Editor's note: This review was written in July 2010 about the 2010 Nissan Frontier. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2011, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Full-size trucks are a chore to drive in the city — we know; we've done it — so we wanted to see how Nissan's midsize Frontier would handle an urban environment, as well as a junkyard run to get some used parts.
There were clear maneuverability and parking advantages that came with this truck's smaller size, but in one particular way the V-6 Frontier is a lot like its larger siblings — and not in a way you'd want.
In short, while the V-6 Frontier packs a lot of useful capability in a condensed package, if you've had a chance to sit in any of the newer full-size trucks on the market, you may be disappointed with the Frontier's cabin styling.
To see a side-by-side comparison of the 2009 and 2010 Frontier, click here.
V-6 Gas Mileage, Performance
One of the disappointing elements of the V-6 Frontier — and one that many people in the market for a smaller truck will likely be concerned about — is its gas mileage. With an automatic transmission and four-wheel drive, it gets an EPA-estimated 14/19 mpg city/highway, which is similar to what the full-size Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks achieve with V-8 power. If you're looking for better gas mileage, rear-wheel-drive Frontiers come with a standard four-cylinder engine that gets up to 19/23 mpg with a five-speed manual.
Aside from its gas mileage, I like the V-6 drivetrain. The 4.0-liter V-6 makes 261 horsepower (the most of any midsize six-cylinder pickup) and offers strong acceleration when merging on the highway or pulling away from a stoplight.
The V-6 Frontier I tested had the optional five-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is standard), and the transmission is a smooth-shifting unit. However, it likes to run in a high gear, even when cruising at midrange speeds, to keep engine rpm low and save fuel. This didn't prove detrimental to performance because the V-6 is so powerful.
Size & Maneuverability
The Frontier has grown over the years with various redesigns, a trend that's affected both trucks and cars. That said, it's still pretty easy to drive the Frontier in the city.
Even on Chicago's narrow downtown streets, which are often lined with waiting cars half-pulled to the side of the road, you have a good sense of where the corners of the Frontier are, which enables you to scoot around other vehicles without having to slow to a crawl, as you might in a full-size truck. It's no more difficult to maneuver the Frontier in a parking garage than it is to pilot a traditional midsize sedan there.
Truck buyers will like the Frontier's tall stance for improved visibility and ground clearance. The V-6 Frontier I tested was an SE 4x4 trim, and it offers a high seating position that gives you a great view of the road ahead without requiring extra effort to climb into the cab, like some full-size trucks demand.
An Outdated Cabin
Full-size truck interior quality has made huge strides in recent years, but compact and midsize trucks — which mostly sell in smaller volumes than do full-size ones — haven't received the same level of attention. That's the case with the Frontier, which has fairly basic cabin plastics and finishes that don't compare well to the newer interiors of the Ford F-150 and Ram 1500, to name two. And those two don't cost much more than a V-6 Frontier.
On the plus side, the Frontier's cabin is functional and relatively comfortable. The stereo controls are mounted high in the middle of the dash, and I've always liked how Nissan's basic stereo lets you store stations from more than one band on a given set of presets, letting you keep your AM and FM favorites within easy reach. The climate controls are below the stereo, and though they look a bit rudimentary, with only a few knobs and buttons the simple layout equals intuitive operation.
The Frontier comes with standard cloth bucket seats in front that have comfortable cushioning. Two features absent in the SE trim I tested that I would have liked to have seen were a height-adjustable driver's seat and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. (For the record, higher trims do get a height-adjustable driver's seat.)
The backseat in the Frontier King Cab (extended cab) is entirely inadequate for adult passengers, though it could likely accommodate children. As opposed to the conventional bench seat in the back of extended-cab full-size trucks, the Frontier King Cab has two tiny individual seats that flip down from the wall of the cab, like a stadium seat. They wouldn't be very comfortable on a long drive, so if you plan on regularly ferrying passengers in the back of the Frontier, you should consider the four-door crew-cab model. The rear of the King Cab is better suited for securely stowing cargo.
Cargo Bed Utility
The cargo bed in King Cab models is 73.3 inches long, 58.8 inches wide (44.4 inches between the wheel wells) and 18 inches tall.
Cars.com editor Joe Bruzek took the Frontier on a junkyard run to pick up an exhaust system that was longer than the cargo bed, but he was able to bring it home thanks in part to the available bed extender, which helped hold the end of the exhaust against the lowered tailgate. He noted that when the tailgate is lowered it covers most of the rear bumper, which makes it harder to step down from the cargo bed. The bed extender is easy to remove when it's not needed, but the tailgate is pretty heavy.
Our test truck had a traditional bedliner, but the Frontier is available with a factory spray-in bedliner and Nissan's Utili-track rail system for securing cargo in the bed and attaching accessories, like bed dividers.
Standard safety features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags. V-6 models add an electronic stability system.
For a full list of safety features, check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page.
Frontier in the Market
The Frontier is the right-size truck for an urban environment, and with the available V-6 engine it offers decent capability, too, with a large 6,500-pound maximum towing capacity and a 1,541-pound maximum payload rating when properly equipped. There's more capability to be had by stepping up to a full-size truck, but the larger size is a serious drawback in city driving.
The as-tested price of our Frontier King Cab 4x4 SE was $26,580, including a few options that added around $1,500 to the final price. The Frontier is available in notably more affordable variations if you want to pass on the V-6 engine and four-wheel drive, but at this price it seems expensive for what you get — especially if the bigness of a full-size truck isn't a factor where you live — because this price is right in the range of entry-level full-size models.
Unless you're planning on using the Frontier mainly for commuting — and there are better alternatives for that in the car and crossover world — the greater capability afforded by a full-size model is tough to pass up.
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