Crew Cab adds utility to this sporty truck.

by Dean Stevens

Base Price $11,590
As Tested $21,240

With a full range of body styles, Nissan's Frontier offers something for just about anyone who needs a compact pickup truck: The Regular Cab Frontier is perfect for budget-conscious people more interested in cargo space than interior space. The King Cab is a good solution for people who want the added room of a traditional extended cab. And the new Crew Cab might be the right truck for families with small children or for people who just want more interior space for stuff.

While they have long been available in other parts of the world, the Frontier Crew Cab was first compact pick-up sold in the U.S. with four forward-swinging doors. (Dodge soon followed with its Dakota QuadCab.) The Frontier Crew Cab doesn't have the interior room you find in the average SUV, but it does have more inside space than the average extended-cab compact pickup. Nissan's Crew Cab back seat is an improvement over the jump seats found in extended cabs, too.

Model Lineup

Frontier replaced the Nissan Hardbody nameplate in the 1998 model year. All body styles are available in a basic XE trim package. On King Cabs and Crew Cabs you can opt for the sporty and luxurious SE package, which includes air conditioning, six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, leather wrapped steering steel and shifter knob, color-keyed trim, and much more.

Two new models are new for the 2000 model year, the Crew Cab and the Desert Runner. The Desert Runner is a 2WD King Cab that has the same chassis, ground clearance, and track as a 4WD model. (Both the Desert Runner and Toyota's PreRunner-another 2WD with offroad suspension and stance-take their names and inspiration from specialized 2WD trucks that offroad racers use to pre-run desert races.) XE Desert Runners start at $15,740.

The base Frontier is a 2WD Regular Cab that employs Nissan's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. It starts at $11,590, but it's pretty basic. For an extra $549 you can get the Value Truck package that adds air conditioning, chrome bumpers, chrome grille, and an AM/FM/cassette four-speaker stereo. You can add a more extensive $949 Value Truck package to the XE King Cab 4X2 ($13,540). This package adds alloy wheels, sliding rear window, flip-down cargo light, and privacy glass.

Crew Cabs and most King Cabs come with a more powerful 3.3-liter V6. The Crew Cab is available in 2WD and 4WD models. Like the Desert Runner, 2WD Crew Cabs have the look and stance of a 4WD truck. The offroad appearance is enhanced in the Crew Cab SE ($18,590) with 16-inch tires.

Walkaround

The doors are, of course, the most notable feature on the Crew Cab. Full-sized trucks with four forward-hinged doors have been around for decades. And compact crew cabs have long been available in other countries. But they have just caught on in the U.S. this year.

Unlike most compact SUVs (including the Nissan Pathfinder), the rear wheels are behind the back doors. Without the intrusion of the wheel well, the rear windows can be rolled all the way down.

There are some tradeoffs in the Crew Cab design. The bed is about 20 inches shorter than the standard Frontier's. A Regular Cab has a bed volume of 45.7 cu. ft, where a Crew Cab has a volume of 33 cu. ft. and a bed length of just 4.7 feet. The short length is a problem if you use your truck for serious work.

There is a solution for people who need more cargo room. Nissan offers an optional Bed Extender ($299), a tubular aluminum cage that mounts at the end of the cargo bed and flips out on top of the lowered tailgate. It increases bed length by 16.5 inches to about 6 feet. As a bonus, the Bed Extender forms a secure caged area when it's flipped over into the bed. It is fairly easy to remove if you need the entire bed area. It can also be mounted on all King Cabs and most Regular Cabs. It's a compromise, however, and not like having a full 6-foot bed.

All Frontier Crew cabs are built on a heavy-duty four-wheel-drive Frontier chassis, as are the Desert Runners. This gives the 2WD the same rigidity, ride height and ground clearance as the 4-wheel drive pickup. This chassis is fitted with a double-wishbone front suspension with stabilizer bar and rear rigid axle with multi-leaf springs.

Moving under the hood, the base twin-cam 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is a nice powerplant rated at 143 horsepower and 154 foot-pounds of torque. It's a good, economical engine, and well suited in a 4X2 Regular Cab (EPA city/highway mileage of 22/26 mpg). It compares well against the 2.2-liter (120 horsepower and 140 foot-pounds of torque) GM puts in the Chevy S-10 and GMC Sonoma.

For anything larger than a Regular Cab, the overhead-cam 3.3-liter V6 engine is a better choice. With 170 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque, it a great engine for freeway and offroad driving. It's comparable to the 3.9-liter V6 (175 horsepower and 225 foot-pounds of torque) Dodge puts standard in the Dakota QuadCab.

Interior Features

The front bucket seats that come standard in the Frontier Crew Cab are unbelievably comfortable. Other interior features included a center console between the front buckets, large door-mounted armrests with map pockets, and an auxiliary 12-volt power port.

On the dash, the instruments are well laid-out and very readable. The controls are largely well placed and intuitive. One particularly nice feature is that, on the 4-speed automatic, the overdrive switch is conveniently located on the floor-mounted gearshift. We also appreciated the large and easy to operate buttons on the radio.

The rear bench seat is certainly more comfortable than the jump seats found in extended cab trucks. And the legroom is adequate for children or small adults-as long as the driver is not too tall. When you move the driver's seat all the way back it touches the front of the rear seat.

There is a small storage area behind the rear seat (the seatback hinges forward to access it). Unfortunately, the rear seat cannot be folded completely away for more cargo area, as is the case in the Dakota QuadCab.

Driving Impressions

We picked up a Nissan Frontier Crew Cab SE in the Los Angeles area and headed north to the small town of Bishop on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Large sections of Highway 395 are two-lane; it's the kind of old-style highway where you often get stuck behind slow-moving trucks and RVs.

The Frontier is a joy to drive. It has a smooth and comfortable ride, even with big 16-inch tires and an off-road suspension. The 3.3-liter V6 and 4-speed automatic provide the oomph needed to safely pass slow-moving vehicles. With the Crew Cab's rugged-looking body decked out in Solar Yellow, we felt like we were on safari as we headed through the Owens River valley for some fly fishing.

The Frontier performed well. We were particularly impressed with the way it conducted itself on one road that supposedly led to a secret fishing hole, but turned out to be a series of sandy moguls punctuated by short sections of hard-packed dirt. On the sandy sections we had to maintain speed for fear of getting bogged down. While the moguls made ride rough, the truck stuck to the road and tracked well. The only real problem was that the secret fishing hole is still a secret-we never did find it.

On less radical dirt roads the truck did just as well, although we did occasionally wish it had a limited-slip rear differential (a $450 on 4x4s, unavailable on 4x2s). Without it we found that the rear end had the predictable tendency to swing around when cornering on dirt, at even moderate speeds.

Back on pavement, the ABS brakes held the truck straight and true in an emergency-type stop. And, thanks to the longer cab that distributes weight a bit more evenly between the front and rear tires, the Crew Cab really didn't have the bounce you get from other unloaded pickups.

Final Word

Nissan's Frontier is a solid, well-built, roomy truck. With an MSRP of $17,290, the Crew Cab 4X2 XE V6 is one of the best values on the road today. If your life doesn't revolve around carrying long loads in the bed, or five basketball players in the cab, it's a truck well worth considering.

While full-sized trucks have long been available in 4-door configurations, the Frontier Crew Cab is an early entry in a new and competitive category. Some manufacturers are calling them sport-utility trucks, or SUTs. Expect to see more offerings from other manufacturers as time goes on.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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

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