EXPERT REVIEW

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As the hysterics line up to hand over $150 to $300 to have an air bag on/off switch installed in their vehicles, we’ll gladly take a couple of steps to the side and let them pass.

We found ourselves in the driver’s seat of a pickup truck with the device and it raised serious questions about whether motorists will be safer or at greater risk once they can deactivate the passenger-side air bag.

The vehicle was a 1998 Nissan Frontier, new name and new design for the compact pickup Nissan assembles in Smyrna, Tenn.

The ’98 Frontier XE we tested was an extended- or King-cab version with two pull-down jump seats in the rear of the cabin. The seats are not big enough for a child safety seat so the factory is allowed to install an on/off switch for the passenger air bag. The switches folks are queueing up for are dealer-installed add-ons.

The Nissan system is designed so the passenger bag is active unless turned off. Once off, you must turn it back on again to work.

Before you insert key into the ignition, you reach down below the dash along the floor and slip the key into the on/off switch and turn the key to off.

When you do, a light in the dash to the right of the steering wheel flashes “off” as the constant reminder the bag won’t deploy.

Our first venture in the truck found us chauffeuring the Maltese to the bank (one of his CDs expired and he wanted to renew it).

Before putting the key in the ignition, we turned the passenger bag off so in a deployment, the dog wouldn’t be injured when tossed into the cushion. You can’t, after all, expect a Maltese to slip on its seat belt.

One problem with the on/off system in this vehicle is that short drivers who sit close to the steering wheel have a fairly good, but not unobstructed, view of the orange “off” light though the gearshift lever is s-o-o-o-o long and big that it makes a concerted effort to obscure the light. Talleror long-legged drivers who sit farther back might have a more difficult time seeing around the gearshift lever.

Nissan could easily cure the problem by changing the location of the “off” light with that of the hazard-light button directly above it in the dash. The long gearshift lever doesn’t obstruct the hazard-light button regardless of what gear you are in, whereas the lever obstructs the “off” light below it when in “drive.”

After the errand was run, we brought the Maltese home for a nap (actually, we think he ran upstairs to hide his passbook next to his Alan Greenspan scrapbook) and the wife decided to join hubby to do some shopping.

The dog hopped out, the wife hopped in, buckled her safety belt and off we went, only to realize on a rather busy roadway that we had left the air bag “off.” The light glowed in the dash.

Since the ignition key is the same as that needed to turn the bag on or off, it meant stopping, pulling over to a safe spot, turning the ignition off, removing the key and inserting it into the bag on/off switch to activate it again.

OK, an annoyance, but you do it. Or do you? If you are in traffic, do you pull over or do you press on because you are “only going a few miles” and don’t expect anything to happen– especially since you are going at or below the speed limit? Safety experts, however, say most accidents happen close to home and at low speeds.

There will be people who turn the bag back on again after they get to their next destination, meaning that until then the passenger doesn’t have an air bag offering protection in a collision.

And that is the problem facing folks who rush out to hand over $150 to $300 to disable the bag by installing a switch.

Didn’t know the gun was loaded? Didn’t remember the air bag was turned off?

With an on/off switch, it’s even more vital to buckle up.

As for the Frontier, we tested the two-wheel-driv version, which sits low to the ground because it doesn’t need off-road clearance. The low stance means you can fill the rear cargo bed easily by simply lowering items in without reaching up and over the walls or lowering the gate as you would in a high-standing 4×4.

Of course, if you live in the Snow Belt, a 4×4 is a security blanket. Might not use it often, but when you have to, it sure brings peace of mind.

The Frontier was powered by a 2.4-liter, 143-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine with 4-speed automatic. Not a muscular unit, but the 20- m.p.g. city/24 highway rating and slow decline from F to E on a weeklong drive was appealing.

The mileage was far more attractive than the exterior finish–Sierra Pine, a stand-out-from-the-crowd light green. If you painted your house that color, the neighbors would torch it.

A few problems, one being that lots of road noise–tire whine and wind on the roof pillars–is transmitted back into the cabin.

Another annoyance for those who haul kids on the jump seats is that you need to exert a lot of pressure to lower the seat and, if the driver or passenger seat has been moved back for more legroom upfront, they keep the jump seats from moving down. Those jump seats face each other, they don’t point ahead.

Back to that large gearshift lever. It’s so big that when moving from gear to gear, you easily nudge the windshield wiper stalk directly underneath it.

Yet another woe is not Nissan’s fault, rather people who thought the cargo bed was a garbage can and choose to toss cigarettes, gum and discarded candy in the back.

Ride and especially handling robably would be improved if larger 16-inch tires were standard, or at least optional. All but the base model (14-inch tires) come with 15-inch treads.

On the plus side, Frontier sports nice wide, comfy, supportive seats and huge outside mirrors that provide ample viewing side and rear. Anti-lock brakes are standard, but rear-wheel only.

The 4×2 Frontier XE starts at $15,690, a decent price. You then, however, must reach for the credit card to equip it properly– $999 for power windows/locks/ mirrors, remote keyless entry and premium sound system with cassette and CD player; $579 for tilt steering, cruise control, intermittent wipers, vanity mirrors, privacy glass, low-fuel warning light and 12-volt accessory outlet; and $349 for a slide-open rear window, fender flares and bodyside graphics, which looked like someone with a paint brush ran the length of the vehicle in an attempt to deface it.

>> 1998 Nissan Frontier XE Wheelbase: 116.1 inches Length: 196.1 inches Engine: 2.4-liter, 143-h.p. 4-cylinder Transmission: 4-speed automatic EPA mileage: 20 m.p.g. city/24 m.p.g. highway Base price: $15,690 Price as tes ted: $17,617. Includes $999 for power package with power windows/locks/mirrors, remote keyless entry and sound-system upgrade with cassette and CD player; $579 for comfort package with tilt steer, cruise control, intermittent wipers, privacy glass, low-fuel light and passenger vanity mirror; and $349 for appearance package with sliding rear window, fender flares and body graphics. Add $490 for freight. Pluses: Very good mileage. Very big mirrors. Minuses: Mastering the passenger bag on/off switch. Shift lever blocks air bag off light and it’s too close to wiper stalk so you activate wipers when shifting gears. Mastering the rear jump seats. Road noise. Needs larger tires. >>

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