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2021 Nissan Frontier Review


Most cars and trucks enter the final years before a major redesign with minimal changes—perhaps a new paint color or a fresh wheel design. But that was not the case with the Frontier. Nissan’s midsize pickup will receive a complete redesign next year. But Nissan made some significant and welcome improvements just one year ago when it installed an all-new V6 engine with 310 horsepower under the hood truck along with a fresh transmission to match. And that powertrain upgrade returns for the 2021 Nissan Frontier too.

This generation of Frontier has anchored Nissan’s lineup almost completely unchanged since 2005. That gives this pickup the distinction of being the oldest new vehicle on the market right now without a significant redesign. But here’s the thing — the Frontier might be old, but it’s a fine vehicle for those looking for honest pickup with solid capability and few frills.

The Frontier has a strong, fully-boxed frame underneath and is offered in both extended cab (King Cab) and four-door Crew Cab models. The latter is offered in both short and long beds too. The Frontier might be old, but because many of the systems on board haven’t changed for many years, it should offer trouble-free service too. Yes, sometimes buying an old truck has advantages.

That’s not to say the Frontier hasn’t seen some smart additions over the years. The highly capable Pro-4X off-road package still provides excellent traction when the road turns rough. Features like hill descent control and hill start assist have found their way onto the Frontier. And Nissan’s optional Utili-Track bed system is one of the best in the class with plenty of tie down points and cleats to secure cargo. The Frontier’s 6,720-pound maximum towing capacity brings it within a 300 pounds of the class leader. And that’s impressive.

Nissan’s 16-year-old midsize truck certainly lack some of the tech and refinement of the newer pickups. But last year’s addition of a modern V6 makes the Frontier competitive. For those that simply can’t wait one more year for the all-new 2022 Frontier, this one should be a quick and capable machine at a fairly reasonable price point. Find a 2021 Nissan Frontier for sale near you

What’s New for 2021?

Since there’s an all-new Frontier arriving next year, there are no changes for the 2021 model year.

But last year there was big news. Nissan replaced the venerable 4.0-liter V6 and the 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that moved lower-priced models with an all-new 3.8-liter direct-injected V6. It’s the same engine that will be used in the all-new 2022 Frontier and here it delivers 310 hp at 6,400 rpm and 281 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. That’s a fairly serious increase of 49 hp over that old V6. And this one comes paired exclusively to a 9-speed automatic. What that means is the Frontier is suddenly at the top of the Midsize class in terms of horsepower.

What We Like

  • Reliable
  • Every model is V6-Powered
  • Competitive fuel economy
  • Excellent off-road package

What We Don’t

  • Dated design
  • Poor safety ratings
  • Lacks interior tech
  • Not the bargain it once was

How Much?

$27,090 — $37,790

Fuel Economy

Unlike past Frontier models, the 2020 and 2021 examples are all V6 powered. And the new 310-hp 3.8-liter V6 is joined to a 9-speed automatic — four more gears than the last Frontier automatic. And that helps deliver improved fuel economy. Two-wheel-drive Frontier models return 18 mpg city and 24 mpg on the highway. Four-wheel drive Frontier models take a slight hit on fuel economy (as most 4X4s do) and deliver 17 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. And the combined 19 mpg rating puts the Frontier in line with many midsize trucks.

For example, a 3.6-liter V6 Chevy Colorado has 306 hp and 4WD models are rated at 17 mpg city and 24 mpg on the highway with a combined rating of 19 mpg.

Standard Features & Options

The 2021 Nissan Frontier is available in two cab configurations. There’s the King Cab model which rides on a 125.9-inch wheelbase and has a 6-foot bed. The Crew Cab model has more interior space and four doors. It’s available with a short 5-foot bed on the same 125.9-inch wheelbase or a long bed (6-foot bed) model riding on a stretched 139.9-inch wheelbase.

Each model comes in the base S or more upscale SV trim. The Crew Cab models can be optioned in the Midnight Edition or top Pro-4X off-road model too.

The S trim ($27,090 King Cab 2WD, $28,200 Crew Cab 2WD) comes with a lengthy list of standard features including a 7-inch display audio system, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, steering wheel audio controls, two 12-volt power outlets and one USB port, remote keyless entry, power windows and locks, leather shift knob, tilt steering column, and push button start. And S grade models receive 16-inch steel wheels.

The SV models ($27,970 King Cab 2WD, $29,100 Crew Cab 2WD) add a sliding rear window, a battery saver for interior lighting, additional volt and oil pressure gauges, and sun visors with vanity mirrors. On the outside, the SV has a body colored front bumper and a chrome rear bumper, dual mirrors, and bedrail caps.

The Pro-4X ($37,790) off-road package for Crew Cab models includes 16-inch Alcoa alloy wheels, 265/75R16 all-terrain tires, electronic rear locking differential, Bilstein dampers and skid plates. In addition, to what’s included in the SV trim, this package adds NissanConnect with navigation, a Rockford Fosgate audio system, dual zone HVAC, 8-way power driver’s seat, 8-way manual passenger seat w/lumbar, heated front seats with unique cloth, leather-wrapped steering wheel, moonroof, roof rack with cross bars, and more.

