When Nissan announced a few months ago that the 2021 Frontier would be all-new, I was pretty intrigued. After all, the current Frontier has been virtually the same for over a decade and a half. Yeah, 16 years to be exact. When it launched in its present form at the Detroit Auto Show in 2004 for the 2005 model year, my oldest child wasn’t even walking yet. Now she’s trying to decide which colleges to apply to in the fall.
But Nissan is throwing the market a big bone for the 2020 model, with the one year only introduction/availability of a new engine that will power that NEXT Frontier, due to be launched for 2021. While the 2020 was introduced at the Chicago Auto Show with this engine earlier this year and we wrote about it then, we assumed it would soon be available, alas, the coronavirus threw a wrench into those works and as such there are no 2020 models available at dealers as of yet, however the folks at Nissan were kind enough to arrange one for me to play with for a week after I expressed interest.
Hopefully Nissan will be able to safely re-open its factories soon and start pumping out 2020 Frontiers from the one in Canton, Mississippi as this new engine is quite the peach and frankly I was charmed by the truck itself for various other reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I’m looking forward to seeing the new one and have gazed at an updated version that has been sold in other markets for several years (Mexico for one, sometimes I see them up in my neck of the woods) that isn’t representative of the 2021 either, but really the current Frontier is kind of like a familiar acquaintance although I don’t recall ever having driven one before.
As the pictures make obvious, this tester is the “PRO-4X” edition which sits not quite atop the line-up (S, SV, PRO-4X, SL) and is their most off-roady model. While all 2020 Frontiers will get the new V6 engine, the 4-cylinder has apparently been discontinued as has the manual transmission option. However, the old 5-speed automatic has been replaced with the 9-speed from the new Titan, although with slightly different gear ratios.
As far as the engine goes, it’s now a direct-injected 3.8liter V6 instead of the old 4.0 and while HP increased to 310 (formerly 261), the torque figure magically remains the same at 281 lb ft. Part of the VQ family, the vast majority of components are new and it was designed specifically for the North American market. Some of our international readers may well be familiar with the Frontier as the Navara and usually equipped with a diesel engine, however we have not been and will not be receiving it in that form.
My truck was equipped as a Crew Cab model and the shorter of the two bed options (the only bed option on the PRO-4X) and as far as I could tell was loaded, insofar as a truck dating back so far can be. While aspects of it have been updated over the years, in other respects it’s definitely dated compared to the more modern competition, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on your perspective as we shall discuss.
However, let’s look at the positives first. Styling-wise, to my eyes, it looks good, very purposeful and chunky, and with an obvious kinship to the last body on frame Pathfinder as well as the original Titan, both of which launched around the same time as this did but also have been significantly revised at least once since then (and now twice for the Titan).
The seating position is high and chair-like; as opposed to the Tacoma for example, your legs actually bend at the knee and while there is a lot of legroom available to stretch out it’s also possible to sit much like you would in your dining room. The windows are expansive, the pillars not overly intrusive, and the hood is visible from the driver’s seat. Starting the truck is now done via a “Start Engine” button next to the shifter so the key can stay in your pocket although you do need the fob to unlock and lock the doors.
Everything on the dashboard is easily legible and within reach, the infotainment screen is integrated so well that its relatively diminutive screen looks just right and works either by touch or voice command. The dashboard itself as well as most other surfaces are unapologetically hard plastic. The only soft bits that I could feel were as follows: Steering wheel, shift knob, seats, center console lid for the right elbow and a door pull cushion for the left elbow and finally a small patch of (p)leather on the upper door panel that is in just the right place.
I suppose another seven letter word for plastic of the hard variety would be spelled d-u-r-a-b-l-e and when I thought about it as well as what I was actually touching repeatedly in the truck, the soft bits were in exactly the right places. One of the two 12V outlets visible on the lower right of the center stack has been converted to hold both a USB as well as an AUX port. There are two gloveboxes, upper and lower, a small oddments tray ahead of the shifter, two cup holders and a large center bin under your elbow.
The seats themselves were extremely comfortable and in my case leather covered as well as powered. I grew a little alarmed when I didn’t find a powered knob for lumbar support (so spoiled) but then subconsciously remembered back to my youth and somehow muscle memory moved my hand to the inside edge of the backrest above the center console bin and lo and behold there was the manual lumbar adjustment lever that Japan Inc. often used. A quick push forward and the lumbar was set and never needed again.
The back seat is never going to be as roomy as that of a full size truck, granted, and the back doors are a little on the smaller side, sort of like in an XJ Cherokee, but that’s the norm with these mid-sizers in general.
