Verdict: Nissan put the heart of the all-new 2021 Frontier in the body of the 2020, creating a compelling mix of bulletproof-if-dated old-school Japanese pickup truck design with a fully modern powertrain.
Versus the competition: The briefly available 2020 Frontier is still well behind more modern mid-size pickup trucks like the Ford Ranger, Chevrolet Colorado and Toyota Tacoma in terms of onboard technology, but it still gives them all a solid run for the money in terms of capability. If you care more about good value, compact dimensions and proven hardware than fancy new technology, the Frontier is still worth considering.
First of all, don’t get too excited — this is not the all-new 2021 Nissan Frontier that we’ve been awaiting for years. At least, it’s not all of it. It is part of it, however, as Nissan decided to send the venerable old Frontier off with one last model year of celebration using the beating heart of the upcoming next-generation model. Yep, Nissan has plopped the engine and transmission of the ’21 model into the ’20, and is providing it standard in a trimmed-down lineup for however long the company decides to run the production lines this year before switching over to the ’21. This means that a powerful new 3.8-liter V-6 replaces the old 4.0-liter mill, and the transmission grows four more gears to a total of nine forward speeds. But can a heart transplant in an old body make much of a difference in the old workhorse? Turns out, it can.
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This Heart Beats Faster
The 2019 Frontier (and all prior ones since the truck’s last redesign for the 2005 model year) featured two engines: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and an optional 4.0-liter V-6. For 2020, both the four-cylinder and the five-speed manual transmission are no more, and the V-6 gets a major redo. It’s now a 3.8-liter V-6 engine, producing a hefty 310 horsepower and 281 pounds-feet of torque. That’s a 49-hp bump from the old 4.0-liter V-6, and it is accompanied by a new nine-speed transmission that’s lifted straight out of the new 2020 Nissan Titan full-size truck (albeit with different gearing and tuning).
Nissan says this is the new powertrain from the upcoming all-new, completely redesigned 2021 Frontier pickup that we should see sometime late in 2020, but the engine development outpaced the truck development, so Nissan decided to stuff it in the old-style truck for a year (although it’s being cagey on whether the 2021 model will also offer manual transmissions). It’s not an uncommon thing for Japanese automakers to do — Toyota and Mazda have done this before, putting the new powertrain in the old model for a year to give it something of a head start on real-world testing and reliability.
The Frontier’s new engine activates with a push-button start instead of a twisting key, unlike the old Frontier. It fires to life and then settles down into a smooth hum, quieter and more refined than the previous engine. Slip the plasticky shifter into drive, and off you go with significantly better acceleration and power. The new powertrain gives the Frontier some spunk, as the whole ensemble is lighter than the outgoing 4.0-liter and five-speed automatic.
In the Titan, when paired with that truck’s big 5.6-liter V-8, the transmission is flawless and beautifully matched. Here, however, all is not well — the transmission’s behavior in the lower gears is hunting and imperfect. Coasting down to a stop, it downshifts a bit too eagerly, putting you in a lower gear than might be necessary for smoothness. It allows for faster acceleration when you get on the power again, but it’s not a smooth transition, causing some head bobbing in the cabin. Starting from a stop also displays some rougher shifting as it quickly gets through the lower gears to the higher ones.
Now, once it’s beyond 3rd gear, things smooth out considerably. It turns the Frontier into a highway champ, with the truck loping along at just under 2,000 rpm at 75 mph and doing so in a newfound silence that’s surprisingly serene. Downshifts are quick for passing, and power is plentiful; while the truck didn’t get a boost to its torque rating, it didn’t really need one. The powertrain in the prior truck was a high point despite its five-speed auto, and the new one retains it as a definite benefit.
Where’s the Fuel Economy Benefit?
Nissan says the fuel economy of the new powertrain in the current truck is significantly better, with the 3.8-liter V-6 outpacing even the old 2.5-liter four-cylinder for efficiency. (The EPA hasn’t published the 2020 Frontier’s mileage estimates as of publication.) Nissan expects the new powertrain combo to be rated at 18/24/20 mpg city/highway/combined with rear-wheel drive and 17/23/19 mpg for 4×4 models. By comparison, the best you could do with the old four-cylinder was in rear-wheel drive with a manual transmission, netting you an official EPA rating of 19/23/21 mpg — but since the new truck isn’t offered with a manual, comparing it to the old four-cylinder automatic transmission model that got 17/22/19 mpg does indeed give the new V-6 an advantage.
A more appropriate comparison is V-6 to V-6 — and the new one does outshine the old one, at least in terms of expected official ratings. The best the old V-6 could manage was in a rear-wheel-drive automatic-transmission model, where it was rated at 16/23/19 mpg, while the four-wheel-drive automatic came in at 15/21/17 mpg. The new V-6 is expected to best these numbers by about 2 mpg on average across the board — but our own testing didn’t show any improvement at all, and in fact came in worse than the V-6 4×4 Pro-4X model we tested in 2016.
