The 2017 Nissan Frontier is up against a tough field of mid-size trucks, among them the recently redesigned Toyota Tacoma, GMC Canyon, and Chevrolet Colorado, and the new Honda Ridgeline. The Frontier offers up price, size, and a reputation for ruggedness.
Price is the main motivator here, with a similarly equipped Frontier retailing for $5000 less than those others. But its design is a decade old, and it shows, inside, outside, and under the hood.
The Frontier is a truck with many faces and personalities. There are five models, in extended cab or crew cab, beds that are 60 inches long or 74 inches long, a choice between four-cylinder engine or V6, two manual transmissions and one automatic; 4×2 or 4×4. You can get a Frontier equipped as a vanilla work truck, or a Desert Runner, or a chunky-tired and lifted PRO-4X.
Base engine is a 2.5-liter four making 152 horsepower; it’s cheaper to buy but it won’t pull like the V6 and doesn’t get much better fuel mileage. The 4.0-liter V6 makes 261 horsepower and 281 pound-foot of torque, with as much grunt as some V8s, the small ones. Frontiers are rated to tow 6000 pounds or more.
The Crew Cab is a true four-door. The King Cab’s rear doors are hinged at the rear, and open up to the rear seats that are better for cargo than people. The bed of the King Cab measures 73.3 inches, while the Crew Cab’s bed is 59.5 inches, with the longer bed available. That setup would stretch the Frontier from it’s normal 205.5 inches to 219.4 inches.
With rear-wheel drive and the four-cylinder engine, there’s a five-speed manual transmission or five-speed automatic. With the V6 and 2wd, it’s a six-speed manual or the automatic. Four-wheel drive only comes with the V6.
All Frontiers use the same suspension design, double wishbones in front and leaf springs in rear, with a solid axle (stamp of the 10-year-old design). But the upgrades can get showy, for example the Bilstein dampers and locking diff on the Desert Runner or Pro-4X.
The Frontier loses the fuel-mileage competition for midsize trucks. The 2wd four-cylinder with the six-speed manual gets 19 mpg city, 23 highway, and 21 combined. The more popular five-speed automatic transmission brings the combined mpg down to 19.
That’s the same combined mpg as the V6 with rear-wheel drive and the manual, and only one more mpg than the V6 with the automatic. The 4WD gets 1 mpg less with each transmission.
Despite its dated design, the Frontier’s crash-testing scores aren’t bad. The NHTSA hasn’t tested the Frontier, but the IIHS gives it top Good scores for all the tests it performed, with an Acceptable in head-restraint. The Frontier offers no crash-avoidance features.
There are five trim levels: S, SV, SL, Desert Runner and PRO-4X. Those five models can extend into no less than 28 iterations, depending on engine, transmission, 2WD or 4WD, cabin style and bed length. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
Frontier S King Cab ($18,390) is basic, with roll-up windows and manual mirrors, although air conditioning, cruise control and Bluetooth are standard. Frontier S Crew Cab ($23,900) replaces the standard 2.5-liter four cylinder with the 4.0-liter V6.
Frontier SV ($22,860) and SV V6 ($24,620) add remote entry and alloy wheels, and offers options like heated seats.
Frontier SL Crew Cab ($32,510) includes the V6 and adds more options like a moonroof and Rockford Fosgate audio system.
The Frontier Desert Runner ($26,630) is rear-wheel drive only, with a rugged suspension and styling. The Pro-4X ($32,340) is four-wheel drive, and has more options.
Options include a rearview camera, spray-in bedliner and cargo tie-down system.
The Frontier looks brawny, with its swelling and curving fenders. The nose, with its massive chrome grille, appears to be an afterthought.
Compared to the superb GM trucks, the Nissan cabin lacks warmth or charm. It’s simple and clean, but also boxy and old, heavy on hard plastic. The center console has no significant storage, just some shallow slots. The leather in the SL and PRO-4X models is high quality.
The front seats are very comfortable, although most models don’t have a height adjustment, so drivers with long legs may be short on legroom. It’s easy to climb in and out. Forward visibility is excellent.
The rear seats in the King Cab are only good for short distances, while in the Crew Cab there’s better legroom, although still tight at the shoulders and elbows if there are three back there, and the seats are rigidly upright.
The 2.5-liter four-cylinder Frontier is quick enough around town, but it strains to keep up with freeway traffic.
The truck changes its character quite dramatically with the 4.0-liter V6 that thrums at idle. Its 261 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque make it downright quick when the bed is empty, and up to the job when the bed is loaded, including towing up to 6500 pounds. The majority of V6 Frontiers will have the five-speed automatic. The five-speed manual works well with the engine’s power and torque curve, and while the six-speed manual offers a taller top gear for cruising at lower revs, the throws are long.
The Frontier’s ride is best in the two offroad models, the Desert Runner and PRO-4X. That can only be because of the Bilstein dampers and bigger tires, never mind that they’re all-terrain tires. If you drive a lot on gravel roads, it may pay to get the Desert Runner or PRO-4X.
As for handling and maneuverability, a lot depends on the cab and bed, the overall length of the vehicle. The direct steering makes the Frontier entertaining, and the suspension does a good job of keeping the truck under control. But it is harsh and even choppy over rough pavement, especially with an empty bed.
The Frontier’s four-wheel-drive system, unlike some all-wheel-drive vehicles, isn’t intended for dry pavement, but rather off-road. The Pro-X is king there, with its locking rear differential.
The Frontier doesn’t measure up against the newer midsize truck competition. It gets down to the price. And since the four-cylinder doesn’t measure up to the V6, that too becomes all about the price. Crunch the numbers when you compare.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.