However in the interests of my dear readers I placed myself back there and was about as comfortable as I figured I might be, i.e. my size (6’1″ with 32″ inseam, 215 or so pounds) is pretty much the outer limits of even remote comfort with my knees splayed but still touching and my head touching the headliner (which did contain a sunroof mechanism as well which did NOT get in the way in the front seat). Smaller adults or high-school kids that don’t play basketball or football should still be fine back there for moderate if not long distances.
Or easily flip the seats up via a lever for a good sized storage area with some handy built-in cubby spaces which is how I mostly used it. The rear seat is split 60/40 so a passenger could still be carried along with cargo.
The various buttons on the lower center console are themselves welcome reminders of the past; the heated seats are controlled by actual rocker switches, none of this soft touch or especially that haptic nonsense here. Click up for low and click down for high, either way just one little light illuminates and you look at the position of the switch or evaluate the burning sensation from your behind to tell if it’s on low or high.
The other buttons operate similarly and even the steering wheel has older “paddle”-style selectors, just like my 2004 Murano did – it may in fact be the same wheel design. But it worked then and it works now.
Instrumentation is of the “enough” variety with also a charmingly dated font on a white background. That was all the rage back then and is enough now to elicit a wistful smile of what used to be. Frankly it works just fine, the orange backlighting is good as well, and there is a menu toggle that varies the displayed information at the touch of a button for the trip meters, distance to empty, average MPG, hours driven, etc.
My second day with the truck was after a night that including the following day saw us receive about 14″ of very wet snow. After unpacking the driveway, getting going wasn’t really happening in rear wheel drive, but rotating the selector knob to 4High did the trick and had us moving around the neighborhood’s unplowed streets in no time.
The moderately aggressive Hankook DynaPro AT/M tires did a very good job in the snow, but were also virtually silent on dry roads as well as grippy on wet roads. This truck only had around 2000 miles on it so I have no idea if they will get louder when more worn, but as new tires they impressed.
Driving the truck on the freeway was an experience as well, these days I seem to get the opportunity to drive a fair amount of larger trucks, but this one, while obviously smaller, still rode quite well for a body on frame truck with a stick rear axle and independent front end and the new engine was plenty powerful to keep up as well as comfortably cruise in the 80+mph range with room for more. A steady 75mph sees an RPM reading of under 2000 due to the new transmission, making for a very relaxed engine with no engine noise apparent at speed. However, it is quick to downshift as needed and the engine’s torque provides the necessary passing power.
The styling is quite blocky and while that’s realized in some wind noise (also due to the roof rack and much better with the sunroof cover closed), it also evidences itself as wind resistance. The 9-speed transmission shifts fairly imperceptibly and while it does a fair amount of shifting as needed (really, that’s the whole point as opposed to a CVT, right?) it isn’t overly intrusive or even noticeable if one is not specifically looking to notice it.
When coming to a full stop from speed, there is some downshifting that is noticed, mostly at the end of the maneuver, perhaps since this is an early model that aspect is still being fine-tuned, it’s not necessarily out of character for the type of vehicle that it is or really any kind of significant bother but on a completely objective scale is slightly more noticeable than some other 9-speeds.
I drove this truck around 300 miles over a week with a bit less than half of that on the freeway which surprisingly at this time was different than usual due to massive construction projects underway in my area resulting in long tailbacks although in general traffic was lighter than usual. The rest of the mileage was around town and in the hills above town, overall my average mpg figure was 19.6 which while not stellar is better than what the old engine would provide.
This new one is supposedly rated at 17city/23hwy/19combined so I suppose it’s in the ballpark even when equipped with the more aggressive tires. I’d imagine swoopier bodywork at the front might work another couple of mpgs into the picture here as well next year. No stop/start stuff on this truck either to help out with that aspect but lots of you don’t like that anyway.
When driving it, I kept coming back to how much it reminded me of a more civilized Jeep Wrangler of all things. The engines are fairly similar in character, the seating position is definitely headed in that direction, and the visibility is good along with a very comfortable and slightly bouncy (but fun bouncy, not annoying bouncy) ride on soft-ish tires. While even the PRO-4X likely can’t really hold a candle to a Wrangler off road, they’re both body on frame, they share the same Dana 44 rear axle and the tire choice can be the same as well.
The PRO-4X also comes equipped with Bilstein off road high pressure shocks, a locking rear differential, and skid plates for the oil pan, fuel tank, and transfer case along with the aforementioned 265/75-16 tires on attractive Alcoa wheels. This would seem to be significantly more than the vast majority of users might require on almost anything that is still an obvious trail.
