Horsey Frontier both civilized and off-road ready …
Pickups are becoming so civilized it’s possible that urban cowboys won’t want to sidle up to them pretty soon.
All pickups used to be boxes on big knobby tires with a big ol’ floor-mounted stick shift, a metal bed and rusty (after a couple years) tailgate that flopped down like an exasperated teenager into the family couch. Pickups were strong and he-manly and cheaper than the sports cars that also identified their owners as high-T.
Sorry pardner, but much of that is long gone as crew cabs and modern technology have conspired to soften pickups and make them the family station wagons of today.
Nissan knows that, of course, but isn’t about to let its Frontier slide into sissydom. Last year it poured a new 310-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 with 9-speed automatic into the mid-size Frontier (a near clone to Ford’s Ranger in size and function). That gave Frontier the horsiest engine in class, plus a smooth-shifting tranny to boot, so a saddlebag full of power, but with refinement.
For 2022 the entire Frontier, outside of that engine and tranny, have been restyled and rethought to take on this growing market of mid-size pickups ruled by Toyota’s Tacoma.
Unlike last week’s smaller, stylish and refined Hyundai Santa Cruz, a compact crossover/pickup, Nissan went for the muscular manly styling that has dominated the market since the 1960s. It works, but isn’t so tall as to make a feller jump up into its cab like mounting a horse in one leap. Oh, this one added the fine off-road style step rails ($750), but they were hardly needed. No, the tested Frontier Pro-4X Crew Cab, designed for off-road loving pickup owners, sits low enough to make daily access easy.
Where the hooves should be Frontier offers nubby R17 All-Terrain tires on painted alloy wheels, yet coupled with Bilstein off-road shocks the on-road ride is surprisingly supple and easy on the gluts. A rear suspension stabilizer no doubt helps too. The fam won’t mind riding in Frontier because of usual pickup ride quality (bouncy), and the driver will appreciate the giddyup provided by that V6 while so many other mid-sizers go with turbo 4-cylinders. Nissan Only offers the V6.
Handling is surprisingly quick and responsive as Nissan engineers revised the steering ratio for more precise handling, an aid especially in avoiding highway lane fade. Not a lot of play in this wheel. Downside is the steering is quite heavy in Frontier, very trucky, not crossover-like at all. Gym rats may like this while the rest of us could use a little lighter feel.
Useful, sure! Frontier has a 5-foot bed including spray-in liner, part of the $1,990 Pro Convenience Package. That package also adds Nissan’s snazzy Utili-track system with four adjustable tie-down cleats. That tailgate also is dampened so it doesn’t flop down too quickly, plus the tailgate locks, but no tonneau cover like the Santa Cruz has.
This one did add a grizzly bear-strong Sport Bar ($1,095) just behind the cab. It adds off-roading panache, but also includes a light on top to make bed loading easier at night. Nissan also includes side bed lights here. And while I loved Hyundai’s bumper infused steps this has a fold-down step on the driver’s side tail below the bumper. It’s easy to fold down and flip back up.
Frontier’s interior looks trucky, meaning muscular, black and off-road useful. There’s a knob on the dash to engage the 4-wheel-drive system, a big 9-inch touchscreen, large radio and climate control knobs and the usual steering-wheel hub with cruise and info screen controls.
I liked the functionality of it all and the black (really more of a charcoal gray) leather seats were soft and fairly comfy for city driving. Hip support was good, but the seats could use more lower-back support and the rear seats, while roomy enough for a couple adults could use some seat-back adjustments. The backs are nearly straight up and down and could be tiring after a short ride. The previous week’s Santa Cruz had a much more passenger friendly rear seat despite being smaller.
On the plus side though are heated front seats and heated steering wheel, plus the driver’s seat is fully powered while the passenger’s seat is manual. The back seats also fold and there’s storage beneath the seats.
I liked the open wireless phone charger on the console’s tail by the driver’s seat and center storage box. That’s easy to reach and easy to see if the phone is charging. The charger and heated seats are part of that Pro Convenience package that also includes a 120-volt power outlet in the bed.
