Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Still out front in the compact-pickup field.
Nissan's Frontier pickup offers a lot of excitement, with bold, industrial styling and an optional supercharged engine.
Frontier continues to be a leader in innovation among compat pickups. Last year, the Nissan Frontier became the first compact pickup that didn't force you to give up bed length in order to gain a full-size back seat. The Crew Cab model is available with either a 4-foot-8-inch bed or a standard-length 6-foot bed.
Now the 2003 Frontier is also the first compact pickup to offer electronic stability control, and the first to offer a tire-pressure monitoring system.
Nissan claims more than a dozen enhancements for 2003. Among them: Frontier's optional 3.3-liter V6 engine is more powerful and gets better gas mileage.
Nissan builds Frontier in nearly three dozen possible permutations of cab style, bed length, driveline, and trim level. Retail prices range from $12,989 to $26,939. Frontier does not, however, offer what most pickup manufacturers call a standard cab. Instead, buyers choose between extended King Cab or four-door Crew Cab. King Cabs have two doors, front bucket seats and additional seating for two passengers in fold-down rear jump seats. King Cab beds are 74.6 inches long (6 feet, 2.6 inches).
Crew Cab models come with something closer to a standard-size back seat and four full-size, forward-hinged doors. To keep its overall length compact, the standard Frontier Crew Cab features a shorter-than-standard 56.3-inch bed (4 feet, 8.3 inches). But the Long Bed Crew Cab, introduced last year, comes with the same 74.6-inch bed as the King Cab. The longer bed addresses one of the biggest drawbacks to the new breed of compact crew cab pickups. In the past, buyers have had to accept a short bed to gain real back seats. That's not an issue for many buyers, but those who need a long bed really need a long bed. Nissan says most Frontier buyers choose the Crew Cab, with half of those buying the short bed, half buying the long bed.
Three engines are available: The 3.3-liter single-cam V6 is rated 180 horsepower (10 more than last year) and 202 pounds-feet of torque. A supercharged V6 increases output to 210 horsepower and 246 pounds-feet (231 lb.-ft. with manual transmission). A 2.4-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine is available only with a 2WD King Cab XE, rated 143 hp and 154 lbs.-ft. of torque.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard with all three engines. A four-speed automatic is optional. Automatic transmission is standard on supercharged Crew Cabs. 2WD and 4WD are available with V6-powered Frontiers.
XE base-level trim is pretty basic. Power steering is included but even air conditioning is an option ($1199, which includes a radio and CD player). XE has 15-inch painted steel wheels and single-channel ABS for the rear wheels only.
SE comes with air conditioning, audio, and cruise control; four-wheel, three-channel ABS; automatic transmission; 16-inch alloy wheels; tilt steering with a leather-wrapped wheel; power windows; and other amenities. SE prices start at $20,569 for the King Cab, $22,289 for the Crew Cab.
Supercharged Frontiers are designated S/C and come with most SE equipment, plus 17-inch aluminum wheels with P265/55R17 (4x2) or P265/65R17 (4x4) BF Goodrich Rugged Trail tires, specially tuned suspension with raised ground clearance for 4x4 models, limited-slip differential, 100-watt AM/FM/CD audio system and titanium-colored gauges. S/C prices start at $20,819 for the King Cab and $23,789 for the Crew Cab. Leather-appointed bucket seats with red-on-charcoal stitching are an exclusive S/C option. New for 2003 is the Frontier SVE (for Supercharged Value Edition), a premium supercharged 4x4 model starting at $21,409 for the King Cab and $24,419 for the Crew Cab.
Desert Runner is based on the 4x2 King Cab V6 and emulates the specially prepared trucks used by teams to pre-run big desert races. Like those trucks, Desert Runners have two-wheel drive, but feature the same heavy-duty chassis, ride height and stance as the rugged 4x4 models. Nissan claims that the Desert Runner is roughly 500 pounds lighter than a standard Frontier King Cab V6 4x4 (eliminating four-wheel-drive alone saves 296 pounds), giving it the best power-to-weight ratio of any Frontier pickup. Desert Runners come with fender flares, skid plates for the engine and fuel tank, a full-size spare and four-wheel ABS. Special badges distinguish Desert Runner models, which are available in XE, SE, and S/C trim.
Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) with traction control ($749 on XE, $549 on SE and S/C) is a new option for 2003 Frontier 4x4s. VDC controls brake pressure and engine torque automatically to reduce understeer or oversteer in slippery sit.
Nissan Frontier is a compact truck with a big, bold design, starting with an industrial-grade front end that looks like a cross between a power tool and a boxing glove. This truck won't go unnoticed, like the relatively bland Toyota Tacoma.
