When Nissan offered me a weeklong loan of a base 2018 Frontier S, I jumped on it for two reasons. First, when I was a judge for PickupTrucks.com's 2016 Midsize Truck Challenge, I noted the Frontier was the bargain in the contest at $37,058 — and that was a well-equipped model. But here was the 2018 base model ringing up at just more than $20,000 and I wondered if the idea still held true.
The second reason was the Nissan Frontier gets a lot of grief for being long in the tooth. It hasn't had a significant redesign since the 2005 model year. This could be a positive, though, since Nissan should have worked all the bugs out by now. I wanted to see whether this criticism was justifiable before the updated hits the roads.
So, what do you get with the base-level Nissan Frontier S?
My 4×2 King Cab test unit with the standard 152-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission had a starting price of $19,965 (all prices include destination charges). It had only one factory option — carpeted floormats for $150. Now, it's not unheard of for automakers to overcharge for floormats, but in the case of this Nissan, it puts the truck's total cost at $20,115. If Nissan's goal was to emphasize that this Frontier is value priced, you'd think it would come with cheaper floormats to keep it less than $20,000.
As far as equipment, essential and otherwise, the Frontier S scores quite high. It has air conditioning, cruise control and intermittent wipers. There's a CD player if you are still into that and if you're not, the radio has auxiliary and USB inputs and an "iPod menu" button. Hands-free phone and Siri Eyes Free integration is included. The federally mandated backup camera is a nice touch as well. Finally, as a victim of attempted tailgate theft, I appreciated the lockable tailgate.
What You Get
As far as features you will have to do without, the Nissan Frontier S has basic crank windows (less stuff to break), manual door locks (offend your passenger and they might reach over to unlock your door) and no vanity mirrors (use the rearview mirror to check your teeth). Given the typically loaded press vehicles I test, I found the base configuration refreshing. (I drive a Jeep TJ Wrangler in real life, so I'm no stranger to plastic interiors and crank windows.)
King Cabs have rear-hinged half doors for the passenger compartment and two foldable jump seats with small storage bins underneath. Combined with the 6-foot bed that's standard on King Cabs — longer than some full-size pickups — it's a good combination of interior and bed space. In fact, it fit in my 20-foot-deep garage with room to spare through an 8-foot opening without having to fold in the mirrors. The doors sound solid, though they do flutter a bit when slammed.
Inside, the seats were basic, covered in a textured cloth that stayed fairly cool on hot days. The head restraints poked too far forward for my liking, but I am tall. The dashboard has a couple cubbies for phones and small items and a small-but-deep center bin storage. Elbow points have a thin rubbery layer to keep it livable. I liked that it had a good, old-fashioned key start, but don't be surprised if you hit the wipers more than a few times when reaching for the key.
Other Driving Options for the Price
So, what are your other vehicle choices for this kind of money? I recently drove a base 2019 Volkswagen Jetta with an automatic transmission, which rang up at $20,195 ($19,395 with a manual.) It was a nice, solid car, but it was just a car. There are lots of smaller crossovers and SUVs available, but under the skin most of them are just cars, too. There's something to be said for having rugged truck underpinnings, especially if you carry big loads, furniture or big toys.
The Nissan Frontier S came standard with 235/75R15 tires — now there's a size I remember from my youth. A taller aspect ratio helps absorb bigger bumps and will probably still be cheaper to replace than the more trendy, low-profile tires. And, of course, you have more accessible space and higher payload for your hauling needs.
A Nissan Frontier Fan
My dad, Ken, is on his third new Nissan Frontier. I asked why he moved from cars to a pickup.
"I always liked the idea of a pickup from hanging around with you," he said. "You would talk about how you did this and did that with your pickup. Then we moved to a new place and wanted to do landscaping and other things around the house. That's when we decided to go new and bought the first Frontier."
But why a mid-size instead of something like, say, the diesel Ram heavy duty I once lent him for a month?
"Utility, especially with the later ones, and comfort were the two main factors," he said. "I suppose any pickup has utility, but it's the overall body length of the Frontier I like. We have a smaller garage and it fits perfectly. It's a King Cab, so it has great additional space for smaller packages on short trips. I've had one passenger in the back in 10 years, so I didn't want a four-door. It's tailor-made for my requirements."