That model got an observed 18.1 mpg on our 165-mile test loop as part of our PickupTrucks.com 2016 Midsize Pickup Challenge, but my repeat of that exact loop in the 2020 model returned an observed 17.5 mpg rating, below the expected rating and less than the previous truck was able to manage. In comparison, other mid-size trucks generally beat the Frontier — the 2020 Ford Ranger 4×4 coming in at 20/24/22 mpg with its turbocharged four-cylinder engine and 10-speed automatic transmission, the 2020 Chevy Colorado earning a 17/24/19 mpg rating with its 3.6-liter V-6 and eight-speed automatic (with an optional turbo-diesel four-cylinder getting a whopping 19/28/22 mpg), and the 2020 Toyota Tacoma even beating it with an 18/22/20 mpg rating and its ancient 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic. To Nissan’s credit, it’s still dealing with an old design, and powertrain improvements can do only so much — the company’s engineers promise further fuel economy improvements with the 2021 model thanks to use of lightweight materials and better aerodynamics, so the final word on this has not yet been written.
Inside, Same as It Ever Was
So the driving experience is mostly improved, but the interior is still the same as it’s been for the past 15 years. The gauges are backlit orange on white and are hard to read in the daytime (and look for all the world like the gauges in the old 2003 Pathfinder I used to own). The interior is plain, plastic and simple — but honestly, it isn’t much different than other mid-size trucks from Chevrolet or Ford in terms of overall materials quality. Only Jeep does a seriously high-quality interior in a mid-size truck with the Gladiator’s stylish Wrangler-based cabin, but you’re charged a fortune for it.
Like before, the Frontier is offered in two sizes: extended King Cab and full four-door crew cab. But Nissan has streamlined the offerings a bit: The King Cab can be had with rear- or four-wheel drive in S and SV trims, both with long beds. The crew cab is offered in rear- or four-wheel drive in S, SV short wheelbase (standard bed), SV long wheelbase (long bed) and Pro-4X off-road trim (4×4 standard bed only). A leather-wrapped shift knob, tilt steering column (but not telescoping), and power windows and locks are newly standard across the board.
The interior is more comfortable than you might think, but it’s tight in back for legroom on the crew-cab Pro-4X I tested. The steering wheel is a chunky and simple affair, and all of the orange backlit interior lighting and orange LCD panels are truly a throwback to Nissans of yesterday, but there’s a decidedly old-school appeal about all of it. I think the Frontier has passed from the derogatory realm of “outdated” and now can be certifiably called “classic” in terms of its design, proof that if you just leave something alone long enough, it becomes desirable for its nostalgia factor. It certainly seems to be working — Nissan’s barely touched the truck in 15 years, and it still sells tens of thousands of units annually, largely based on its bulletproof reputation, proven components and value pricing.
New Tech? More Like No Tech
On one hand, there’s very little of the technology we expect in modern vehicles in the 2020 Frontier — the multimedia screen is tiny by today’s standards at just 5.8 inches, and while it features a navigation system, it does not have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto capability. There’s no automatic cruise control, no forward collision warning system, no lane keep assist or blind spot warning and so on.
On the other hand, there’s very little to distract you from the task of actually driving the truck. You’re not playing with apps, or fiddling with Waze, or finding a Spotify playlist or trying to figure out the distance keeping function on the automatic-following cruise control because none of that is here. For safety, you have airbags. For navigation, you have the native system. It’s refreshing — nothing is mysteriously dinging at you when you change lanes without signaling, nothing is flashing at you if you don’t brake aggressively enough for the truck’s taste when traffic has stopped in front of you. It’s just you, driving the truck. It’s lovely.
Still a Good Value?
Frankly, we don’t know, but we suspect the 2020 Frontier is a good value. Pricing for the 2020 model hasn’t been announced as of this writing, and in fact, the arrival in dealers is also in question as the factory where the Frontier is made is currently shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as soon as it restarts, getting production moving on the 2020 Frontier will be Nissan’s priority, the company told us. Until then, we just have to assume that pricing isn’t going to vary terribly much from the V-6-equipped 2019 models. The starting price for a 2019 V-6 SV King Cab 4×2 is $27,015 including a $1,095 destination charge. But there will still be an S version available for 2020 with that standard V-6 engine (it’s available only with a four-cylinder for 2019), so the starting price for a 2020 model will almost certainly be less than this.
The new 2020 Frontier gives us a promising peek into what’s coming for 2021 but still presents a compelling reason to buy it instead of waiting for the all-new model. For fans of old-school Japanese trucks, it will be the last of its kind, older as it is than even the popular but dated Toyota Tacoma. To be able to get that old-school Japanese truck design with a fully updated powertrain and slightly better fuel economy presents a very intriguing package indeed.
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