That powerful look includes a 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 emphasize 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. 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. The gas tank opening is boldly notched into the right rear fender flare.
Around back you'll find a standard tailgate lock, 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.
XE models have 15-inch wheels (alloys if they are V6-powered) shod in P225/70R15 rubber (P265/70R15 with the V6). SE models roll on six-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels, a new design this year. They wear P255/65R16 tires on the 2WD SE; SE 4WD and SVE models come with wider and taller 265/70R16 tires. The S/C is planted to the ground with P265/55R17s in 2WD mode, P265/65R17s with 4WD.
Crew Cab short bed holds just 33 cubic feet of cargo space, compared with 44.1 cubic feet for the remaining models.
With either bed, you can gain about 16 inches of length 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 can be quickly removed. Unlike a solid tailgate, however, the bed extender won't hold back dirt or anything that can slip between its 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. A bed-mounted bike rack is also available.
The engine compartment is tidy and roomy, and everything looks well balanced and accessible. SE and supercharged models now come with a heavy-duty 100-amp alternator and an under-hood junction outlet for easy wiring of aftermarket accessories. The hood closes with a solid thunk, as do the four doors.
Nissan Frontier's interior is comfortable and effuses an industrial look that complements its exterior.
Front seats are comfortable and supportive. Leather is available in the Crew Cab. The leather seats are truly excellent. Long trips are comfortable for front-seat occupants.
The console layout is tidy and handsome. The 2003 center dash and instrument panel represent a big improvement over the silver plastic used two years ago. The instrument panel is striking with a two-tone titanium-colored background. At night the numbers illuminate, but because they're outlined in white instead of being bold, they're difficult to read. 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.
The 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, easy to operate while wearing gloves.
There are front and rear auxiliary DC outlets in addition to the cigarette lighter. Big fixed cup holders are provided front and rear. The front cup holders on the center console work well. There's another tray ideal for a cell phone forward of the shift lever. Three grab handles are provided for climbing in and out, and available running boards make the step up easy. Radio and cruise controls are located on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, with wide spokes positioned at 3, 9, 5 and 7 o'clock. The whole padded center of the wheel is a horn button, the best and safest arrangement because of the quick access it provides.
Technically, the Crew Cab is 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. Getting in and out of the back seat is awkward for adults, as they have to swing their feet around the B-pillars behind the front seats. The rear seat space is tight in terms of leg room and knee room, but there is good head room and elbow room, and children seem to find the space comfortable enough. There are provisions back there for the installation of a child safety seat, something that can't always be found in extended cabs.
A rear-window defogger is standard in the Crew Cab; so is privacy glass for the rear side windows. An optional flip-up sunroof provides some ventilation but doesn't open fully to the sky.
Nissan's Frontier rides and handles very well, for a truck. It feels nimble in corners, and the steering is responsive. The front wheels stay glued to the road when cornering and the rear end never feels light over bumps. It rides like a truck, and you can feel road vibration through the steering wheel and the seat of your pants.
'Solid' is the word that kept appearing in our driving notes, along with 'tight' and 'smooth.' Consistent high ratings in every respect, without a single quirk or flaw.
The Crew Cab is a bit heavier than two-door Frontiers. With its standard short bed, its 56/44 weight distribution is marginally better than the King Cab's 57/43, although that advantage disappears when you order the long bed. Two-wheel-drive Crew Cabs also get 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.
The anti-lock brakes do their job, although the Frontier uses less-expensive drum brakes in the rear.
The four-speed automatic transmission upshifts sharply, but as smoothly as an expensive sedan's when your foot's on the floor. The automatic 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 hard when the automatic transmission kicks down to tackle a hill. The 180 horses pulling this 3989-pound truck will be enough for most people, but more power is always nice.
The supercharged version of this engine improves acceleration performance, but it doesn't make the Frontier a hot rod. Still, the additional 44 pounds-feet of torque should improve towing performance.
Nissan Frontier offers bold styling and innovative design. These trucks handle well and the optional supercharged engine delivers decent performance. Frontier comes with a comfortable cabin. The Crew Cab increases versatility, though back-seat legroom is lacking.
King Cab XE ($12,989); King Cab SE ($20,569); King Cab S/C ($20,819); King Cab SVE ($21,409); Crew Cab XE ($18,439); Crew Cab SE ($22,289); Crew Cab S/C ($23,789); Crew Cab SVE ($24,419).
Options As Tested
Premium Package ($1499) includes Rockford Fosgate 300-watt audio system, 9 speakers including subwoofer, 6-disc CD changer, leather seats, security system.
Crew Cab S/C 4x2 with 6-foot bed ($24,339).
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