Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Crew Cab opens frontier to families.
More than four decades ago the 37-horsepower Datsun 1000 was the first Japanese compact truck to cross the ocean. Since then Nissan has continued to be the innovator in the class; in 1983 it was the first foreign manufacturer to build trucks in the U.S.
Nissan again blazed the path with the 2000 Frontier Crew Cab four-door pickup. Ford was also right there with the Explorer Sport Trac, and now Toyota and Chevrolet have followed with four-door compact pickups, the Tacoma and S-10.
But Nissan can't be caught that easily: The 2001 Frontier is dramatically restyled, and offers a supercharger. And the 2WD version, the model tested here, rides a bit lower; fitted with wide-profile tires, it feels more like a sports sedan with a bed in back. The 2001 Frontier line offers a lot of excitement.
All told, Frontier is available in 14 different configurations. It comes in three trim levels: XE, SE and SC. XE models come standard with the 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine, but offer the V6 as an option. Frontier prices start at $11,699 for a base 2WD XE with a four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual; you'll need to add another $999 to that figure, however, if you want air conditioning, which comes bundled with alloy wheels and an AM/FM/CD stereo in the XE Value Truck Package. An XE King Cab 4x2 retails for $13,649. Automatic transmissions add just over $1,000.
The SE is basically an XE with the Deluxe Package, including cruise control; tilt steering wheel; in-dash six-disc CD changer and steering wheel audio controls. Leather is optional with the SE, not available on XE; the SE comes with 16-inch wheels, XE with 15s. With the SC you can get it all, including 17-inch wheels and that supercharged engine delivering 40 more horsepower and 31 (manual transmission) or 46 (automatic) more foot-pounds of torque.
Also available are King Cab and Desert Runner models. An SE-V6 King Cab 4x4 retails for $20,699, while an XE-V6 4x2 Desert Runner is priced at $15,949. King Cab and Crew Cab models ride on a 116-inch wheelbase, while Regular Cabs ride on a 104.3-inch wheelbase.
Crew Cabs are available in XE, SE and SC trim in 2WD or 4WD. All Crew Cabs use the 3.3-liter SOHC V6 engine, with the SC having the factory-installed supercharger made by Eaton, a company with a lengthy history designing and building superchargers. This review focuses on the family-sized Crew Cab.
The Frontier design is what will have people talking and gawking. The big bold front end and fender flares say, 'cool.' The creative artists at Nissan Design International in La Jolla, Calif., were instructed to make the Frontier look like a cross between a power tool and a boxing glove. And it does, if you use your imagination, as they did: powerful and industrial, but smooth. In our week with an all-black Frontier, we got a steady streak of 'wows' from people (and the Solar Yellow would have dazzled them). As Nissan says, the Frontier has shed its anonymity.
The powerful look begins in the body-colored grille, which incorporates a faux bash guard made of tough plastic, an original design. The front end comes off as bulky without being big, and the rounded edges further suggest that pow!-in-your-face boxing-glove look. The hoodline is tall, the clear halogen headlights and round Maxima foglights are oversized, and the turn signals goggle-like. The large fender flares with integral mud flaps span radial wheel arches, and have a finish that's deliberately duller than the body. They're attached by prominent tabs that look like bolt heads, which cause people to walk up and see if they twist. There's something right about any design feature that draws people to touch it.
At the back, a new tailgate cover comes standard with a tailgate lock; the lock is designed to keep the tailgate itself from being stolen, not what's in the bed. Because tailgates get smashed so easily the demand for them is high, which keeps thieves busy; the lock should slow them down at least. The gas tank opening is boldly notched into a fender flare.
Four-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels use a simple cross pattern, and are fitted with P255/65R16 tires on the 2WD SE (like our test model); 4WD models come with wider and taller 265/70R16 tires. The supercharged SC, either 2WD or 4WD, is planted to the ground with tires that are both tall and wide, P265/55R17.
Crew Cab beds are about 20 inches shorter than standard Frontier beds. The Crew Cab bed holds just 33 cubic feet of cargo space, compared with 45.7 cubic feet for a Regular Cab model and 44.1 cubic feet for the remaining models. About 16 inches of length can be regained with an optional bed extender, a hinged aluminum rack that effortlessly flips back 180 degrees to frame the end of the lowered tailgate. Flip the bed extender forward, close the tailgate, and it provides a contained area for groceries or other small cargo. When you want it out of the way, the bed extender is quickly removed. (Unlike a solid tailgate, however, the bed extender won't hold back dirt or anything that can slip between the aluminum tubes.)
On the roof is a beefy tubular rack, first featured on the Xterra; it can be fitted with Yakima attachments to carry skis, snowboards and mountain bikes. Additionally, a bed-mounted bike rack is available.
The engine compartment is tidy and roomy, and everything looks well balanced and accessible. The hood closes with a solid thunk, as do the four doors.
