by Mike Knepper
It hauls, it pulls and it's enjoyable to drive.
Base Price $12,010
As Tested $13,952
The Nissan Frontier XE handles well and delivers a smooth ride. It's comfortable and pleasant to drive. It gets good fuel economy. And it's priced competitively, starting at $12,010.
A regular cab XE 4x2 like the one we drove may not attract members of the opposite sex, but it can haul loads of lumber and pull a 3,500-pound trailer without costing an arm and a leg. And, dare we say it? It's fun to drive.
The Frontier was completely redesigned last year and was introduced with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine. For 1999, this engine powers all two-wheel-drive Frontiers and XE 4x4 models. The 2.4-liter, double overhead-cam engine is rated at 143 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 154 foot-pounds of torque at 4000 rpm. More than 80 percent of all compact truck buyers opt for two-wheel-drive models, according to Nissan.
A V6 has been added to the lineup this year, but it is only available on 4x4 King Cabs. The 3.3-liter V6 provides more power to pull trailers, haul cargo or negotiate steep off-road hazards. The 3.3-liter V6 is rated at 170 horsepower.
A five-speed manual gearbox is standard, a four-speed automatic is optional. The automatic has been refined to reduce harsh shifting and gear hunting on steep grades. The towing capacity of the four-cylinder is 3,500 pounds with the manual transmission, 2,000 pounds with the automatic. Towing capacity with the V6 goes up to 5000 lbs. with the automatic.
The Frontier looks rugged with flowing body lines designed to impart a feeling of substance, strength and originality. The front is designed to look thick and brawny, while the tail lights and rear bumper are designed to look aggressive. Fender flares are standard on all SE and 4x4 models.
Several models of the Frontier are available, ranging from the basic Regular Cab XE up to the King Cab SE-V6 4X4. In between are a lot of choices. Our truck was an XE regular cab model -- the bottom of the line. If trucks were like houses, then we got the best deal in the neighborhood.
The XE comes standard with ABS, 15-inch wheels with P215/65R15 tires, power steering, a black grille and bumpers, dual outside mirrors, and full carpeting. Optional packages (see below) make it the XE a far more comfortable truck for everyday driving, but can add nearly $2,000 to the bottom line.
The Frontier's bed is the largest and deepest in its class. Cargo volume is 45.7 cubic feet for regular cabs, 44.1 cubic feet for King Cabs. Beds feature double wall construction and inner tie-down hooks are standard. Grooves cut into the walls of the pickup bed are designed to support pieces of plywood that can be arranged to form partitions to keep cargo from shifting around. If desired, a sheet of plywood can be laid horizontally to cover the compartments.
The front suspension is a double wishbone design with torsion bars and a stabilizer bar. The rear suspension is a traditional live axle with leaf springs. This suspension design works well, providing carlike handling and ride. Braking is also good with disc brakes in front, drums at the rear, and a rear-wheel anti-lock braking system.
The Inside Story
The operative theme in truck interiors these days is "car like," which means if you don't look in the rear view and see the truck bed out back, you won't know you're in a pickup. After years of Spartan efficiency, truck interiors now have softer edges, better upholstery, thoughtful ergonomics and comfort. Nissan's Frontier has all of this.
The optional bucket seats in the XE are comfortable and provide good support. We didn't feel like we were sliding from door handle to door handle in quick transient maneuvers. The interior is attractive and functional. Cup holders, big utility pockets and an LCD odometer with dual trip meters add convenience.
Visibility is good. Big, square mirrors, slightly convex on the right side, make it easy to see traffic behind and to the sides -- an important consideration when the rear window is blocked. The air conditioner can really frost your Ray Bans. In Nashville, we left the Frontier baking in 100-degree heat with nearly 100-percent humidity, but still had to turn the air conditioning down after just a few minutes.
The King Cab extended cab adds a heck of a lot of convenience for carrying items you want to keep inside. It adds a half-inch of front legroom, but head-, shoulder- and hip-room are the same, the rear jump seats are only suitable for children and there's still nowhere to hook the dry cleaning.
Ride & Drive
We drove the Frontier over a wide variety of terrain and down a good cross-section of roads, from smooth Interstates to bumpy, twisty backcountry roads. What we found was that the Frontier works great as a daily driver because it does almost everything very well.
The ride quality is smooth and wind noise and road noise are minimal. After a full day of driving, we were none the worse for wear. This is a truck that is suitable for long-distance driving.
The power-assisted recirculating-ball steering provides the right amount of road feel. Steering is precise and the Frontier always goes exactly where you want it to go. Nissan's rear suspension design is nothing new, but it does a superb job of keeping the tires on the ground in bumpy corners -- a problem with pickup trucks and leaf-spring suspensions. Overall, the Frontier offers impressive dynamic traits. Handling is so good that, before long, you're driving it like a sports sedan. The handling always feels safe and secure without the soft sloppiness of other compact pickups. A smooth driver can have a lot of fun in Frontier. The brakes also work well. Rear-wheel ABS helps the driver maintain control of the steering under threshold braking -- particularly useful in a wet corner with little weight over the rear tires.
The 2.4-liter engine is the most powerful standard four-cylinder compact truck engine, according to Nissan. When compared with a V6, it's noisy and does not produce an abundance of horsepower and torque. It feels slow off the line at full throttle, and loses momentum on steep grades. Passing on two-lane roads requires some advance planning. The manual gearbox shifts smoothly and is easy to use.
The Nissan Frontier delivers great handling, excellent ride quality, a generous set of standard features and enough options to suit a variety of drivers. The big 4-cylinder engine offers reliable and economical service for those who use their truck for work. Buyers who want more power for fun or to tow should order the V6.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.