Of all the segments in the American vehicle market, the full-size truck market has proven the most difficult to crack for foreign automakers. Blame the Chicken Tax, dyed-in-the-wool brand fanatics, decades of buying tradition or all three, but truck buyers have barely given Toyota and Nissan a fraction of the sales ladled onto Ford, Chevrolet and Ram. In fact, last year, Toyota saw just 82,908 Tundra units roll off of dealer lots. While that number seems astronomical compared to the 21,994 Titan models Nissan shifted during the same time period, both stats fall far behind even the third place Ram, which sold 257,610 units last year.
The easy assumption is that trucks like the Tundra and Titan simply lack the competitive capability to hold their heads high among their American counterparts. With offerings like the 2013 Ford F-150 EcoBoost and 2013 Ram 1500, modern domestic offerings are now more efficient than ever without sacrificing their already impressive tow ratings. Given just how long it's been since the Titan landed in showrooms, is there any reason at all to look outside of the Big Three for a pickup purchase? We decided to spend a week reacquainting ourselves with one to find out.
It's been eight years since the Titan first bowed, and the model has received remarkably few aesthetic adjustments in that time. Even so, the truck has aged well. On the street, the Titan is a handsome machine. Its chrome grille and bumper treatments are tasteful without straying into garishness, and the relatively short front overhang gives onlookers the impression this is a truck that will go where the driver points it, even if that means over the occasional Prius. The squared-off headlamp arrays still look fetching enough even after languishing on the front fascia for so many years, though we did find the area around the front tow hooks to be a bit too claustrophobic to easily hook up chunky tow straps or hefty chains. Leave the rescue operations to someone else.
It's been eight years since the Titan first bowed. Even so, it's aged well aesthetically.
Move to the truck's side, and it's easy to appreciate the functionality designers have incorporated into the Titan. The greenhouse features plenty of glass, yielding excellent visibility from the driver's seat. Expandable tow mirrors make it easy to keep an eye on trailer movement and the lockable in-bed storage compartment is a great place to store a tow strap, tie-downs and a set of gloves. With a configurable plastic shelf, the storage can be adjusted to accommodate a variety of small cargo, though we have to wonder why Nissan relegated the cabinet to just one side of the bed. Likewise, we were frustrated by the fact that the box can only be opened using the truck's key. You're simply out of luck if you need a buddy to grab something out of the cabinet while the engine is running.
If we can smother modern pickups as a whole under one blanket criticism, it's that the beasts have grown too tall to easily access cargo in the bed. Ram circumnavigates this dilemma with an expensive and complex air suspension. Nissan, meanwhile, has opted to give buyers the option of a retractable step positioned just under the driver's side bumper. Unlike the tailgate-integrated step system found in the Ford family, this one can be used regardless of whether there's a trailer hitched to the truck or not. Pretty handy.
Thank you, Titan, we know there's a trailer uncomfortably close to the back bumper. We put it there.
Speaking of helpful, Nissan's Utilitrak in-bed tie down system is excellent. Fully customizable, unobtrusive and sturdy, the tie-downs are great for steadying motorcycles, ATVs or other top-heavy cargo. They can also be removed if the owner needs maximum bed space.
Our crew cab tester came with a sonar-based park-assist feature as part of the SV Value Truck package. Along with park assist, the pack throws in a Class IV hitch, seven-pin harness and pre-wiring for a trailer brake as well as various interior niceties. Unfortunately, the trailering equipment finds itself at odds with the park assist. Throw the Titan into reverse with a trailer attached and the sonar will beep its little head off until you deactivate it via the pushbutton to the left of the steering wheel. Shut the truck off, turn it back on and the sonar is ready to go all over again. Thank you, Titan, we know there's a trailer uncomfortably close to the back bumper. We put it there. Here's hoping the next-generation will deactivate the park assist when the seven-pin is in use.
Inside, the Titan can't help but feel comfortably Nissan. Those familiar with the automaker's interiors will feel right at home amongst the switchgear, and that's a good thing. Despite the fact that the Titan hasn't received any serious update love in its lifespan, the cockpit has aged far better than that of the soon-to-be-replaced Silverado. With nicer materials on the dash and door panels, better quality cloth seating and a well-sorted driving position, our tester felt both capable and well ahead of its General Motors rival, but that doesn't mean we came away thinking the cabin seemed worthy of the truck's $38,920 price tag.
Compared to the Ram, the Titan might as well be reading song titles via Pony Express.
