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2014 Nissan Frontier Test Drive Review
It looks and feels rugged, but Nissan's Frontier gets awful mileage, and that, combined with limited cargo capability and questionable value, helps me understand why demand for small trucks is low.
For a good time, call F-R-O-N-T-I-E-R. For more utility and flexibility, call a full-size truck. The Frontier may work perfectly for weekend surfers or off-roading excursions, but it comes up short for those who need to haul lots of stuff lots of the time.
Look and Feel
There was a time when riding in the back of a pickup truck was an acceptable form of transportation. When I was growing up in Southern California, kids were commonly piled into the rear of a truck blasting down the freeway doing 70 mph, one wrong move away from disaster. I know, because I used to be one of them. Some members of my church youth group would pile into the bed of a compact pickup—about 8 of the lucky ones, really, packed in like sardines—and bounce and roll down to the beach, none the worse for the wear. And we always had a blast.
We never realized exactly how lucky we were. Such shenanigans have resulted in so many injuries and fatalities over the years that it is now absolutely against the law to ride in the back of a truck. In fact, kids today are strapped down tight everywhere they’re driven.
Still, around L.A. I see plenty of small pickup trucks with heaps of cargo perched precariously in the bed, a situation that sometimes leads to disastrous effects. I’ve always wondered whether the driver wouldn’t be better off with a bigger truck. Besides, the remaining small pickups for sale today seem like they’re from the antebellum era, also known as the mid-2000s.
Today, as I write this in advance of new smaller trucks from Chevrolet and GMC, the Nissan Frontier and the Toyota Tacoma are the only compact pickups currently sold in America, unless you count the Honda Ridgeline, which isn’t a traditional body-on-frame truck. They’re not really “compact” either. Ever seen a Tacoma Double cab longbed with 4WD? Dang thing looks like a dachshund on wheels.
Of this group, including the new Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, the Nissan Frontier is the runt of the litter, the closest thing to a small truck you can buy. It looks rugged. It feels rugged. But the Nissan Frontier gets terrible gas mileage, and that, combined with restrictive cargo-hauling capabilities and a questionable value equation, helps me to clearly understand why demand for smaller trucks is lower than in times past.
Nissan offers the Frontier in Extended cab and Crew cab body styles. The Crew cab comes with a choice between a standard 5-foot or optional 6.1-foot bed, while the King cab comes only with the latter. You can equip a Frontier with a 4- or 6-cylinder engine and rear-wheel or 4-wheel drive in various configurations. Five trim levels are available: S, SV, Desert Runner, PRO-4X and SL.
The Frontier S is a basic truck with a 4-cylinder engine, a manual transmission and 15-inch steel wheels. Getting an automatic transmission or the S Preferred package means you also get air conditioning, cruise control and Bluetooth phone connectivity. Frontier S Crew cab models add a V6 engine, 16-inch steel wheels and a 6-speaker audio system.
Get the SV trim level for 16-inch alloy wheels, power accessories, a tilt steering wheel, a 4.3-inch color radio display, satellite radio, a USB port and an auxiliary audio input jack. A Value Truck package adds useful features like dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, rear parking sensors, a rear-view camera, a bed extender, adjustable cargo tie-down cleats and a Class IV trailer hitch.
The Desert Runner is a RWD truck that looks like a 4WD truck thanks to special exterior and interior styling treatments, fog lights, Bilstein shock absorbers and off-road tires.
People with serious off-roading ambitions will want to check out the Frontier PRO-4X. It combines off-road tires and Bilstein shocks with a locking rear differential, underbody skid plates and automatic headlights. Features such as a sunroof, a roof rack with cross bars, leather upholstery, power-adjustable front seats and a NissanConnect infotainment system with smartphone pairing capability are bundled in the PRO-4X Luxury package.
Don’t need all the off-road bells and whistles? Try the Frontier SL, which includes most of the features in the PRO-4X Luxury package but loses the off-roading equipment. Instead, you’ll get 18-inch alloy wheels and side steps that ease access to the cab.
