Thirty-five years ago the best-selling Nissan in America was a Datsun pickup truck. Strange irony now that the vehicle that put Nissan on the map in North America is no longer “what Americans want to drive,” according to the folks in Washington, D.C., currently running GM and Chrysler — two damaged domestic automakers that have pickup trucks as their best-selling products.
Since those halcyon days when small trucks from Datsun and Toyota created the whole compact pickup segment — and forever altered the landscape for import vehicles — Nissan has undertaken a deliberate march up the sales charts in this market. With many of its products now built right here in America, Nissan has eclipsed Dodge and has successfully reached the number five spot on the sales charts here, just behind Honda USA.
While not as popular as in some recent years gone by, the Nissan Frontier small pickup has been a stalwart profit producer for this Asian-based automaker. And, for very good reason — the Frontier is a sound platform that offers yeoman service, a virtue embraced by generations of small pickup fans here and around the world. Nissan also builds a version of this truck for Suzuki.
For 2009, Nissan has made some small cosmetic upgrades to the Frontier while now relying on two models for all sales: the King Cab and the Crew Cab. The loss-leader regular cab model has been dropped.
Available in rear- or four-wheel drive, two engines are employed for power. A 2.5-liter 152-hp four is standard on base XE trim levels of the King Cab, while most versions of the Frontier use a 4.0-liter 261-hp V-6 — the strongest V-6 in the segment. Teamed to a new five-speed automatic transmission my King Cab 4X4 truck (list price $24,855 before options) returned no less than 21 mpg for our time together and actually reached 22.1 mpg on two occasions. These mileage numbers far exceed the EPA estimates of 15/19 mpg.
With dimensions near the small end of the class, the Frontier is no less a workhorse than any of its rivals — trucks such as Toyota’s Tacoma, the Honda Ridgeline, the Dodge Dakota, the Ford Ranger and GM’s Colorado and Canyon series. The cabin is easy to exit and enter, the pickup box is low and readily accessible despite a four-wheel-drive chassis, plus the Nissan can pull up to 6,500 pounds of trailer.
The King Cab offers rear opening doors, yet this space would be more flexible if the doors opened the same 168 degrees as the Frontier’s big-brother Titan model pickup. Space behind the front seats features two small jump-seats, but don’t think about stuffing any adults back here, as they will probably set to beating you about the ears. The seat bottoms fold up, but the remaining cargo space is less than I could have used during our travels together.
The helm, however, offers good accommodations with a nice control design, supportive seats and enough pockets and cubbies to suit most needs. Road noise is evident but not objectionable while steering feel and handling are more than acceptable in a platform that is well-suited for continuous off-road use with a locking rear differential and an electric shift transfer case.
Over smooth tarmac the Nissan produces a commendable ride. Mix in some winter ravaged road sections and the ride can only be termed as ‘rugged.’ The truck maintains its composure, but you will feel each imperfection as the stiff-legged Frontier reveals its solid character. No squeaks or rattles were evident in my well-broken-in test truck.
The Nissan earns high marks for a stout, enthusiastic powertrain that produces respectable fuel economy. The Frontier also made good impressions for its tough, made-of-billet feel and its fit-anywhere size. I would, however, prefer the four-door Crew Cab, yet most of the Frontiers I witnessed on the road were the less expensive King Cab.
This size can also be a handicap when you factor in the Frontier’s pricing as full-size pickups are heavily discounted right now — negating the cost variance that might make you consider a compact truck in the first place.
But if you really want a compact/midsize pickup for your list of chores, then only a fool would leave the Frontier off of their shopping list.
Next week: Dodge Challenger SRT8