Big Boys and Tough Toys – The Nissan Truck Off-Road Experience

We’ve just returned from the town of Bridgeport Texas, about 90 minutes outside of Dallas, and future home of the Bridgeport Recreational Park. The 900 acres set aside for the park include serene trails through the scrub brush and rocky hills that make up the area’s terrain-a serenity we promptly quashed in a day of thrashing Nissan’s best off-road offerings throughout the landscape.

Nissan’s truck and SUV lines are some of the toughest, least-sissified vehicles out there, especially in this era of “crossovers” and trucks designed specifically for soccer-moms. We took Titans over towering hills, forced Frontiers through fresh mud, and drove Xterras down extremely steep slopes, all in an effort to find out just how capable these Nissans really are in this type of terrain.

In other words, we played with trucks in the mud.

Far as the eye can see standing in the center of the future Bridgeport Recreational Park, the rough ground is littered with boulders and covered with a bright orange mud. Undulating gracelessly to the horizon, one of our colleagues commented that there are probably more hills, with higher elevation, here than in pretty much anywhere else in Texas. Recent rains had made dry gullies into streams to be forded and deep depressions into small lakes to be splashed through. It honestly looked pretty daunting-and there wasn’t a paved road in sight.

The Nissan team on hand had spent the last several weeks on-site, laying out a looped course of several miles through the landscape. After an initial run with one of the trail’s topographers acting as a guide, the journalists present were invited to hop into each of the vehicles Nissan had carted along and run the trails themselves. We were asked to try out both four-wheel-drive High and Low settings at different spots, to use the locking rear differentials at some particularly perilous points, and to play with the electronic toys like Hill descent Control that some of the smaller trucks sported. The menu for the day included several Titan trucks, a few Xterra SUVs, and a number of Frontier pickups-a few of which sported a factory package of off-road upgrades by NISMO, Nissan’s in-house performance arm.

NISMO, which stands for NISan MOtorsports, is a recent apparition in the United States aftermarket scene, dedicated to building bolt-on parts with bulletproof reliability and seamless integration with stock vehicles. NISMO aftermarket parts are offered in three stages of tune; S-Tune for street vehicles, with 100 percent legality and a full warrantee; R-Tune for more race-oriented vehicles, which are often designated as off-road only; and Legacy parts for older Nissan vehicles like the 300Z and 240SX that still command a wide enthusiast following. Bob Speights, from NISMO development, showed off a smattering of the NISMO offerings, and on inspection they prove to be tough, well-designed, and of much higher quality than most typical add-on bits. “NISMO parts are not about eye-candy,” says Speights-another refreshing fact in this world of stick-on horsepower and lighted windshield-wiper nozzles. Nissan dealerships are the official NISMO vendors, and can also install the parts for you, if desired. Furthermore, NISMO collaborates with Nissan’s Product Development engineers to create performance-oriented option packages, such as we’ve seen with the NISMO 350Z, and on the NISMO Frontier we tested here.

We’ll delve into the performance of each specific truck in another review, but suffice it to say that every example on had performed impressively. They forded deep water with ease, thanks to high ground clearance, and climbed the steepest, rockiest hills we’ve ever seen, thanks to class-leading approach and departure angles. Coming down hard onto rocks and earth presented no problem for the Nissans’ running gear; the liberal use of skid plates protecting the vulnerable bits, and an overall design that tucks such components up and under the frame kept the dirty party unharmed. Essentially, the Titan, Xterra and Frontier all felt sure-footed and competent, even traversing parts of the trails we wouldn’t want to walk over. In fact, some of the hills we took these trucks up and down were so steep we almost expected to flip end over end on our way down-but the Nissans themselves seemed to relish the experience.

It is truly amazing what these trucks can do.

This may go a long way towards explaining Nissan’s recent domination of the Championship Off-Road Racing (CORR) series. In that last year’s standings, Nissan drivers scored six wins, two second-place showings, and took third-place honors three times-in 18 events. Showcasing their superiority, Nissan had brought along two of their sponsored drivers and an examples of Titan and Frontier CORR race trucks.

Chad Hord’s Pro-Light mount is a fiberglass Frontier, built on a spec chassis but featuring a Nissan four-banger that makes 305 horsepower from a stock block and cylinder head. He says he’s regularly running the motor at 8-9,000 r.p.m. through the races-and has yet to experience one engine failure.

In the Pro-4 class, 14-year Nissan veteran Art Schmitt pilots a Titan. His ride also runs on a stock Nissan block; this the V8 configuration, making more than twice the power of the Pro-Light truck-750hp. The Titan is the official truck of CORR racing (which is broadcast regularly on Speed Channel; races take place in California, Michigan, and Wisconsin). 

Both drivers thrilled the assembled crowd with a few jumps over a rock-and-dirt mound set up by the “headquarters” tent. Firing these things up is itself a revelation; both the four and the eight can be heard miles away. It was the more-powerful Titan that made the most spectacular jumps; catching what seemed like 15 feet of air and flying for several car lengths. Once the show was over, the grins of the assembled spectators were overmatched only by those on the driver’s faces.

Now, we’ve been on other off-road expeditions, with other brands debuting some other capable four-wheelers. None of those, however, have ever matched the Bridgeport terrain for sheer challenge. A comfort to the “real-man” contingent of guys who cringe at “all-wheel-drive sport-wagons,” we can honestly report that Nissan builds some of the toughest trucks out there-and what’s more, they don’t mind getting them dirty.

What fun!

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