As you know I like to spend a fair amount of time poking around junkyards, I really can’t recall seeing hardly any Frontiers of this body style there beyond a couple that were clearly in accidents, but none that seemed worn out as many other vehicles do. At the age of this body style that is a curious fact.
I do believe these are solidly built trucks that can last an owner a long time at a significantly lower actual price point than the obvious competitor that I shan’t name here. In fact, a quick internet search showed that there are lots of new 2019 models (albeit with the “old” engine) still available and many dealers seem to be discounting them around five figures, bringing even a high-zoot model into the mid-20k range and more basic version well under that.
Who cares about depreciation if you drive it into the ground over a decade or two, that’s a huge savings over most other trucks. Nothing on my truck was out of place or rattled or fell off; of course usually these are gone over with a fine tooth comb before I get it but after sixteen years, one would assume the assembly line would have it down. Can you imagine being an assembly line worker on this line, with virtually no need for any kind of additional training over that time span?
As this was a pre-production model it didn’t come with the usual Monroney sticker, just a price sheet with “TBD” so pricing is indeterminate at this point. However, looking at the 2019 pricing that’s still up on Nissan’s website, it looks like the PRO-4X CrewCab with the 59.5″ bed length starts at $35,585. The colors don’t cost extra (mine was “Gun Metallic”, same as the Altima last month), the Premium Package at $2,100 includes the leather appointed seats, power for the front seats, the glass moonroof, roof rack with crossbars (that’s pretty handy, actually), heated mirrors and a fold-down rear armrest with cupholders in it.
Standard items at this trim level include the Navigation System and a 10-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system that I found was able to crank some serious bass. Additionally, heated seats, stability and traction control, automatic climate control, locking tailgate, CD Player, Satellite radio, and various other minor items are also part of the deal. The back window is a manual slider, and the backup camera display is clear and crisp. All Frontiers now have power windows and locks as well as the starter button.
After the obligatory $1,095 destination charge that leaves this at around $37,685. Note that for 2019 you could still get a stick shift and save around $1,000 but being such an old model now, there does seem to be Significant with a capital “S” room to dicker which I simply have to believe is part of Nissan’s strategy in the case of the Frontier as with such a fully amortized platform there is no need to sell at anywhere near full sticker price.
I have no idea how the 2020 will fare in that regard, however many shoppers likely won’t even realize there is a difference, and I believe Nissan may just be putting this engine in this truck as sort of a trial run and in case there are bugs to be worked out that they can do so before the presumably big splash for 2021’s new model which we will hopefully be able to sample as soon as it’s available. That being said, the VQ family of engines is generally well regarded and the 9-speed was designed to be used in the heavier Titan as well, so the risk seems quite low. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this engine end up in some Titan trims as well eventually.
I did appreciate how the bed has a spray-on liner that is standard as well as the attachment rails that run around the inside of the bed. There are removable cleats that can be (and were) attached in order to provide more tie-down points. There are also several “bed-extender” devices available as well as seemingly countless other accessories.
For myself I’d perhaps go for a Frontier with the longer bed (73.3″) which would give me more room for hauling stuff as well as smooth the ride even more however likely with a worse turning circle, which I noted was already much wider than I thought it would be, resulting in a couple of slightly misjudged parking maneuvers/do-overs. With time one gets used to that but it doesn’t just whip around in a residential street. I did however really enjoy the way this version drove, as I don’t have a serious need for much off-road capability beyond 4WD, I’d need to sample some of the other trim levels to see if the PRO-4X-specific bits make a significant difference on-road but could see a well-equipped SV trim version as quite an attractive proposition.
The biggest downside of the current Frontier even with the new powertrain is likely its safety aspect. While it has airbags all over the place and likely competitive when introduced, the platform is old enough to not even have a blind spot system, never mind all the newer-fangled safety items. Nissan of course equips its newer models with all of that stuff and I’m sure the 2021 will represent on that score as well, but for now, no dice. Crash test ratings similarly are quite old and I don’t believe this one has been re-tested any time recently while the goal posts have moved several times since then.
That being said, some people don’t like that “nannying” stuff, some prefer tried and true and in many respects that’s exactly what this truck is. It’s like your dependable neighbor that’s always there to lend you his wheelbarrow, give you a lift to the mechanic to pick up your car, or offer an opinion (only) when requested. Somewhat humble but appreciated and capable. After all, many of us here wish that there were vehicles from long ago still available, well, with the Frontier, that’s mostly the case. Thank goodness it’s intrinsically a good package. And in many aspects the better for it.