Versus the competiton:
With the new 2005 Frontier, Nissan adapted the Nismo badge to its off-road packages for both 4×4 and 4×2 models. This follows similar moves by other manufacturers who have been successful in creating brand awareness for rugged off-road equipment. The trend is so profitable that off-road packages are no longer options; they’re now distinct models or trim levels. In recent years, the Nismo team earned solid credentials in strengthening the performance attributes of Nissan’s sporty cars. But increasing grip on the skid pad requires far different engineering than maintaining control over desert whoop-de-doos.
After a torrential Texas thunderstorm cancelled any off-road excursions during my first ride in the new Frontier, I was eager to get a properly equipped Nismo model for a week-long test that would include a day in the dirt. My test model was a King Cab 4×4 Nismo equipped with an automatic transmission. I would have preferred a 6-speed manual to better compare the Nissan to the Toyota Tacoma Access Cab 4×4 with the TRD Off-Road package that I recently tested in the desert.
Briefly, the new Frontier is clean-sheet design based on the Titan’s F-Alpha platform with no major parts carried over from the previous generation. It comes only in King Cab and Crew Cab configurations, both nestled on a 126-inch wheelbase. That’s about 10 inches longer than the old model, and the truck also widened to nearly 73 inches. The King Cab gets a 73.3-inch bed while the Crew Cab shortens up to 59.5 inches. Overall, the Frontier is roomier and certainly more powerful with a 265-horsepower 4.0-liter V6 engine.
Most off-road packages are a blend of increased durability products, protection equipment and cosmetic upgrades. The Nismo package follows that strategy and also includes a host of available technological innovations. These additional features can improve safety but also make off-roading more manageable to mainstream driving abilities. Here’s what the Nismo package includes:
* Off-road tuned Bilstein shock absorbers
* Skid plates for oil pan, fuel tank and transfer case
* Electronic locking rear differential
* 16-inch alloy wheels
* P265/75R16 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires
* 4-wheel active brake limited-slip traction control
* Nismo exterior badges and interior floor mats
My test vehicle came equipped with Hill Start Control (HSC), Hill Descent Control (HDC) and Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), which is an electronic stability control system. All are available only with the 5-speed automatic transmission and all work as intended, but that doesn’t mean you want them engaged all the time. My first move as soon as I left the pavement was to switch off the VDC. There’s no doubt that this feature would be a blessing in the snow or on icy roads, but when you want to have fun in the dirt it’s an annoyance. It was hitting the brakes and cutting back on the throttle at the least little wheelspin and slowing down any progress through loose conditions. With the VDC off I could use the throttle to control the skids and maintain momentum when desired. Again, this would not be a concern if I had the 6-speed as these controls are not offered with the manual.
The HSC seems redundant with an automatic transmission. It works the brakes for up to two seconds after lifting your foot off the brake pedal while on an uphill slope and keeps the vehicle from rolling backward. This would seem to be a perfect tool for clutch-equipped vehicles and drivers who can’t work the handbrake at the same time, but it’s available only with the automatic. The HDC works perfectly whether in 4HI or 4LO and deserves any reluctant off-roader’s confidence. Just flick the switch on the dash and point the truck down the hill. HDC works the front and rear brakes as needed to maintain a steady and controllable speed downhill. I tried HDC twice and then simply used 4LO and First gear with no throttle or brake. The latter method was slower but smoother. Experienced off-roaders will still prefer to have total control of the brakes and throttle in these situations, but it’s nice to know that HDC will help a novice stay out of trouble. One very positive feature of the new Frontier is the lever-operated handbrake right next to the driver’s hip. This design is much easier to use than the Tacoma’s pull-handle setup.
Getting back to LO range, the crawl ratio in First gear with the automatic is 31.248:1 while crawling with the 6-speed will give you a more desirable 40.119:1. The extra low gearing comes in a difference of axle ratio (3.35:1 auto, 3.69:1 manual) and First gear ratio (3.84:1 auto, 4.37:1 manual). The transfer case ratio is 2.625:1.
The Frontier moved well over very rough terrain but the extra wheelbase really doesn’t help in tight situations. Ground clearance is a healthy 10.1 inches (compared to the Tacoma’s 9.4 inches), and the frame rails are neatly tucked up under the body for a very clean appearance. Approach angle is 32.6 degrees and departure is 23.3 degrees. The ramp breakover angle is 20.5 degrees. My biggest problem with driving hard over aggressive terrain was hitting the bump stops. The Frontier bottomed-out too often for my style over the whoops. The softer suspension did articulate well through frame twisting exercises and it maintained good contact with the ground through most of the run. But I found myself tapping the brakes more than expected in the high-speed areas to avoid the hard jolts. The throttle-by-wire seemed less fussy and more reflective of my intent in 4LO than 4HI. I’m sure the calibration is set on the safe side for higher speeds and it really never interfered with any off-road assignments. But it does take some seat time to become fully acclimated to the throttle feel. Steering was a bit slow on the fast runs with an overall ratio of 20.4:1 but certainly more precise over delicate obstacles in low gear.
On road, the Frontier is a bit more comfortable than the Tacoma. It feels stable, even with the high stance. The steering is suited more to the asphalt than in the dirt with excellent communication to the road. Much of the comfort factor is traced to large, well-supportive seats, a friendly dash layout and a perception of more room than the Tacoma. Driving position is relaxed with excellent visibility. The standard CD sound system is acceptable but I know that the Crew Cabs have the Rockford Fosgate audio with eight speakers and two subwoofers as an option. The engine is very smooth in mid-range with plenty of pulling power. I also noticed less wind noise than usual.
Other amenities, either standard or optional, on the new Frontier Nismo include a factory spray-in bedliner, Utili-trak cargo tie-down system, power windows/door locks, dual glovebox, three 12V power points, satellite radio, rear sliding window, fullsize spare, front tow hook and rear floor storage. Our test model had a GVWR of 5600 pounds, a GCWR of 11,133, max payload of 1261 pounds and max towing of 6300 pounds. Curb weight was 4339 pounds. Optional safety equipment include side airbags and side curtain airbags.
Nissan directed considerable resources to the fullsize Titan, and the Frontier is now benefiting from that effort. It has a strong chassis, solid looks and plenty of innovation. Off road it works very well with the exception of high-speed runs over rough terrain. But the well-designed electronic controls on the automatic open up trails for less experienced drivers. The Frontier is a dramatic improvement over the previous generation and the overall package is certainly among the best of any midsize truck.