Playing With Nissan’s Tough Little Frontier at the Nissan Off-Road Experience

Nissan claims its little Frontier pickup has “class-leading” off-road capability-but pretty much every truck manufacturer makes those sorts of claims. Now, we’ve been mightily impressed with Nissan test products before, but our inherently skeptical natures still prevent us from taking any brand’s words at face value. Especially when we’d just finished flogging the big-dog Titan around the hills and dales of Texas’ Bridgeport Recreational Park-how could this mid-size hauler have anywhere near the capability of that machine?

Turns out that, while it might not have quite the same ground clearance or heft as its bigger brother, the Frontier comes awful close in almost every aspect-and it proved itself to be perhaps even more fun in the rough stuff. Nimble is one word that springs to mind; where the Titan is more like a Sherman tank, the Frontier feels like a desert Hummer-quick and light on its feet.

Which is not to say the Frontier suffers in the numerical ratings. The midsizer’s ground clearance is an impressive 10.1 inches at the rear axle-down just two-tenths from the Titan, and up a good half-inch over the Toyota Tacoma. Approach and departure angles are rated at 32.6 and 23.3 degrees respectively. The rubber on the Frontier LEs we tested was 265/65 on 17-inch rims; interestingly, the high-performance NISMO model wears 16-inchers and 265/75 tires, presumably for better off-road ability. Perhaps the best number, though, when it comes to the Nissan Frontier, is 265. That’s the horsepower rating of the brawny 4.0-liter V6; it bests not only every other V6 truck, but even tops the Dodge Dakota’s V8 as well. Torque is an equally-impressive 284 lb.-ft.

Some other pertinent numbers regarding the Frontier: Five is the number of gears in the automatic transmission in most of our testers; it’s sourced from the Titan and thus probably bulletproof. 1,552 lbs. is the payload capacity, with towing rated at 6,500 or 6,300 with the King or Crew Cab. 15/20, which is the EPA mileage rating. 154, which is the horsepower rating of the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder-we didn’t drive it, but it’s said to be the most powerful truck four-banger, too. $15,900 is the pricetag on the base-model XE, with the I4 and two-wheel-drive; the sticker on out loaded LE and NISMO testers was about $25,000 (figure about $2,500 extra for the Crew Cab). And one more number we liked a lot: 380, which is the wattage of the high-line Rockford Fosgate 6-disc stereo system.

The best thing about Nissans, though, is that they’re not only impressive on paper. The Frontier is a blast off-pavement; it runs like a 350Z on monster tires. Eager, agile, and responsive, this truck encourages you to push the envelope beyond what you’d normally think is possible. We climbed up hills that seemed sure to flip us end-over-end back downward, and descended similar grades that we would’ve thought too steep to traverse without rappelling equipment. Never once did we lose traction, and never once did the Frontier put a paw wrong. Awesome.

Nissan had brought along a few manual-transmission-equipped NISMO models, too; the six-speed stick is otherwise only available in SE guise. Off-road, it not only gave better acceleration, but also better control-plus, it’s good for a couple m.p.g. We’re on record as being staunch stick-shift supporters anyway, but our appreciation for manual gear control was only heightened in this hot-rod pickup.

Speaking of that NISMO model, we were impressed by the amount of content it adds, for just a couple hundred bucks more than the LE. Special Bilstein shocks and skid plates are included to make the off-roading a lot more fun and safe for your powertrain, and an electronic locking rear differential adds noticeable traction. The suspension and traction control systems are also specially tuned for off-road prowess by the Nissan Motorsports guys, too.

We tested Frontiers with and without the available Hill Start Assist and Hill Descent Control electronic systems, and we’d recommend them to any buyer who expects to do some serious off-roading (or who lives in San Francisco). HDC allows you to descend sheer peaks without worrying about correct application of the brakes; the ridges we were taking on were a lot less nerve-wracking when we didn’t have to worry about stopping too abruptly and losing traction or being too judicious with the brakes and plummeting downwards at light-speed. HSA keeps the truck from rolling backwards without applying the brakes or accelerator; we found it made our ascents much smoother.

We were obviously pretty busy paying attention to our surroundings, but we can report that the Frontier scores points in the interior department as well. Every switch and control was ergonomically correct, and handy storage cubbies, like the 1-liter bottle holders in the doors, abound. Even more storage space hides in boxes under the rear seats, and the front passenger seatback folds down to create a workspace. There’s even a dual glove box, which sorta mimics the rear-hinged back doors in the clamshell-like way it opens. Utility out back is improved with an available spray-on bedliner and the handy Utilitrak system from the Titan.

All in all, we were mightily impressed with the mid-size Nissan pickup. It’s attractive, rugged, practical, powerful, inexpensive and well-sorted.

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