Oddly the space between seats and door panels is incredibly tight. I couldn’t easily get my hand between the two to retrieve an item in the door pocket. Not real user friendly!
On the safety front there’s automatic forward collision warning, but to get more safety gar you need the Technology Package for $990. It includes lane departure warning, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, a rear sonar system, rear automatic braking, high beam assist, smart cruise and traffic sign recognition. I feel blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert really should be standard on all vehicles today.
Some useful electronics are standard though, including Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth, satellite radio, navigation, NissanConnect, Wi-Fi hotspot and voice recognition for audio features. There’s a rear-view camera of course, hill start and descent assist and a trailer sway control system, all pluses when towing or off-roading.
Speaking of which, the Frontier will pull 6,720 pounds, not quite the 7,500 that Ranger pulls, but sufficient for most average trailers and gear.
Making the Tactical Green ($395 extra) test truck a little nicer was the Pro Premium Package that adds a Fender premium audio system with 10 speakers, the leather seats, auto-dimming mirror with Homelink, sunroof and beadlock alloy wheels. Cost is $2,790.
I wasn’t a fan of the Army-style green, but the militarization of pickups seems a natural step at this point. Gun racks are still extra though.
Sadly gas mileage is pickup poor at 17 mpg city and 22 highway. I got 18 mpg in about 60% highway driving.
Pricing is higher than Ranger, mostly. A base 2WD Frontier S starts at $29,340. That’s for the crew cab with full-size rear doors, and let’s be honest, that’s what most folks want, and need. An SV crew cab goes for $32,140. Both also have a $1,175 destination charge.
There’s a Pro-X model that is 2WD only, but looks tougher like the tested Pro-4X, so blacked out grille with orange Nissan logo, and another on the steering wheel.
The 4WD Pro-4X lists at $38,415 including delivery and the tested truck hit $46,965 with all its options. That’s pretty steep for a mid-size pickup. But again, that’s where the market is headed for mid-sizers. Note too that mid-size pickups are as large as full-size pickups were 15-20 years ago.
A King Cab with small rear doors that open backward is also available and will save buyers a few bucks, but is far less useful for family hauling. And even most urban cowboys have a couple little outlaws to corral for soccer practice.
FAST STATS: 2022 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X Crew Cab 4×4
Hits: Useful family pickup, right size, good power, shifts, ride and handling. Lined bed, easy-lower tailgate, deployable step, strong tie-downs. Trucky interior but big screen, heated seats and wheel, big radio and climate knobs, smart cruise and safety suite, wireless phone charger.
Misses: Heavy steering feel, seat backs need more side support, back seat backs too straight for long rides, low mpg, a bit pricey.
Made in: Canton, Miss.
Engine: 3.8-liter V6, 310 hp/281 torque
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Weight: 4,709 lbs.
Wheelbase: 126.0 in.
Length: 210.2 in.
Cargo bed: 5-foot
Tow: 6,720 lbs.
Payload: 1,460 lbs.
MPG: 18.0 (tested)
Base Price: $38,415 (includes delivery)
Premium paint, $395
Off-road style step rails, $750
Bed access package, $540
Pro Convenience package (spray-in bedliner, Utili-track system, 120-volt power outlet in bed/rear console, heated outside mirrors, heated seats, heated steering wheel, LED under rail lighting, remote start, trailer hitch w/wiring, intelligent around-view monitor w/moving object detection and off-road mode, wireless charging), $1,990
Pro Premium package (Fender premium audio w/10 speakers, leather-appointed front/rear seats, auto-dimming mirror w/Homelink, tilt/slide sunroof w/manual shade, 17-inch beadlock alloy wheels), $2,790
Sport bar, $1,095
Technology package (lane departure warning, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, rear sonar system, rear automatic braking, high beam assist, smart cruise, traffic sign recognition), $990
Test vehicle: $46,965
Sources: Nissan, www.kbb.com, *KBB Fair Market
Photos: Mark Savage