Sometime during the mid '90s, the Big Three stepped up the fullsize truck arms race in a serious way. While Chrysler, Ford and General Motors had always fought tooth and nail for every last possible customer, suddenly trucks began evolving into more than just utilitarian work horses. While the old payload and towing one-upmanship continued in earnest, pickup design began swelling with broad grilles, massive wheels and flanks to match. Option sheets suddenly glittered with choices previously confined to luxury vehicles, and MSRPs began covering wide territory as base models got cheaper and upper trims explored new fiscal heights.
With all of Detroit's resources going to the fullsize game, domestic midsize entries like the Ford Ranger, Dodge Dakota, GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado were left to rot on the vine. After all, why would buyers want to pony up equivalent cash for a less capable truck? Because, as the 2012 Nissan Frontier quietly reminds us, getting a job done is never about having the biggest tool. It's about having the one that's right for the task at hand.
Make no mistake, the Frontier isn't some rosy-faced young gun. Nissan has left the truck largely unchanged since the current generation debuted in 2009. A new appearance package, complete with the saucy vinyl get up and the 19-inch Dark Hyper Silver finish wheels you see here, quietly sum up the width and breadth of the machine's evolution over the past three years, but that isn't such a bad thing. The Frontier still looks good with its purposeful grille and flared fenders. While the Toyota Tacoma received a mild facelift for 2012, the changes weren't enough to put the Taco leagues ahead of its Nissan rival aesthetically, though it does outsell the Frontier nearly 3-to-1.
We're particularly fond of the color-matched wheels and grille on our Frontier tester, and while the graphics are a bit too campy for our tastes, the truth is they provide a commendable link to the truck's early days as the loveable Hardbody.
This setup is more than enough to handle light-duty suburban chores.
The Frontier's Crew Cab configuration does trim the overall bed length down to just under five feet at 59.5 inches. That leaves the cargo area virtually square, serving up a total of 27.1 cubic feet of storage. The space isn't huge, but it's enough to cart around landscaping materials with ease, and we found it more than capable of hauling a set of fenders and a windshield frame for a project vehicle with space to spare. This setup clearly isn't for tackling serious tasks, but it's more than enough to handle light-duty suburban chores without subjecting a vehicle's interior to the slights of moving dirty or abrasive cargo.
Speaking of interiors, there is a surprising amount of space indoors. We comfortably fit four grown adults in the cab of the Frontier without issue, and while the back seat can be a bit stiff, it's more than adequate for hops of less than an hour. We doubt kids will mind the way back for longer treks. The rear bench does offer some clever folding solutions for storing or transporting larger items when you don't need the extra passenger space, and we appreciate the small storage cubbies with tie-down netting as well.
The Frontier starts to show its age indoors.
But the Frontier starts to show its age indoors. Hard plastic seems to have been the only material available to Nissan when designers were working up the bill of materials for the cockpit. The door panels, dash and center console are all vast wastelands of the stuff, and the center stack looks as if it would have earned a skeptical eye back in 2009. Three years later, the cabin simply looks aged. We're all for trucks being utilitarian, but our Frontier carried an MSRP of $29,085, including an $810 destination fee. That stack of cash will earn you one very well equipped Ford F-150 or a Ram 1500 with an interior as work oriented as it is comfortable and attractive.
That sticker price included the SV Sport Appearance Package, which included all sorts of gear hardly worth noting. In fact, we were more struck by what was missing from the list. Buyers won't find any sort of navigation system, satellite radio or meaningful smartphone integration, though Bluetooth hands-free calling is part of the party. With other manufacturers packing their equivalently priced fullsize rigs with equipment, Nissan is in sore need of upping its game on the Frontier.
The mechanicals remain stout, though the hardware has greyed significantly.
The vehicle's mechanicals remain stout, though the hardware has greyed significantly. The 4.0-liter V6 engine in our tester served up 261 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque and came mounted to a five-speed automatic transmission and a two-speed transfer case. Those figures may have been adequate in 2009, but nearly four years later, the automotive world has grown to offer buyers forced-induction four-cylinders that offer that kind of grunt. Likewise, engines like the Chrysler Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 offer more horsepower and greater efficiency from less displacement.
And it's efficiency where the Frontier really suffers. With an Environmental Protection Agency rating estimated at 14 miles per gallon city and 19 mpg highway, the little Nissan drinks with all of the fervor of a fullsize truck. For comparison, the 5.0-liter V8-powered, four-wheel-drive 2013 Ford F-150 manages to match the Frontier in fuel economy while delivering nearly 100 additional horsepower and pound-feet of torque.
The little Nissan drinks with all of the fervor of a fullsize truck.
That's a damn shame, because we really enjoy the way the Frontier drives. While the SUV segment has been subjected to a crossoverification that will eventually see every high-rider handle like a 1998 Dodge Caravan, midsize trucks like the Frontier remain just that – trucks. Its live rear axle hops around over railroad tracks, and the body-on-frame jitters are all present and accounted for, but we wouldn't have it any other way. The Frontier offers great visibility for its size, and with appropriately weighted steering and confident brakes, we couldn't find a fault with the way the truck behaves on road.
More importantly, while bruisers like the Ram 1500, Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado easily best the Frontier in every meaningful category, the little Nissan is considerably easier to drive. Whipping around parking garages, through crowded city centers or down a tight trail pose no threat to the appropriately sized pickup, and while that isn't quite enough to offset the vehicle's shortcomings for us, it certainly helps balance the ledger.
The Frontier has found itself at an important crossroads.
After our week with the Frontier, we found ourselves troubled by the feeling that Nissan is leaving its midsize pickup offering to wander down the same unfortunate trail blazed by the now-defunct Ford Ranger. The Ranger grew obsolete because Ford stopped significantly investing in the workhorse, choosing instead to focus its resources on the highly profitable fullsize game. The Frontier has found itself at an important crossroads. Nissan can either take the time to invest in more efficient, more capable powertrains or prepare to watch its sales disappear. As much as it pains us to say, obsolescence isn't some far-off future for the Frontier. It's knocking on the pickup's front door right now.