PickupTrucks.com illustration by Desiree Farkas; manufacturer image
The updated 2020 Nissan Frontier pickup truck uses the next-generation Frontier’s powertrain, a new 3.8-liter V-6 engine mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission, but in the current Frontier that’s an ancient mid-size pickup. For a truck that hasn’t seen a major update in nearly 15 years, that was big news, and we were excited. The 2020 Frontier V-6 has 310 horsepower, 49 hp more than the outgoing 4.0-liter V-6, and the same amount of torque: 281 pounds-feet.
Nissan says the powertrain is lighter than the outgoing one and that the fuel-economy rating would beat the old truck’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. I put the 2020 Frontier V-6’s fuel economy to the test using the same loop from PickupTrucks.com’s , where a 2016 Frontier V-6 participated.
My test truck was a 2020 Frontier Crew Cab 4×4 Pro-4X. I confirmed the proper tire pressure, filled up the gas tank and headed out to duplicate a fuel-economy loop that I’d performed four years earlier in an otherwise identical Frontier. As always for our testing, speeds were kept to within 5 mph of the posted limit, driving was done calmly but realistically, the climate control was on and the windows were up.
Not the Numbers We Expected
Nissan says the 2020 Frontier’s final EPA rating is expected to be 18/24/20 mpg city/highway/combined with rear-wheel drive and 17/23/19 mpg with four-wheel drive. My Pro-4X tester is likely the worst of the bunch given its higher ride height, off-road tires and roof-mounted sports rack that turns the truck’s aerodynamics to junk. During the last PickupTrucks.com Challenge in which the Frontier participated back in 2016, our testing saw the truck achieve 18.1 mpg over the course of . That truck was rated at 15/21/17 mpg, so it beat its combined score. However, my 165-mile loop with the 2020 model returned an observed mpg of 17.5 mpg, filling up using the same gas pump at the same station and measuring the fill versus the mileage driven, as was done in the 2016 test. The onboard computer was more optimistic — it told me I’d achieved 19.8 mpg overall.
That’s a disappointing result for an all-new powertrain. Aside from the new engine and transmission, both the 2016 and 2020 trucks were identical right down to the color of the paint. While it’s not a major difference from the performance of the old truck, I expected any gain — especially given the new truck’s four additional gears and Nissan’s assurance that it’s actually using all of them, too. Nissan engineers have assured us that it’s easy to get up into the 8th and 9th gears unlike some other trucks, which only use those top-end gears under very specific conditions. I believe them, as the driving experience of the new 2020 Frontier was one of calm, smooth cruising, with the engine humming along well under 2,000 rpm at highway speeds.
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To be fair, the new powertrain in the old truck isn’t going to work miracles for fuel economy. It still faces all kinds of challenges — weight, aerodynamics, even underbody design and ride height play a part in these kinds of results. Nissan promises us that the all-new 2021 model will be even more fuel-efficient thanks to use of lightweight materials and improved aero, and we look forward to seeing what the company creates sometime later in 2020.
Should You Go for the 2020 Frontier or Wait for the 2021?
While it wasn’t any more fuel-efficient on our test loop than the last model we tried, the 2020 Frontier’s new engine and transmission combination do make it a smoother, more pleasant truck to drive than the old one. It’s more powerful, quieter at speed, and feels more responsive thanks to its improved tuning and nine-speed automatic. If you like that old-school Japanese truck feel but want a modicum of modern engine technology, then snap up a 2020 when they hit dealers sometime this spring. If you’re really hoping for a new, fully up-to-date modern mid-size Nissan pickup, however, you might want to hold off a bit.
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