Nissan Frontier has been transformed for 2001 from a plain-Jane compact pickup to a macho bad boy. The front-end styling seems as tough as a battering ram, and the mighty wheel flares look like flexed muscles.

But can Frontier back up its in-your-face appearance with some real performance?

There has been talk that the four-cylinder or normal-V-6 Frontiers are all show and no go, powerful enough for most purposes but failing to uphold the muscular looks.

There's no such problem with the test truck. A Frontier SC Crew Cab, it comes with a convincing boost in power and performance via supercharging.

It's amazing what a little air pump can do. A longtime tuning trick for drag racers, hot-rodders and sports-car enthusiasts, the factory-installed Roots-type blower boosts the V-6 a solid 40 horsepower, plus an additional 46 pounds-feet of torque.

This doesn't make the two-ton truck accelerate like a Viper, but the extra muscle is appreciated. Highway cruising, hill climbing, off-highway driving, roaring away from a stoplight - all those good things are enhanced.

The test truck was hampered by its automatic transmission, whose languid upshifts allowed the engine to roar unpleasantly and whose downshifts were abrupt and annoying. This put a damper on my enjoyment of an otherwise cool little truck.

In a day trip up Interstate 17, the Frontier SC showed itself to be a comfortable cruiser at highway speed, easily climbing the long grade beyond Black Canyon City. Off highway on dirt roads and steep, rocky trails, the four-wheel-drive Frontier was quick and maneuverable, a real kick to slide through turns and generally toss around.

Shifting in and out of four-wheel-drive was something of a struggle, especially into low range, with a balky floor shift that you have to push down and back to engage. Maybe it just takes getting used to. The four-door Crew Cab pickup has been a major hit for Nissan, along with the brilliantly styled Xterra SUV. This pair has provided the underpinnings for a major turnaround at Nissan, which has recaptured its No. 6 position in U.S. market share.

The Frontier is tighter and sportier with more appeal to younger drivers than the Ford Explorer Sport Trak, which is better suited to families.

The dashboard is clean and straightforward, though not as edgy or industrial looking as the exterior.

The tubular bed extender that flips out onto the tailgate is extremely functional. Every pickup should have one.

As for the styling, well, I can see where Nissan wanted to perk up the looks of its formerly bland pickup. But really, all that molded plastic up front shaped like an aggressive race truck seems fake and adolescent. Ditto for those huge plastic wheel flares with the ersatz bolts.

This look probably lights up the hearts of young truck guys, the target audience. But for someone who just needs th e practicality of a compact pickup, it all seems a bit silly.

The SC comes well equipped with the tester loaded up with a Value Package that includes leather seating, stereo CD upgrade, sunroof and cruise control for $1,549; a bed extender for $229; and a bedliner for $309 (which seemed steep).

The SC Crew Cab is the top Frontier, which comes in 14 versions starting at $11,699 for a four-cylinder XE with the base Crew Cab starting at $18,049. But for performance, go for the supercharger.