The Nissan Frontier

Review Notes: Nissan Frontier
A real truck lover's pickup
Unusual features
Supercharged six, not hiding truckiness
Pontiac-style body cladding, inane handbrake
Above Average In:
Acceleration (supercharged version), mechanical feel, fun
Needs Work In:
Gas mileage, standard-engine power, stereo controls, handbrake

The Nissan Frontier goes against the modern trend of making trucks look and feel like cars inside. There's no mistaking the truckiness of this pickup. It feels more like a full-size than the compact it is. Part of that is exterior styling - lots of tacked-on body cladding and an aggressive nose - and part is the overall feel, from the torquey, supercharged V-6 engine to the gruff, mechanical feel. Those are by no means complaints - there are those who like their trucks to feel like trucks.

The clean, corporate instrument panel, familiar to Nissan owners, features black on grey gauges, backlit at night with a brownish light. It is pleasant but can be hard to read at times. Most controls are sensibly designed and easy to use. Our manual-transmission model featured two gearshifts, one for the transmission and the other for going into 4x4 mode. The gearshift was tall, with a clear mechanical feel and a firm throw. It's an enjoyable throwback.

The stereo has rather difficult controls, but the vent system is easy to figure out and use. The side demisters are fast and well designed.

Our main complaint with the cabin is actually the inane throwback of a handbrake, a design we have not seen in other vehicles for quite some time. To set the emergency brake, you pull a handle; to release it, you have to push a button and twist while moving it back in. A foot-operated emergency brake would be far better, since it would be easier to set and release, and since feet have more strength, drivers would be sure to set the brakes firmly.

There are three front cupholders, designed for mugs with slots for the handles. One is very large, presumably for Big Gulps. The small center compartment includes an armrest, and there are map pockets and a sunglass bay. There is lots of room behind the seats, but it is hard to access. On the lighter side, it is easy to strap in a child seat, and the bright interior lighting can be handy.

The supercharged engine provides a gratifying feeling of power, though the other engines do not quite come up to their best competitors - the Chevy S-10 / GMC Sonoma. Acceleration tests of the supercharged Frontier bely the feeling of power and acceleration given by the blown six. Those satisfying feelings are set back a little at the gas station, where premium fuel is required, and gas mileage isn't much better than the higher-capacity Dodge Dakota's regular-fuel V8. We suspect that an upcoming Chevy pickup, reputedly to be equipped with the thrifty yet powerful 4.2 liter straight six, will have an even better power-to-thirst ratio.

Overall, the Frontier is a pickup for truck lovers, with a refreshing mechanical feel and a wonderful brute-force engine. On paper, it is not as practical as the more refined S-10 or Dakota, but in test drives, it's pretty lovable - in a tough, macho sort of way. If you find that other pickups have gotten to tame, give the Frontier a spin.