There are issues indoors. For starters, the A-pillar trim on this tester came saddled with gaps large enough to effectively park this truck in, and the onboard tech more than leaves a little to be desired. Compared to the available TFT gauge cluster and massive Uconnect screen found on the 2013 Ram 1500, the 2012 Titan might as well be reading song titles via Pony Express. The interface may have been acceptable three years ago, but it feels ancient by today's standards. Want to hook up an iPod or charge your phone? Better have an AUX cable and a car charger handy, as there's no USB connection onboard. In a segment dominated by consumers who use their trucks as mobile workstations, that's a serious problem.
Then there's the stereo. Our truck came with an optional eight-speaker unit, complete with what may very well be the most overbearing subwoofer we've ever encountered. The system seemed content to pound us to death with bass no matter the setting or the music. Adjusting the four-way equalizer proved fruitless unless the woofer was disengaged entirely. Either we're getting too old, or our flat-brim quotient is dangerously low.
So, there's some rust on the edges of the Titan formula, but that's not saying this is a bad truck; far from it. This Titan benefits from the same 5.6-liter V8 engine that has powered it since time immemorial, and though it only musters up 317 horsepower and 385 lb-ft of torque, the eight cylinder does an fine job of pulling this big Japanese workhorse around town. The truck burbles with the delicious sound of available torque, all of which is on hand from 3,400 rpm. That's not terribly low, but on an engine that will happily reach all the way to 6,000 rpm, it isn't really a problem, either. Paired with a five-speed automatic transmission, dial-selectable four-wheel drive and an optional 3.357:1 final drive, the Titan has a solid (if unsophisticated) backbone.
The Titan is a much more comfortable tow rig than its Mopar rival.
Unfortunately, so do the rest of the trucks in this class. Both Ford and Ram are now getting very similar power figures from vastly more efficient V6 offerings, with the F-150 Ecoboost now delivering 365 hp while the 2013 Ram 1500 V6 serves up just 12 fewer horsepower than the V8 under the hood of the Titan. But as any truck owner will tell you, it's torque that makes a vehicle like this, and that's where those extra two cylinders in the Japanese V8 come into play. At over 115 more lb-ft than the Pentastar V6 found in the Ram, the Titan is a much more comfortable tow rig than its Mopar rival. The forced-induction Ford, meanwhile easily embarrasses the Titan with a heady serving of 420 lb-ft.
We loaded the Titan full with guys, tools and a massive stack of split-rim wheels with big bar tires and hooked a small military trailer filled to the brim with Dodge M37 drivetrain components for a quick sprint up I-75 out of Georgia. While we could certainly feel the added heft behind the pickup, the Titan never felt strained or harried, even during the steep climb out of Chattanooga. According to the local CAT scales, we stuffed around 1,626 pounds into the Japanese pickup and hooked another 3,380 to the hitch. We found that with Tow/Haul mode engaged, the transmission is happy to let the engine build revs until the eight-pot is making the power necessary to accelerate the truck/trailer combination with confidence.
Fuel economy is the biggest hitch in the Titan's giddyup.
That is, so long as you can afford to keep the machine fed. We saw 15 mpg highway during our time with the truck when it was unladen. Throw the extra load at the truck and that number slipped to just 12 mpg over a four-hour haul. We would hate to see the result of sticking the full towing capacity behind the truck. And that's the biggest hitch in the Titan's giddyup. Ford and Chrysler have made a concerted push to squeeze the most fuel economy possible from their full-size offerings, resulting in efficient V6 trucks. The 2013 Ram is good for up to 25 mpg highway while the F-150 can deliver a very respectable 23 mpg. Even by Environmental Protection Agency ratings, the Titan can only serve up 13 mpg city and 18 mpg highway.
And that's what's truly baffling about the Titan family. Whereas the Detroit Three are happy to offer you a truck with a capable and efficient V6 under the hood, there's simply no such option on the Nissan sheet. If you want this big bruiser, you have to buy it with the aging 5.6-liter V8. That's a crying shame, too, because Nissan has a perfectly capable V6 in its VQ family of engines.
Titan's lackluster fuel economy, ancient tech interface and hefty price tag all put it at the back of the pack.
Unfortunately for the Titan, trucks aren't just measured by how well they can tow a load. Fuel economy and connectivity play a significant role in how a machine performs for its buyer. Throw in the fact that the Titan is far from a bargain, and the argument for laying down your cash here instead of with one of Detroit's trucks becomes even dicier. While the Titan is a perfectly adequate partner in terms of capability, its lackluster fuel economy, ancient tech interface and hefty price tag all put it at the back of the pack. We've been told a successor to the Titan throne is coming in 2014. It can't happen soon enough.