2012 Nissan Frontier Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Sturdy midsize pickup with ample power and features.
The 2011 Nissan Frontier is a midsize pickup truck that offers notably good power, admirable handling and able towing capacity. A wide variety of cab and trim levels offers plenty of options for perspective buyers. Engine choices include a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 152 horsepower and is EPA-rated at 19 mpg city/23 mpg highway with the manual transmission, and a hefty 4.0-liter V6 capable of 261hp that's rated at 20 mpg on the highway in the two-wheel drive version.
The Frontier is a stylish truck, yet it's clearly meant for work. In front is a distinctive grille and pronounced fender flares that give it a certain robust appeal. Inside is a continuation of the purposeful look, with all the controls in places that make them easy to reach and operate.
The ride is good with all models, and the handling is tight and fairly nimble. On gravel roads, we found the 4WD works well and enhances traction and control.
Two body styles are offered on the 2011 Nissan Frontier: a King (extended) Cab with rearward-opening rear doors and flip-down seats, and a Crew Cab with a conventional four-door layout and a 60/40-split-folding bench that seats three. All King Cab trims have a six-foot cargo bed, while Crew Cab models offer five- or six-foot bed lengths.
For 2011, the names and features of some of the trim levels have changed, although the model itself remains the same. Trim levels on the 2011 Nissan Frontier are primarily the same across both King Cab and Crew Cab models, except Crew Cab models are only available with the larger engine. All trims except for the base S are available with four-wheel drive. Maximum towing capacity on the 2011 Nissan Frontier is 6,500 pounds and top payload capacity of slightly more than 1,500 pounds.
Frontier S ($18,200) has a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine on King Cab models and a 4.0-liter V6 on Crew Cabs. It comes standard with a 5-speed manual transmission, 15-inch steel wheels, manually operated windows, front bucket seats and cloth upholstery. You'll need to pony up for the S Preferred package to get air-conditioning and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player. Other options include a 5-speed automatic transmission, a bed liner, bed extender, splash guards and floor mats.
Frontier SV ($21,380) bumps up to 16-inch steel wheels on models with the four-cylinder engine and alloy wheels on the V6. Both get better tires, a chrome front bumper, a sliding rear window, keyless entry, cruise control, full power accessories, upgraded cloth upholstery and a tilt-adjustable steering wheel. Options for the SV include a Premium Utility package, which comes with a spray-in bed liner, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, steering wheel-mounted controls, Bluetooth and an upgraded six-speaker stereo system with satellite radio and a six-disc CD player. Models with the four-cylinder engines have the same transmission choices as the S. The V6 models come standard with a six-speed manual or an optional 5-speed automatic. All-wheel drive is available on this trim level.
Frontier PRO-4X ($26,620) is designed for serious off-roading and includes 16-inch alloy wheels, off-road tires, Bilstein off-road shocks, a locking rear differential, fog lights, underbody skid plates and a spray-in bed liner with tie-downs. Inside, the 2011 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X gets a leather-wrapped steering wheel, distinctive interior trim and gauges, a trip computer, built-in first aid kit and an upgraded Rockford Fosgate audio system. The optional Luxury package adds a roof rack and cross bars, a sunroof, heated mirrors, leather upholstery, a rear armrest and heated power front seats.
Frontier SL ($28,880), only available on Crew Cab models, comes with 18-inch alloy wheels and includes most of the luxury options available on the PRO-4X, but does not have the rugged mechanical upgrades such as the off-road suspension and tires.
Safety equipment on all 2011 Nissan Frontier models includes two-stage front airbags, side-impact airbags, side-curtain airbags, a tire-pressure monitor and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution. Crew Cab models have three-point seat belts for all rear-seat occupants, including the center position, plus the LATCH child seat anchor system. All 2011 Nissan Frontiers equipped with the V6 engine also get standard traction control.
There's a family resemblance between the midsize Nissan Frontier and the full-size Titan, but the Frontier is two feet shorter and feels like it. After climbing out of a Titan, the Frontier seems like a nice, tidy size that is perfectly suited to most light to moderate jobs.
The grille, headlights and front fascia convey an assertive look. The fender flares are big and smooth. The front end is clean, and the wheels have a lot of style. The Crew Cab looks rugged and purposeful with the optional roof rack.
The available Utili-track Bed Channel tie-down system uses five rails (two on the floor and one on each side and forward bulkhead) and cleats that slide in the channels, and allows all kinds of cargo to be tied securely in place.
The interior is comfortable and well arranged, with good rugged standard fabric upholstery (the PRO-4X trim has stylish red stitching on its black fabric seats). The King Cab's wide-opening auxiliary doors give access to the two small folding seats, while the four-door Crew Cab's rear bench offers decent comfort but limited legroom – pretty standard, though, for a midsize pickup.
The front seat layout is excellent. Gauges are attractive and easy to read, and controls are nicely laid-out and well within reach. The center console is deep, and there are lots of other places for storage, including cubbies forward of the shift lever, cupholders galore and a very thoughtful dual-level glovebox. Not to be left out, rear-seat passengers get cupholders, map pockets, grab handles, and an optional folding center armrest.
The steering wheel has short sturdy stalks, and there are convenient grab handles on the A pillars. The vinyl dashboard is less attractive in brown, but just fine in black. The bucket seats fit well; hours could be spent in them pleasurably, presuming they're not all off-road hours, but even if they were, the PRO-4X would make the time bearable.
While the Nissan Frontier makes the Titan feel huge, we must say the Frontier never felt too small. On the road, the 261 hp V6 engine has very strong acceleration. The five-speed automatic transmission shifts in and out of fifth gear frequently, even at fairly low speeds during casual driving, but always smoothly and often invisibly. A manual mode would be useful, but isn't available.
The 281 pound-feet of torque isn't fully there at lower RPMs, so you do have to put your foot down to find all the power. Unfortunately, that takes its toll on gas mileage. With four-wheel drive and an automatic transmission, the Nissan Frontier is EPA-rated at 14 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway.
Those looking for improved fuel economy might opt for the four-cylinder engine with manual transmission, which earns an EPA rating of 19 mpg city/23 mpg highway. It's available in a nicely equipped SE King Cab, so this might be a choice for a buyer who doesn't need a whole lot of power.
Handling on the Nissan Frontier is good, tight, and never flabby, doesn't wallow. On the highway, it didn't feel like we were driving a big truck. Driving off-road on fire trails was no problem, thanks in part to good, supportive seats. On gravel roads, however, riding as a passenger in a 4WD King Cab, we found things a bit rough.
On a closed off-road course, we used 4WD in its low range to get over some ridges and ruts, and found that it allowed higher speeds than some other systems; but also found that it wasn't really needed except in the most extreme situations, because 4WD in high range is good. The Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist systems were also useful.
The Nissan Frontier offers a lot for a midsize truck: namely, power, payload capacity and towing capability, though with a price in fuel mileage. Off-road, the Frontier is very capable. It rides and steers well on gravel roads in 4WD, and on pavement, its ride is nice and its handling is tight. In the midsize truck segment, the 2011 Nissan Frontier is a top contender in size, performance and price.
Nissan Frontier King Cab S ($18,200), King Cab SV ($21,380), King Cab SV V6 ($21,970), King Cab PRO-4X ($26,620), Crew Cab S ($22,210), Crew Cab SV ($23,220), Crew Cab PRO-4X ($27,360), Crew Cab SL ($28,880).
Options As Tested
PRO-4X Value Truck Package ($1,970), Moonroof and Roof Rack Package ($900).
Nissan Frontier Crew Cab Pro-4X 4WD ($29,060).
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