounder, more aerodynamic front end. A major redesign is just around the corner, but that design still looks good today -- sturdy, functional and tough, with just the right veneer of civilization.

Sporty side graphics are available, as well as blacked-out chrome trim and dark tinted glass. If image is the goal, you can also add the optional aluminum alloy "cool wheels." You know they're cool because it says so right there in Nissan's promotional literature.

The Nissan is offered in two wheelbase lengths -- 104.3 inches for the standard cab version, 116.1 inches for the King Cab. A longer wheelbase almost inavariably adds up to better ride quality, and we found this to be the case with our test truck, an XE King Cab with 4WD.

With a new truck nearing production-readiness, Nissan has eliminated a long-bed option for the '96 model. Cargo beds on King Cab editions are a couple inches longer than those behind the standard cab, but both qualify as short beds. The cargo box features double-wall construction, and a plastic bedliner is available as an option. Rated payload capacity is 1400 pounds across the board, and towing capacity is 3500 pounds.

The engine is a 2.4-liter single overhead cam 12-valve four-cylinder with adequate horspower and good torque characteristics, thanks to its three-valves-per-cylinder design -- two intake, one exhaust. This engine has been in the Nissan truck inventory for quite awhile, and has very good durability credentials.

If you want a V-6 engine, you'll have to shop elsewhere. If you want a V-6 engine in a Nissan truck, you'll have to wait until the new one comes along. The next generation is expected to offer the same new 3.3-liter V-6 used in the new Nissan Pathfinder. In the meantime, Nissan chose not to make the investment that would have been required to update the old V-6 to the next level of federal and/or California emissions standards. Development delays in the new engine program have spawned consequent delays in the arrival of the new trucks.

Transmission choices include a standard five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic. Considering the power limits of the four-cylinder engine, we recommend the five-speed.

If towing is on your agenda, Nissan produces one of the more comprehensive towing guides we've seen from any manufacturer. It includes clear definitions of various hitches and their applications, as a wiring section with diagrams for Nissan vehicles with clear explanations of the best places to tap into the electrical system for trailer lighting and brake systems.

King Cab or regular, the Nissan Pickup is available in three trim levels -- the very spartan Standard truck, the mid-range XE and the sportier, better-equipped SE.

The Inside Story

Nissan Pickup cabins are comfortable, nicely finished and functional. As you'd expect, the King Cab provides extra room up front, as well as just enough space for two behind the front seats. Instead of a conventional bench seat in back, which would be extremely cramped, Nissan's King Cab provides two small jump seats that fold down from the sides and face toward the center of the truck.

The jump seats wouldn't be a comfortable place to roost for a long trip, but they work fine for a jaunt to the beach or getting a small crew to a work site. And without passengers, the seats can be folded up, creating a good-sized space for storage of stuff you don't care to stow in the cargo bed.

Driver and passenger seats are supportive and comfortable. Once we figured out how to work the tilt option on the steering column, we were able to get the relationship between the seat and various controls arranged in a configuration that was more car- than truck-like.

Nissan has installed a better grade of cloth upholstery on the '96 models, and cupholders have been integrated into the center storage console in King Cab models.

The control and gauge array is logically and visibly positioned save for the dashlight dimmer control, which required some searching to find. Nissan added a driver's airbag for '96, but dual airbags won't be available until the new truck rolls out.

Ventilation in the King Cab is excellent. The rear side windows swing out, and the rear window has a slide-open feature. Using a combination of side and rear windows, it's easy to achieve an excellent flow of fresh air without any buffeting.

Nissan lists air conditioning as an "accessory," rather than an option, but the net result is the same. You pay extra for it, something that's true of every comfort/convenience feature you can name as far as the Standard truck is concerned.

The sound system in our test truck was an optional AM/FM/cassette unit with two speakers -- not exactly orchestral, but it did deliver a good range of sound and maintained a tenacious hold on radio station tuning.

Ride & Drive

Although it's well made and nicely appointed, the absence of a V-6 engine definitely diminishes the appeal of this truck. The four-cylinder engine is adequate in most normal driving conditons, but begins getting buzzy at higher rpm and has to work hard to propel the truck up steep grades at highway speeds.

Although its payload rating is respectable, we think performance with 1400 pounds of cargo on board -- or a 3500-pound trailer hooked on behind -- would be substandard.

On the other hand, ride quality was surprisingly good for a 4WD pickup truck, and the truck felt stable at all speeds.

Pickups equipped with 4WD have a high center of gravity, which doesn't lend itself to agile handling, and so it was with our test truck. However, its responses to quick maneuvers are about average for 4wd trucks in this class. The same can be said for braking performance, although ABS -- a feature that's showing up on more and more pickups -- is available here only on the rear wheels. It's standard equipment, but a four-wheel ABS system simply isn't offered.

The four-wheel drive system is of the on-demand variety, with a separate shifter for the transfer case. Like virtually all pickup truck systems, it's designed for occasional use, rather than full-time.

Final Word

The absence of a V-6 engine option obviously limits the appeal of the '96 Nissan Pickup. And with an as-tested price of $19,730, our XE 4X4 qualifies as expensive versus competing makes.

However, Nissan's dealers seem to have taken note of this as well. Although the base price for the Standard pickup -- which is a very bare-bones truck -- is $10,999, we've seen dealer ads listing starting prices as low as $8988.

With discounts of that magnitude, the Nissan Truck begins looking much more attractive.

Nissan has earned a solid reputation for building a quality product. The J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study for 1995 put listed Nissan in a first-place tie for Best Overall Truck Line.

Thus, if you're in the market for a compact pickup and V-6 power isn't an important priority, the Nissan Truck should be on your shopping list.

A proven vehicle near the end of its product cycle can be a terrific value, and the Nissan Truck fits both parameters.

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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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