My test vehicle was the Frontier PRO-4X Crew Cab with the Luxury Package, floor mats, a cargo bed extender and a trailer hitch, and it totaled out at $36,315. A handsome, high-riding truck, my Frontier was coated in a dark shade of red and bedazzled with graphics and a big roof rack that negates the point of the power sunroof. Inside, there’s nothing fancy about this truck, as reflected by its basic design and functionality. Some of the materials looked and felt a bit flimsy for the price point, an observation most likely a byproduct of the fact that basic Frontiers are really inexpensive.
When pressing the accelerator, the Frontier’s stout 4.0-liter V6 engine produced instant rewards. Rated to make 261 hp at 5,600 rpm and 281 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm, this engine endows the Frontier with plenty of spirit. My test truck romped happily up a dirt trail, easily powered up mountainous highways and had no trouble maintaining position in stop-and-go traffic.
The engine was mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission, and the PRO-4X model comes with 4WD. Maximum tow capacity for my test truck amounted to 6,100 pounds, and the maximum payload rating was 1,078 pounds. An overenthusiastic shopping trip for bedroom furniture and a mattress, along with runs to Goodwill after cleaning out the garage, represented the extent of taxing the engine, so I can’t speak to its upper capabilities. I will say, though, that even with the extra weight in the bed, the Frontier felt as energetic as ever. Who needs a V8, I wondered?
That’s what I kept asking until I calculated my fuel economy. According to the EPA, a Frontier outfitted like my test vehicle should return about 15 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway, for a combined rating of 17 mpg. I averaged 14.6 mpg. That’s quite disappointing, and it left me wondering why someone who needs a pickup would get a compact truck with a smaller engine when they can get a full-size truck with a brawny power plant and no apparent penalty at the fuel pumps.
Maybe a more basic Frontier with the standard 151-hp, 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine would make more sense, but then you’re limited to towing 3,500 pounds, which might negate the point of getting a truck in the first place.
So then, why settle for a small pickup?
One reason is that big-truck dimensions might prove to be a hindrance in everyday driving. I recently had a Ram 1500 Crew cab, and when driven around my local suburbs and onto mountain trails, it was a beast. With that monster, I had to carefully consider whether my destination had tricky parking lots or not, and I avoided crowded strip malls while wincing with worry when navigating drive-thrus. Compared to the Ram, the Frontier was far more manageable in terms of its size. True, the Nissan’s turning circle wasn’t exactly tight, but I never really needed to worry about squeezing it into a small parking spot.
Around town, the Frontier behaves just as a pickup truck designed for off-roading should. Its ride is bouncy, the steering is rather numb and slow, its center of gravity is high, and you’re never eager to take corners with verve. Some people love driving trucks just for these particular qualities. I’m not a big fan. That’s not a criticism—it’s just how such trucks perform, especially basic ones with an off-roading setup.
Form and Function
The reason for buying a vehicle with an open cargo bed is to carry stuff, and during my week with the Frontier my family put this Nissan to good use carrying oversized, bulky boxes and a full-size mattress home from a furniture store, and lots of baby gear we no longer need to the Goodwill donation center. Although my test truck’s Crew cab style required the shorter bed length, luckily our test vehicle came with the optional bed extender that flips up and over to make loads more secure when traveling with the tailgate dropped.
My personal vehicle is a first-generation Nissan Murano, and thanks to its roof rack and generous cargo area, it could have performed these same tasks for us. However, the Frontier made doing so much, much easier. Plus, we were able to bring the kids along. We easily secured our load thanks to the Utilitrack bed rail system and adjustable tie-down cleats, and the boxes minimally shifted on the spray-in bedliner’s surface. The cargo extender also served to provide a defined space in which to cart home smaller items.
At the same time, I wished we were driving a full-size truck. Ultimately, we made the Frontier work, but a bigger cargo box sure would have made a difference. I’m not alone in this assessment. My surfing-fanatic cousin has a Frontier, and now he’s thinking about buying a bigger truck because his wife is getting into stand-up paddleboarding.
