According to the official corporate mythology, the inspiration for Nissan's new Frontier pickup styling was high-end power tools. It is itself, after all (so the argument goes), a power tool, with the same emphasis on a melding of beauty and functionality. Be that as it may, it's a brilliant conception that sets the Frontier aside from anything else out there, and produces the same slack-jawed response among young males as those female-pop-star soda commercials.

Nissan's studies have suggested that about 80 percent of Frontier buyers will be male, the rest being a species that is known to appreciate the kind of bodybuilder lines with which the machine is imbued. (One is Diane Allen, Nissan chief designer at the La Jolla, Calif. studio which came up with the radically new look. She said a secondary consideration was to echo some of the design clues embodied in the Xterra SUV, Nissan's youth-oriented, entry-level machine.)

Nissan lists permutations of Frontier, considering cab design, trim level and powertrain. It starts down at an astonishingly low base price of $11,699 for a 4x2 regular cab with 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission. At that price, I could be persuaded to keep one around strictly for hauling garden supplies.

On the march to the lavishly-endowed series they put in the press fleet, there are 2x4s and 4x4s, with regular cabs, king cabs and crew cabs, 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder engines, Spartan XE trim and plusher SE fittings, manual transmissions and automatics, and ultimately, a supercharged 6-cylinder variant. That's what I played with for a week, with Crew Cab, 4-wheel drive and a 5-speed manual transmission. Base price on that one is $24,049, double the entry-level offering. An automatic transmission, which I'd be inclined to go for, would add $1,050.

It soon becomes apparent that the Frontier is not just a pretty face. The inside has been massaged, too, with new gauges and steering wheel, new audio options and a luxurious (optional) leather seating package. The supercharged versions have distinctive red-on-charcoal stitching for a sporty flair.

A King Cab means an extended passenger compartment with only two doors. Best thing you can do with that arrangement is consider the rear seating area a trunk. The non-spry need not apply. A Crew Cab, the four-door machine, also provides the passenger-hauling capability, in a more usable form, and, like the King Cab, it allows the driver and navigator to tilt their seats back from the near-vertical angle of the regular cab. Trucks without that ability are hard to live with.

King Cab and Crew Cab series sit on a 116-inch wheelbase and are 200 inches long, with rear bumper. The regular cab versions have a 104-inch wheelbase and are 185 inches overall. In the King and Crew, space utilization is biased toward people, with a bed volume of 33 cubic feet, about what you'd get in two mid-size cars. Des pite its abbreviated overall length, the regular cab truck affords 44 cubic feet for manure and such. On the stretches, the bed is 4 inches shy of 5 feet long, but this can be extended by dropping the tailgate. Width is nearly 5 feet, sure to please those who deal in plywood sheets (long-load flag optional and extra).

I found the second-class compartment on the Crew Cab adequate for two amateur Sumos such as I, three skinny chicks or kids or one serious dog. It would help in most cases to have a giving person up front. It's worth bearing in mind that in addition to livery duties, the back of a four-door pickup provides greatly enhanced security for gear with easy accessibility.

In its sparest form, a Frontier weighs 3,817; at the high end, 4,208. Nissan says a properly equipped Frontier can tow up to 5,000 pounds (automatic transmission, 3,500 with 5-speed manual). Even unladen, that's a hefty load for the four-banger, which produces 143 hp (@5,200 rpm) and 154 f unds of torque (@4,000). Better to move up to the 3.3-liter single-overhead-cam V-6, which provides 170 hp (@4,800) and 200 foot-pounds of torque @2,800). If you're really into towing or hauling, and especially if you want the 4x4 drivetrain with automatic, you'd be well advised to go for the supercharged version of the V-6. It makes 210 hp (@4,800) and 246 foot-pounds (w. automatic) or 231 (5-speed) at 2,800 rpm.

Unlike a turbo, which gets it on when the engine starts spinning fast, a supercharger, belt driven off the crankshaft, provides truck-friendly low-end grunt as well as a kick in the pants at elevated speeds.

In the test machine, it felt more like a small pushrod V-8, with good launch feel and the flexibility to be effective at a wide range of speeds. It does want premium fuel, unlike its more delicate brethren. The EPA rates the supercharged 4x4 Crew Cab at 15 mpg city, 18 highway. I logged 16.1, with a mix of freeway flying, around-town pottering and some 4x4 testing.

With a wheelbase equal to what you'd find on a large car, and not unduly aggressive shocks and springs, the Frontier has a surprisingly good ride, with decent nastiness filtering and little jiggle unladen, although it did smooth a bit with a few hundred pounds' worth of cargo. It was surprisingly quiet, too, and was a fooler on the highway, running considerably faster than seat-of-the-pants intuition suggested.

The four instruments are black on off-white by day, and reverse at night. I thought they were hard to see on sunny days when I was wearing sunglasses, fine at night. Why only four? With a supercharger, a boost gauge would be amusing, and oil temperature and pressure gauges useful, as well as adding to the industrial-chic ambience.

The optional leather seating areas were very attractive, worthy of a luxury sedan, and decently supportive.

The SC variants are equipped like low-end luxury cars, with all the power goodies and niceties such as fog lamps, roof rack, locking/removable tailgate, air conditioning, keyless entry and a 6-speaker, 100-watt AM-FM-CD audio system.The stereo was of good quality, but left an opportunity for aftermarketers.

The SCs come with 17-inch alloy wheels housed in hefty 265/55 rubber. The generous tires contributed to a feeling of stability on curvy roads, and helped braking on dry roads approach the passenger-car norm. Stopping was aided by antilock, which is standard, along with frontal air bags.

The Frontier fared quite well in the government's crash tests. On a scale of five, it won a four-star rating for protection of the driver in a frontal impact, and fives for navigator frontal impact and side protection, front and rear.

It did considerably less well in the Insurance Institute's more demanding offset barrier crashes, garnering an overall rating of poor. Footwell intrusion produced what they estimated would be serious injuries to the driver's feet. In a series of four barrier tests at 5 mph, the Frontier tested (a '98 model) suffered more than $4,000 damage, not atypical of the class. Build quality at the Smyrna, Tenn. plant was very good.

The test platform had the "supercharger value package" ($1,549), consisting of leather seats, six-CD changer, steering wheel controls for cruise and radio, a security system, cruise control, pop-up sunroof and tilt wheel; special floor mats, $79; bedliner, $309, and bed extender, $229. Total, with freight, was $26,735.

Worth checking: Similar compact pickups like GMC Sonoma, Ford Ranger and Chevrolet S-10, or the somewhat larger Dakota, which offers a choice between two V-8s.

"The Gannett News Service"