Small pickups occupy an odd and oft forgotten spot in the over-hyped, Biggie-Sized truck segment, but making a case for their existence remains easy. Not everyone needs a larger vehicle or has the space for a full-size truck, and small pickups offer the utility weekend warriors require without necessitating an organ exchange at the pump. Although not as diminutive as their forebears, today's more compact dimensions are easier to cope with behind the wheel, and in this economy, moving down a rung in the pickup hierarchy is sure to save you a few dollars in monthly payments and insurance premiums. But is it just about a small footprint and an easy to swallow sticker? Or is just best to bite the bullet and option up for what some consider to be a "real" pickup? We test the 2009 Nissan Frontier to see if this squat truck has more than just measurements on its size to woo punch-drunk pickup buyers away from the latest and greatest in the full-size segment.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.
The Frontier is exactly what it feels like: a smaller version of the Titan. It drives with a solid and willing feel that's roughly akin to the Maxima of trucks. A 4.0-liter version of the company's ubiquitous VQ engine kicks this thing around with plenty of authority, and the real four-wheel drive rig underneath lends more billy goat ability than most buyers will ever put to use. 261 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and, more importantly, 281 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, are churned out with an authoritative voice while burning cleanly enough to earn LEV2/ULEV emissions ratings. There is a four-cylinder version of the Frontier for buyers seeking a bit better fuel economy, but our sampler was an SE-trim 4x4 with a five-speed automatic and V6.
The Frontier comes in extended King Cab or true four-door Crew Cab configurations. There's enough space in the demi-door King Cab for the average buyer, with plenty of storage cubbies and a roomier feel than even a full-sizer from 15 years ago, but the jump seats are only suitable for occasional use. If truck-pooling is part of your usage brief, go right for the Crew Cab, which has the side benefit of more creature comforts than the King Cabs. The materials in our SE were good for the class, if not gobsmackingly fantastic. In the end, it's a truck, and while it can be dressed up with cushier trappings, it's still a working-class vehicle first and foremost.
While the Frontier is comfortable and easy-driving, it won't skip town in the middle of the night if challenged to a showdown – there's serious hardware here. Solid foundations are provided by the fully-boxed F-Alpha platform, the same frame that gives the full-size Titan its rigid, dare we say, sporty demeanor. Sharing the Titan's bones, it's no surprise the Frontier drives like a two-thirds scale version of its big brother, which is to say it's pleasing to gearheads who value direct steering and a communicative ride.
With a surprisingly sprightly 4,315 pound curb weight and a 58/42 weight distribution, the facts and figures sound more sporting than trucklike, and the Frontier is car-easy to drive. Fuel economy of 14 city mpg and 19 highway in the configuration we tried brings you back to full-frame, four-wheel drive reality. Four cylinder Frontiers can reach into the low 20s on the highway, though the economy is about what's expected given the specs.
Disc brakes all around are something that's becoming more common on trucks, and our Frontier arrived packing 11.7-inch rotors in front and 11.3-inchers in back. In practice, braking performance falls short, likely due to limited traction from the BFG Long Trail tires. SE four-bys get standard 16-inch alloy wheels shod with 265/70 tires. While the ride is comfortable and quiet, and there's traction for wilderness excursions, hard stabs at the brake pedal cause the rear end to skate before the ABS kicks in. The danger with the Frontier's braking performance, at least in the guise we sampled, is that there's plenty of go power and the handling borders on sporty, so it's a surprise to step on the whoa pedal and be met with a wimpy showing. The steering, however, is direct and communicative, a surprise, and the firm chassis pleasing.
The other pedal is the fun one. Squeeze the skinny treadle and the DOHC six puts its shoulder into it with a growl, delivering a firm shove ahead. While Nissan has figured out how to squeeze a V8 into the Frontier's Pathfinder platform-mate, and the Chevrolet Colorado and Dodge Dakota offer eight-pack thrills in the mid-size arena, there's no need for any more engine in the Frontier. Even the tow-crazy will have little to complain about; 4WD V6 Frontiers can drag around 6,300 pounds, slotting neatly between the Colorado's 6,000-pound maximum and the Dakota's 7,200-pound peak.
Towing and mudslinging are ways to put this puppy-friendly vehicle to work, and the Frontier laps it up without complaint. Owner complaints are likely to be few and far between, too. Consumer Reports rates the Frontier as a recommended pick and projects very good reliability. Heading off-pavement, too, is another area where the Frontier is as happy as a black Lab in a mudpuddle. Our dirt ventures were child's play for the Frontier. Dialling up low-range four-wheel drive is as easy as twisting a rotary knob, and the truck was comfortable and controllable up and down some mild terrain. Approach and departure angles aren't Wrangler-steep, but when you're poking around with a borrowed vehicle without a winch, you tend not to take extreme chances.
Nissan has carried out a naming shuffle for the hardcore offroad trim level. What used to be known as the NISMO package has been replaced by the PRO-4X for 2009. Bilstein shock absorbers, extra skid plates and a locking Dana 44 rear axle bolsters the mechanicals for stump-bumping. PRO-4X interiors are detailed with white-faced gauges, a trip computer and leather wrapping with red stitching on the steering wheel. Manual transmission equipped PRO-4X models also get a leather shift knob, and Crew Cabs with the package can also be luxed up with power-operated heated seats covered with the thematic leather. Outside, the rock-chewing Frontiers get obligatory stickering on the bedsides, along with color keyed grille, bumpers, mirrors and door handles. Foglamps, a sprayed bedliner and the Utili-Track cargo system are also part of the PRO-4X.
The trouble with mid-size trucks is that full-sizers can be had for much the same money, especially in these times of screaming deals on just about anything. Our well-equipped tester started at $24,110 and was equipped with the SE Value Truck Package for $1,330 that added the SE Power Package of keyless entry, power windows, locks, and mirrors, plus cruise control. Also in the SE VTP is a brake-based limited slip, 16-inch alloy wheels, bedliner and floor mats. Safety was tuned up with the $550 airbag package that fits seat-mounted side bags and roof-mounted side curtain bags into the Frontier, and Nissan also requested $745 for destination charges for a grand total of $26,735. That kind of money will easily put you into an F-150, Silverado, Tundra or even Titan. It would be a stretch, however, to get into one of those bigger pickups for the same price as our Frontier with an extended cab and four-wheel drive, let alone the other niceties included in the value package.
Well-equipped and reasonably priced, with options for both luxury and rock-hopping, the Frontier covers a lot of bases. It's handsomely styled, even if it's not the freshest face on the block, and Nissan's entry-level truck identity has matured to the point where it's got a purposeful, bulldog stance that comes off as both rugged and dignified. The Frontier's well-behaved chassis handles driver inputs better than some cars we've sampled, and although our biggest gripes are centered on the Frontier's fuel economy, braking performance and bed size – likely sacrificed at the altar of human comfort – is a reasonable tradeoff for a daily driver.
For those who appreciate performance, the Frontier may well be the only choice in pickups. Among a class that includes such varied choices as the Ridgeline, Ranger, a Chevrolet with a V8 similar to what you'll find in a Corvette, and the Dakota with its uber-punchy eight-cylinder mill, the Frontier scraps successfully as a well-rounded offering, continuing to prove that good things can come in small packages.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.