The Motorcycle Challenge
Taking advantage of having a pickup for a week, I ran some errands. I took in some used oil and antifreeze for recycling. We bought some plants and stocked up on charcoal from the local home improvement emporium. Sure, these are things you can do with a car or SUV if you exercise some care to not make a mess. Before the truck was reclaimed by Nissan, I decided to carry something you definitely cannot put inside a car or SUV: a vintage motorcycle. I needed to get the bike from a storage garage to my home shop for some work before firing it up for the season.
The first issue was getting the 7-foot-1-inch-long motorcycle into a 6-foot bed (Nissan calls it 73.3 inches, according to the specifications). The solution was obvious, but it was funny that I had a sticker on my toolbox showing a Nissan Frontier with a motorcycle placed diagonally in the back, so that was the plan. Grabbing a ramp and some helpers, I parked the pickup truck with the rear wheels in the gutter at an alley entrance. The tailgate came off easily enough in typical fashion, with the added step of disconnecting the backup camera wiring harness. The Nissan's reasonable suspension height did not create much of an incline and it was quick work to roll the bike in. After some jockeying around, it was solidly strapped in using four rings bolted in the bed sides.
Before doing that, of course, I needed to figure out whether the Nissan Frontier could safely haul my motorcycle. The bike weighs 452 pounds with a full tank of gas. The tank was empty, so I threw in a few items you might need in a transportation or resuscitation operation: my small road toolbox, a battery and a portable air tank. That load weighed in at 540 pounds. Add the driver (235 pounds) for a total of 775 of payload. I found some discrepancies in Nissan's published maximum payload capacity: The tire and loading sticker said 827 pounds, while Nissan's specification data said 900 pounds. With a full tank of fuel, the unloaded truck weighed in at 3,760 pounds. I subtracted that amount from the Nissan Frontier's gross vehicle weight rating of 4,700 pounds to get a calculated payload capacity of 940 pounds, meaning the truck was not overloaded.
The Frontier felt the weight of the load, mostly evidenced by requiring more liberal applications of 1st gear, but it didn't strain to merge with highway traffic or pull overdrive at 55 mph and up. When driving a loaded manual transmission Nissan Frontier in city traffic, expect the shifter to get a workout, but clutch effort is light and the shifter is smooth and positive. Suspension tuning is bang-on in terms of handling the load. The otherwise somewhat bouncy empty ride smoothed right out with the payload. Other than some general road noise, the engine was quiet and the Frontier cruised nicely on the highway. Sixty mph clocks in at 2,400 rpm in 5th gear. My only real complaint was the soft brake-pedal feel, though it never had issues stopping in safe distances.
With the truck empty and loaded, I ran the same 50.8-mile loop for fuel-economy testing. Filling it at the same pump before and after each loop, I set the pump on the first (slowest) catch and let it shut off automatically. The route consisted of about 6 miles of city driving, 14 miles of multilane 40-55-mph suburban roads with scattered stoplights and the rest was urban expressway driving. Windows were up, air conditioning was on the same setting for both legs and I didn't idle it waiting for the pump. The EPA rates the manual Nissan Frontier at 19/23/21 mpg city/highway/combined. At 22.6 mpg, the empty run got within half a mile per gallon of the EPA highway rating, which I thought was pretty good. The loaded run, recording 24 mpg, got 1 mpg better than the EPA's highway rating.
It may seem counterintuitive, but we've seen it before. Traffic conditions were similar, though I did get caught for a few minutes between some pop-up construction sites and a lane-striping operation during the empty run. I wasn't hypermiling, but I drove easy keeping the revs down without lugging it or falling behind traffic. Maybe this engine is more efficient revving closer to its torque peak, where it would have been during our loaded loop. Or it could have just been fluctuations with the pump.
A Pickup Enthusiast's Takeaway
Though I try to stay objective when reviewing vehicles, I've owned six full-size pickup trucks and never considered anything smaller. The Frontier S proved it is a completely viable ground support vehicle for my vintage motoring hobby, plus it can be employed in countless other uses. The only thing it couldn't do for me was trailer one of my vintage cars. Now that I think about it, I don't trailer my cars anyway. The money saved here would certainly offset having to make occasional arrangements for a project or parts car haul.
You could choose a fancier or bigger truck for your needs, but the prospect of a new vehicle at this price with a warranty (36 months/36,000 miles bumper to bumper, 60 months/60,000 miles powertrain), maintained to your standards, is difficult to ignore. And when the warranty is up, a long production run means lots of interchangeable parts to harvest in salvage yards for years to come.
Cars.com photos by Andy Mikonis; Cars.com graphics by Jen Burklow