Pros: Bullishly built; a capable workaholic
Cons: More attention could be paid to comfort and convenience
What's New: Lower base price; slight fuel economy increase; return of Desert Runner 4x2; available backup camera and parking sensors
It's unlikely that the 2013 Nissan Frontier will overtake the Toyota Tacoma this year to become top dog among midsize pickups. Because of its perceived toughness, reliability, resale value or all of the three, the Toyota is typically at the top of a shopper's list, while the Nissan Frontier holds down second place. The sales numbers tell the same story, with the Toyota outselling the Nissan at a rate greater than 2 to 1.
But we think there are several compelling reasons to consider the Frontier. Nissan's smaller pickup is built on a rugged platform, offers an overachieving V6 and, for owners that need it, can be equipped with off-road capability that exceeds expectations.
Available in two cab variants (King Cab and Crew), two bed lengths, as a 4x2 or a 4x4, with two powertrains and five 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 it as both a family hauler and weekend warrior, know that Nissan has paid appropriate attention to passive safety. Plus, the Frontier's Utili-track loading system is unmatched for hauling your toys. 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 reasonably contemporary design. But in the same way that you can option Hyundai's value-oriented Sonata to near-luxury levels, adding leather to a midsize 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 ultimately remains secondary to utility.
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, providing flexibility in the rear-seat space.
Knowing Nissan doesn't intend to emulate the luxury of either GMC's Denali or Ford's King Ranch, we still wish its use of interior plastics in the Frontier had evolved since 1996; product planners should at least get the appearance and texture updated to this century.
In back, buyers have a choice of two bed lengths, plus options like the Utili-track channel system for securing loads and a factory-applied spray-on bed liner. We're not sure why the tie-down system and bed liner 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 midsize category. Utili-track is a must for drivers that depend on their pickups for hauling. And the spray-on liner provides protection and a non-slip bed surface from day one, without the hassle of an aftermarket job.
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
Thanks to a few minor improvements like optimized aerodynamics, the 2013 Frontier returns slightly better fuel economy than its predecessor. Still, the Frontier's fuel economy range remains wide. A 4x2 4-cylinder with a manual transmission delivers 19 miles per gallon city and 23 mpg highway, while a Crew Cab SV 4x4 is rated at 15 mpg city/21 mpg hwy. Owners that plan to haul or tow should opt for the more powerful V6, despite its fuel efficiency deficit. With the bigger motor, the Frontier has a payload of up to 1,524 pounds and a tow rating of up to 6,500 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 5-speed manual transmission, the engine is adequately responsive, if not inspired. We like the 261-hp 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 exhibit, and there's the matter of its relative inefficiency when compared to V8s in the full-size category. That comparison aside, those driving in congested areas may find the smaller footprint of the midsize Frontier to be a great blessing for 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 typically paragons of either. Active safety is augmented by accurate power-assisted steering, capable 4-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. An available backup camera and rear parking sensors assist in low-speed maneuvering.
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'll 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 - The Tacoma is the perennial sales leader among midsize pickups, in part because of Toyota's strong reputation and in part because of robust fleet sales. Like the Frontier, the Tacoma is available in a range of cab, trim and powertrain variations.
Honda Ridgeline - The Ridgeline is strictly a 5-passenger, 4-door pickup. A standard V6 engine, automatic transmission and 4-wheel drive make the Ridgeline a good competitor for top-trim Frontier models.
Despite its age, the 2013 Nissan 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 off-road PRO-4X King Cab with a manual transmission and the Utili-track bed. Then we'd book two weeks with no map and no reservations.