The new instrument panel is striking, although it probably won't be universally appreciated. Its background color is two-tone titanium; picture dark stainless steel. At night the numbers illuminate, but because they're outlined in white instead of being bold, they're difficult to read. The tachometer stretches to 8000 rpm despite the engine's 4800 rpm power peak, with a redline beginning at 6000 and running in a big pointless streak to eight grand. The digital clock is positioned so it's virtually impossible to read in the sunlight, and the little green lights indicating air conditioning are too dim and tiny to read.
The console layout is tidy and handsome. A new CD changer holds six CDs, which can be selected with the six radio station buttons. There are two cool buttons for the emergency flashers and rear window defogger, rectangular and totally flat on the face of the panel. The heater controls are three big switches with wings. Silver trim surrounding the center console adds little to the design. There are front and rear auxiliary DC outlets in addition to the cigarette lighter, and big fixed cupholders front and rear. There's another tray ideal for a cellphone forward of the shift lever. There are three grab handles for climbing in and out-the driver can use the steering wheel-and available running boards make the step up easy. Radio and cruise controls are located on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, with wide spokes located at 3, 9, 5 and 7 o'clock. The whole padded center is the horn, the best and safest operation because of quick access.
Leather is available in the Crew Cab, and our black leather seats were truly excellent. During a three-day trip of many hours in the saddle, my wife and I and two boys in the back seat, ages 5 and 3, were perfectly comfortable. My back, butt, and legs were free of aches, as there was plenty of room to move about. The boys were both in child safety seats; the Crew Cab provides for the secure installation of a child safety seat, something that can't always be found in extended cabs. Bigger people find little legroom in back. Technically it's a five-seater, but don't count on it. Don't count on even two adults being comfortable for long in the back seat if they're taller than five-foot-two.
The rear and backseat windows are privacy glass, standard, with a rear window defogger. The optional flip-up sunroof ventilates, but doesn't fully open to the sky; it's covered from the inside with a removable headliner, with plastic tabs.
Our trip covered 720 miles in 72 hours, a highly memorable tour of gorgeous eastern Oregon back roads. They were beautiful to drive: smooth, roaming, bending, isolated and having spectacular scenery-canyons, mountains, rivers, forests and plateaus. A good time was had by all, which says something about the Frontier. Not many vehicles can contain five- and three-year-old boys in the back seat for three days of hard driving, and enable everyone to climb out happy.
The hard driving was memorable because it was so enjoyable. The ride and handling of the 2WD Frontier Crew Cab were truly exceptional. It felt like a tall Nissan Maxima, more than a pickup truck. Turn-in is nimble, and the front wheels stay glued to the line. Response is quick and control steady. The rear end never feels light over bumps. It actually rides better than the Xterra sport-utility, which uses the same chassis; this is unusual as automakers usually soften the SUV when it's built on a pickup platform. The Crew Cab is a bit heavier than two-door Frontiers; its 56-44 weight distribution is marginally better than the King Cab's 57-43. The Crew Cab also gets a rear stabilizer bar in addition to the standard front stabilizer bar. Low-profile tires probably make a significant contribution to the Frontier's handling prowess.
Solid is the word that keeps coming out of our driving notes: Consistent high ratings in every aspect, can't find a single quirk or flaw. Tight, smooth, consistent. The anti-lock brakes do the job, although the Frontier uses less-expensive drum brakes in the rear. The four-speed automatic transmission upshifts sharply, as smoothly as an expensive sedan when your foot's on the floor, and doesn't hunt a lot when the engine is being challenged on hills.
The standard 3.3-liter V6 accelerates with reasonable lightness, and a steady 70 mph comes at just 2700 rpm. But the engine growls like it's working pretty hard when the automatic transmission kicks down to tackle a hill. The 170 horses pulling this 3916-pound truck will be enough for most people, but more power is always nice. Nissan offers another 40 horsepower for sale ($1250), with the Eaton-supercharged SC. We spent about an hour in a 4WD SC Frontier and can't say we were blown away by the difference in acceleration.
But an hour isn't enough time to compare all aspects; imagine the improvement in towing, for example, with 31 or 46 more foot-pounds of torque. And if Nissan is correct in targeting the 2001 Frontier mostly to young men (all you need to know is that Nissan has long provided trucks to 'Baywatch,' including, appropriately, a lot of the old Hardbody models), and if the 2WD is the hot rod, the supercharger for $1250 might be a given. But it's hard to get too excited, considering the normally aspirated 4.0-liter SOHC V6 engine in the Ford Sport Trac virtually matches the power, torque, and powerband of the supercharged Nissan 3.3-liter, while being mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, not just a four-speed. So it could be said that the Nissan 3.3 engine needs a supercharger just to keep up with the Ford 4.0. The Explorer Sport Trac is heavier and more expensive, however.
Nissan's reputation for compact truck leadership remains on solid ground with a bold 2001 lineup of Frontier pickups. The styling looks great and our Crew Cab model performed like a sports sedan. The worst things we can say about the new Frontier Crew Cab are that backseat legroom is lacking and the digital clock is hard to read in daylight.
XE, SE, SC.
Options As Tested
Deluxe Package ($599) includes cruise control, tilt steering, six-disc CD changer and steering wheel-mounted audio controls.
SE V6 Crew Cab 4x2 ($20,199).
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