When you’re not hauling stuff in a Frontier PRO-4X with the Luxury package, you’ll find the front seats comfortable despite the truck’s brittle leather upholstery. Most of the controls are easy to manage, too, and the NissanConnect infotainment system is intuitive even if the screen is not terribly large.
Adult rear-seat passengers do not fare very well, as legroom is quite limited. Even my children complained of feeling squished. As they always do when we have a truck in our driveway, they did enjoy the high vantage point and extra-wide view out their windows. As far as extra utility is concerned, the rear seat cushions fold up, or the rear seat backs fold down, to create covered and locked storage for larger items.
Despite its undeniable utility, I simply cannot recommend a Frontier Crew cab as a primary family vehicle. And with this cab configuration, there are too many compromises with regard to cargo space. If I were in the market for a pickup truck, I would just get used to the size of a full-size model and revel in the resulting space for people and stuff.
The most technologically sophisticated thing about my Frontier was the optional NissanConnect infotainment system, which sounded great through a 10-speaker Rockford Fosgate premium audio system.
In addition to providing Bluetooth smartphone pairing with streaming audio and a text-messaging assistant that also reads Facebook and Twitter feeds aloud to the driver, this system features live traffic updates and gas prices at nearby stations, a number of mobile applications and a navigation system, all accessible through voice commands. There’s a USB port and an auxiliary audio input jack for connecting mobile devices, or you can listen to satellite or Internet radio.
Clearly, NissanConnect offers plenty of choice. I also find the system very easy to use in terms of intuitive operation and its sizable, responsive virtual buttons. However, the touchscreen is rather small and does suffer from sun glare.
When it comes to safety-related technology, the Frontier is pretty standard. Yes, my test truck had antilock brakes, stability control, a limited-slip differential, rear parking sensors and a back-up camera, but the Frontier is essentially a 10-year-old vehicle and is equipped with none of the advanced technologies you can find in modern full-size trucks.
Despite its structural age, however, the Frontier performs well in crash testing. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the Frontier a Good rating for moderate overlap frontal impact, side impact and roof crush protection, and an Acceptable rating for how the seats and head restraints protect in a rear-impact collision. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has not crash tested the Frontier in recent years, but the 4WD model gets an impressive 4-star rating for its ability to resist rollover accidents, which is better than the 3-star rating given to RWD models.
In terms of cost effectiveness, where a Nissan Frontier might make the most sense is with regard to its purchase price and equipment level as compared to bigger trucks. My loaded test model was priced at more than $36,000, but buyers should be able to shave thousands of dollars off that price. Plus, ALG gives the Frontier a 4-star depreciation rating, better than direct competitors and bigger pickups.
Unfortunately, big, fat, juicy discounts on full-size trucks can make it easy to get almost as good a deal on a larger model, erasing some of the value in choosing a smaller truck. Plus, based on my disappointing 14.6 mpg fuel-economy average, smaller trucks don’t offer a fuel-economy advantage. Not that my Frontier’s official EPA-rated 17-mpg number in combined driving is competitive, either.
Mediocre fuel economy ratings likely contribute to the Frontier’s barely average predicted cost of ownership over the long haul, further eroding the truck’s value equation. Bright spots include favorable quality and reliability ratings, though they’re unable to lift my Cost Effectiveness rating beyond Blahs-ville.
In short, the main reason to buy a smaller truck like the Frontier is because it is a smaller truck, one that is easier to wield in the wild and to drive every day. Otherwise, at least when it comes to this Nissan, any benefits fail to outweigh compromises in utility.
Liz Kim has worked within the world of cars for 15 years, at various points reviewing and writing about, or analyzing and marketing, everything automotive. It’s no wonder that she married a fellow automotive journalist. Liz can be found examining and assessing the latest vehicles when she’s not busy keeping the peace between, and the schedule for, her two young daughters.
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