A Value Truck Package ($1990) is available on SV models and includes rear sonar parking, dual zone HVAC, spray-in bedliner and Utili-Track tie-down system, heated cloth seats, fog lamps, sliding bed extender, and trailer hitch.

The Midnight Edition like similar packages on other Nissan vehicles blacks out virtually everything on the truck and can be had on Frontiers painted black, white or gun metal grey. The trim requires the Value Truck Package and includes gloss black grille, black 18-inch wheels, step rails, mirrors, and rear bumper. Of course, there’s special badging too.

A Special Edition Package for Crew Cab trucks also requires the Value Truck Package and includes a trip computer, decal, 18-inch wheels, body-color rear bumper, and a satin chrome grill.

Safety

When it comes to safety and the Frontier’s performance in crash tests, it’s clear the systems on this truck are old. Midsize truck safety has advanced in the 16 years since this Frontier was first sold. Many upgrades have been made during that time like design changes to the airbags and seat belts in 2013 and improved side curtain airbags in 2017. But the Frontier still lags behind the performance of its peers. Most notably when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) tested the Frontier it found the truck to score only “Marginal” in the small overlap test for both driver and passenger. Though it did score a “Good” in roof strength, side impact and moderate front overlap as well as an “Acceptable” for head restraints and seats.

There’s plenty of safety tech that’s either standard or optional on competitor’s trucks that should be included on the Frontier. The Toyota Tacoma for instance comes standard with lane-departure warning, automatic emergency braking, and radar cruise control. None of these passive safety features is even optional on the Frontier.

The Nissan Frontier does come standard with front-seat mounted side impact airbags and roof mounted curtain side airbags to complement the traditional dual-stage front airbags.

Behind the Wheel

It would be easy to dismiss the driving performance of the Frontier based solely upon its age. But time spent in a Pro-4X model proved to generate quite a few positive notes. The ride quality is smooth on pavement or off — and that’s not the case with all midsize trucks. Around town the steering was on the heavy side, requiring more muscle at low speeds than most in the class.

The 3.8-liter V6 and 9-speed automatic provide excellent acceleration. The Frontier may not be the quickest in the class but its performance is closer to the top than the previous powertrain. The 9-speed really makes the most of the new V6 and the combination makes short work of freeway grades than in the past would make a Frontier rev close to 3,000 rpm to maintain speed.

The one area that the Frontier just can’t overcome its age is the interior. It looks and feels very dated inside. We found it difficult to find a comfortable position in the front or those upright rear seats of the Crew Cab.

That said, the Pro-4X is an absolute blast in the dirt. The truck’s tidy dimensions, excellent shock damping and locking rear differential make it great fun to use.

Other Cars to Consider

2021 Jeep Gladiator: If off-road performance is a big priority, then the Jeep Gladiator should be at the top of the list. The Gladiator’s solid front and rear axles and Wrangler-based cabin offer a bumpy, trucky experience on the street. But when the pavement turns to dirt, the Gladiator crawls, tractor-like over rough terrain. The best of the bunch? Make ours a Gladiator Mojave—the one designed for high-speed desert driving.

2021 Chevrolet ColoradoThe 306-hp V6-powered Chevy Colorado comes paired to an 8-speed automatic. It’s an excellent powertrain noted for its smoothness and potency. If fuel economy is a priority, Chevy has a great four-cylinder turbo-diesel that really boosts the numbers. And the Colorado is the benchmark for towing capacity amongst midsize trucks too.

2021 Ford RangerThe Ford Ranger made a triumphant return to the American Midsize market a few years ago with a potent turbocharged Ecoboost engine. It comes loaded with both standard and optional safety tech. Plus, the Ranger is rated to handle the highest payload capacity in the class. The new Tremor off-road package promises to be one of the best too.

Used Honda RidgelineThe Ridgeline is the midsize pickup for those that don’t want a truck-like driving experience and don’t need heroic off-road capability. The Ridgeline drives just as smoothly as a midsize SUV and offers plenty of smart touches not found on other trucks like the lockable underbed storage trunk and a tailgate that both folds down and swings open like a door.

Used Toyota TacomaThe Tacoma is known for its legendary durability and reliability. And on newer models — safety too. The Tacoma’s resale value holds up well for these reasons plus the fact that for many, the Tacoma is the midsize pickup. Look for any of the TRD Off-Road models to add some extra capability to the mix.

Autotrader’s Advice

The new powertrain Nissan installed last year makes the Frontier much more competitive than it had been. It’s certainly a more pleasant vehicle — especially on long freeway trips. However, that doesn’t make up for the fact that this is a very old truck. And there are more refined, capable and tech forward midsize trucks on the market. If a Frontier is at the top of your shopping list, perhaps hold out until later this year when the deep discounts will be flowing to make room for that all-new 2022 Frontier. Find a 2021 Nissan Frontier for sale

 

Ben Stewart
Ben Stewart is an author specializing in automotive testing and technology. He has a unique perspective—as a lifelong 4WD enthusiast Ben has driven just about every production 4X4 on road and off for the last 20 years. But his expertise and experience goes deeper. Ben has had the opportunity to drive and report on a wide variety of vehicles ranging from pre-production fuel cell cars to... Read More about Ben Stewart

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