The Nissan Frontier compact pickup has been marketed since 2004 with few changes along the way. Little is new for the 2018 model year, except that the Frontier S base trim level adds air conditioning, cruise control, Bluetooth, and a rearview camera to its standard-equipment list. A new Midnight Edition option package for SV Crew Cab models spruces up the body with black wheels and trim.
Frontier pickups come in five trim levels: base S, SV, Desert Runner, SL, and PRO-4X. Either an overburdened 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine or a robust 4.0-liter V6 may be installed, but the V6 is a lot more popular. The four-cylinder makes 152 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque, while the V6 whips up 261 horsepower and 281 pound-feet.
Offered only in King Cab configuration, the four-cylinder engine can mate with a 5-speed manual gearbox or a more costly 5-speed automatic transmission. With V6 power, the manual choice is a 6-speed. Rear-drive is standard, with four-wheel drive an extra-cost alternative.
Extended-cab (called King Cab) Frontiers have a 73.3-inch cargo bed, rear-hinged half doors that open after the front doors, and jump seats in back. Crew Cab models get four conventional doors, a regular rear bench, and either a short (59.5-inch) bed or the longer (73.3-inch) version.
Two models focus on off-road capability. Equipped with rear-wheel-drive, the Desert Runner has a raised suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers and oversize all-terrain tires. The four-wheel-drive PRO-4X includes a transfer case and electric locking rear differential.
Modern active-safety features, such as automatic emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring, are absent from any Frontier. Crash-testing of the 2018 Frontier by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety resulted in mixed ratings. Both body configurations scored Marginal on the small-overlap frontal-crash test for the driver’s side, but moderate-overlap and side-impact scores were Good. Head restraints were deemed Acceptable, but headlights Poor.
Testing the 2018 Crew Cab model, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave a disturbing three-star rating (out of five) for the frontal crash-test. No side-impact testing has been performed. Rollover resistance (a calculated figure) is only three-star for rear-drive models, but four stars with four-wheel drive.
Frontier S King Cab ($18,990) comes with manual or automatic ($22,660), extended-cab body, four-cylinder engine, rear-wheel drive, rear jump seats, manual windows and locks, air conditioning, rearview camera, Bluetooth, and 15-inch steel wheels. (Prices are MSRP and do not include $975 destination charge.) Frontier SV King Cab ($23,460) comes with manual or automatic ($24,510), four-cylinder engine, power windows, locks, and mirrors, plus tinted windows and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Frontier SV King Cab V6 automatic ($25,220) includes the V6 engine and 5-speed automatic. Frontier SV King Cab 4×4 automatic ($28,110) gets the V6 and four-wheel drive.
Crew Cab versions are available with four conventional doors and rear bench, plus V6 engine in Frontier S Crew Cab manual ($24,550), S Crew Cab 4×4 Automatic ($29,900), SV Crew Cab Automatic ($26,350), SV Crew Cab 4×4 manual ($32,380) and automatic ($29,540). Frontier SV Crew Cab Long Bed automatic ($28,960) gets a long cargo bed and V6 as does the SV Crew Cab Long Bed 4×4 automatic ($29,960). Frontier SL Crew Cab automatic ($33,560) has V6, power front seats, leather upholstery, heated seats, navigation, and 5.8-inch touchscreen audio with navigation. Also available: SL Crew Cab 4×4 automatic ($36,400); SL Crew Cab Long Bed 4×4 automatic ($36,800).
Desert Runner King Cab automatic ($25,900) includes the V6, rear-wheel drive, raised suspension, Bilstein shocks, and 16-inch tires. Desert Runner Crew Cab Automatic ($27,330) is similar to Desert Runner King Cab but with four conventional doors, V6, and rear-drive.
PRO-4X King Cab 4×4 Automatic ($33,030) comes with V6 engine, four-wheel drive, transfer case, and locking rear differential. PRO-4X Crew Cab 4×4 is available with manual ($32,740) or automatic ($33,790) with four conventional doors, V6 engine, and four-wheel drive.
While hardly beautiful, the Frontier feels familiar, with chunky looks that have aged reasonably well. Lower-level trims are loaded with chrome. Wheel flares help give the Frontier a suitably masculine tone. The bumper curves inward for best approach angles.
PRO-4X and Desert Runner versions cut back on chrome. A roof rack can enhance utility, but looks like an afterthought and increases wind noise. The new Midnight Edition package for SV adds black exterior accents and black 18-inch alloy wheels.
Blocky in form, if functional, the Frontier’s dashboard comes across as seriously dated, with awkward angles and strange ergonomics. Dominated by plastic, the interior conveys a sense of cheapness. Graining of trim materials is inconsistent.
Though the control layout seems simple, its appearance isn’t compelling. Audio controls sit high. Even the optional Rockford Fosgate stereo system gets a relatively small (5.8-inch) touchscreen. Infotainment components are behind the times, with small displays and lack of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity.
Front seats rank around average. In S/SV trim, they’re thickly padded but lack full adjustment. Upper versions add a height-adjustable driver’s seat. Fine for urban duty, the seats feel short on support for longer journeys, though visibility is good.
Humans aren’t likely to appreciate being sent to the shrunken rear jump seats in King Cab models. Crew Cabs not only have four proper doors, but sufficient space for four adults (five if necessary). Backrests are defiantly upright, with skimpy padding.
Don’t expect refinement in a Frontier, which performs eagerly but grumbles along the way. Even the strong V6 engine is unpolished, growling while accelerating and vibrating at idle speed, though it delivers brisk acceleration. The four-cylinder is loud and may easily be overwhelmed by this pickup’s two-ton weight.
Manual gearboxes work well despite long throws of the shift lever. Clutch feel is satisfying for a pickup. Nissan’s 5-speed automatic transmission produces firm, wholly predictable shifts and seldom is stymied by searching for the next gear. While it can be difficult to maintain momentum in an automatic-equipped Frontier, the V6 engine provides impressive passing power.
Even by pickup-truck standards, the ride tends to be rocky and busy, yielding considerable body motion. The relatively short wheelbase translates to an often-choppy ride.
No Frontier copes well with being pushed hard on curvy roads, though body lean is well-controlled. While firm steering feel and nimble handling are most welcome, constant corrections are often needed during highway driving.
Ground clearance close to nine inches helps make the Frontier a competent off-pavement explorer. PRO-4X models are especially capable off-road.
Fuel economy is relatively poor. The four-cylinder, manual-shift model with rear-wheel-drive is EPA-rated at 19/23 mpg City/Highway, or 21 mpg Combined â€“ comparable to some full-size V8 pickups. Automatic drops those estimates to 17/22/19 mpg.
With V6 power, rear-drive, and 6-speed manual, the Frontier is EPA-rated at 16/22 mpg City/Highway, or 19 mpg Combined. Automatic raises the highway figure to 23 mpg. Four-wheel-drive manual is EPA-rated at 16/21 mpg City/Highway, or 18 mpg Combined. Automatic manages only 15/21/17 mpg.
The Nissan Frontier is a dated product that has fallen behind other models. It competes largely on price and the deal. Engines and cabins are unrefined. Base-model equipment is sparse, infotainment systems fall short, and safety features are lacking. It offers value as a simple, basic truck.
Driving impressions by The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.