Pros: Bullishly built; a capable workaholic
Cons: More attention could be paid to comfort, convenience and efficiency
Throughout the evolution of the compact pickup, Nissan has played second fiddle to Toyota's Tacoma. Because of perceived toughness, reliability, resale value or all of the three, the Toyota is typically at the top of a shopper's list, while Nissan's Frontier holds down second place. With the launch of the most recent Frontier, however, we think there are compelling reasons for the Nissan's consideration. That revised assessment begins with a rugged platform, continues with an overachieving V6 and concludes with an off-road capability that can easily exceed most owners' expectations.
Available in two cab variants (King Cab and Crew), two bed lengths, as a 4x2 or a 4x4, with two powertrains and four trim levels, the Frontier can serve as a basic work truck, a near-luxury recreational platform or virtually anything in between. If you opt for the Crew Cab to use as both family hauler and weekend warrior, know that Nissan has paid appropriate attention to passive safety. Besides, there are few setups better for hauling your toys than the Frontier's Utili-track loading system. It's arguably the best thing for hauling since the invention of the pickup bed.
Comfort & Utility
The Frontier has always offered some measure of both comfort and utility, but you'd never confuse it with a Ford King Ranch or a GMC Denali pickup on either score. The Frontier's top-of-the-line SL Crew Cab has seating surfaces covered in leather, and the instrument panel provides a reasonable facsimile of contemporary design. But in the same way that you can option Hyundai's value-oriented Sonata to near-luxury levels, adding leather to a mid-size pickup won't materially change its mission statement. The Frontier remains, at its core, a workmanlike device for the transport of people and their things; comfort, such as it is, remains secondary.
The base Frontier's cloth-covered buckets provide an attractive, breathable seating surface, with enough seat shape to be supportive but not so much as to make access difficult. For the driver, the ergonomically shaped steering wheel is a plus, and so is the perforated leather wrap on the off-road-centric PRO-4X. On the Frontier Crew Cab, the split back bench will fold forward or flip up, giving multiple options for loaded touring.
In back, buyers have a choice of two bed lengths, the Utili-track channel system for securing loads and a factory-applied spray-on bedliner. We're not sure why the tie-down system and bedliner aren't available across the Frontier lineup (it's only on the SV, PRO-4X and SL), but the availability of either is a game changer in the mid-size category. And while knowing Nissan doesn't intend to emulate the luxury of either GMC's Denali or Ford's King Ranch, we wish its use of interior plastics in the Frontier had evolved since 1996; product planners should at least get the appearance and texture into this century.
Nissan's technology starts with an in-cabin microfilter, found on the top three trim levels. From there, it's onward and upward. Optional audio on those same top three models include MP3/WMA CD playback capability, a radio data system, an auxiliary audio input jack, XM satellite Radio and the Bluetooth hands-free phone system. A Rockford Fosgate audio system is featured on both the PRO-4X and the SL, and 10 speakers are included in their Crew Cab variants (the SL is only available as a Crew Cab).
Performance & Fuel Economy
Efficiency is the one significant disconnect you'll find when comparing most mid-size pickups with their full-size counterparts. Despite the Frontier's smaller size and lighter weight, the Crew Cab SV 4x2 automatic is rated at just 15 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. That's similar to figures delivered by V8-powered Silverados, Hemi-equipped Rams and EcoBoost-equipped F-150s. Still, the Frontier's fuel economy range is wide. A 4x2 4-cylinder with manual transmission gets 19/23 mpg, while a PRO-4X with automatic returns just 14/19 mpg. To its credit, while not achieving a significant efficiency gain with its V6, neither does the Frontier suffer from utility deficiency. Payloads vary between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds, and towing capability with the 4.0-liter V6 is more than 6,000 pounds.
The Frontier's base powerplant is a 2.5 liter inline-4 offering 152 horsepower and 171 lb-ft of torque. When connected to its standard manual transmission (a five-speed in the base King Cab, a six-speed in base Crew Cab), the engine is adequately responsive, if not inspired. We like the V6, although you won't confuse its on-road dynamic with that of its Infiniti stablemates. Bumping the displacement to 4.0 liters adds coarseness to the well-regarded V6 that its car-based cousins don't suffer, and there's the matter of its relative inefficiency when compared to V8s in the full-size category. With all of that, for those driving in congested areas the smaller footprint of the mid-size Frontier can be a great blessing in day-in, day-out errand running.
In both active and passive safety, Nissan has checked most of the appropriate boxes, even though pickups aren't generally looked at as paragons of either. Whether it's the body-on-frame architecture or simply the relative lack of value placed on safety by trucks' core constituency, Nissan's Frontier isn't and never will be a Volvo.
Active safety is augmented by accurate power-assisted steering, capable four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS and reasonable handling coupled with a composed ride. Nissan's airbag system includes side impact supplemental bags for front seat passengers and roof-mounted curtain air bags that provide side impact and rollover head protection for outboard occupants.
With a choice of two engines combined with either 4x2 or 4x4 platforms, the Nissan Frontier can be most things to most people. It's no compact pickup, though; its platform more closely resembles Nissan's full-size Titan than Ford's now discontinued compact Ranger. The Frontier's base 4-cylinder is lighter on its feet, but you can't disguise the sturdy fully boxed ladder frame or the hefty curb weight. Opt for the V6 and, with 261 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque, you'l have a truck that is certainly recreational in a straight line while reasonably composed when the road throws you a curve.
We're most impressed by Nissan's Frontier PRO-4X, the dedicated off-road variant with an electronic locking rear differential and Bilstein off-road shocks. Although we might take issue with Nissan's description of it as the "ultimate off-roader," those waiting for Jeep to build a pickup needn't wait; Nissan has already built it.
Other Trucks to Consider
Toyota Tacoma - With the recent discontinuation of both Dodge's Dakota and Ford's Ranger, the number of compact/mid-size pickups has shrunken significantly. Toyota's Tacoma is perennially the sales leader, in part because of the automaker's good reputation and in part because it's available as a regular cab for fleet sales.
Ford Ranger - Although no longer in production, Ford's Ranger is beautifully suited for the light errand and in 4-cylinder form delivers commendable economy. Consider the essential simplicity of most mid-size pickups: pre-owned examples are readily available and deliver both affordability and predictable reliability.
Despite its age, the 2012 Frontier delivers an attractive, reliable package that can be configured just the way you want it. For light duty, the base King Cab is perfectly serviceable, while the V6 Crew Cab is an ideal family vehicle during the week or on the weekend. We'd opt for the PRO-4X King Cab with manual transmission, Utili-track bed and (via the aftermarket) ARB's Old Man Emu suspension. And then we'd book two weeks with no map and no reservations.