The PRO-4X off-road model is Nissan's attempt at a brave new Frontier for 2009, just like the version that Titan got for 2008. In reality, as much as Nissan has tried to mix things up with official trim and name changes, mechanically the Frontier PRO-4X is really just last year's Nismo Frontier.

Nissan is dropping the Nismo designation for trucks, though, now using it only for cars, like the Z. Good move; the name "PRO-4X" is better for a truck, and the Frontier PRO-4X has stylin' looks and toughened mechanicals. Distinctive seat stitching and emblems in the new PRO-4X are the only differences from the 2008 Nismo Frontier.

I drove the rear-wheel-drive Frontier PRO-4X on a course that included paved and dirt roads in the picturesque Columbia River Gorge region of Oregon. What I really appreciated, though, was an offroad course where I tested out the more robust four-wheel-drive model on an Enduro motorcycle track in a broad valley. The track provided ample opportunity to check out the PRO-4X's suspension and traction capabilities. The truck performed flawlessly, offering a compliant and controlled ride throughout by soaking up bumps and easily managing steep hill climbs comprised of loose and pebbled dirt.

Background

Let's get one thing straight: I'm biased about the Nissan Frontier. I have been since it came to market as a 1998 model as a replacement for the outdated Nissan Hardbody, grafted from the tree of Nissan Datsun Truck's line of pickup trucks.

I've liked the Frontier from the beginning thanks to its ruggedness and unabashed trucklike ride. It started life as a two-door compact, then grew in cleverness and popularity in 2000, when Nissan's Frontier crew cab became the first four-door compact pickup in North America. A year later, a face-lift gave it a bolder, more marketable look. Its next big move was to grow larger: In 2005, it went through a complete redesign that made it a midsize pickup, built on the full-size Nissan Titan's F-Alpha platform and wearing the looks of its full-size sibling.

Along the way, the Frontier also benefited from mechanical advances that gave it more horsepower and torque, plus the Nismo performance version already mentioned. Even with all those iterations and evolutionary upgrades, whenever I climbed inside a Frontier the ride was still a little bit trucklike, despite its development happening in a time when automakers have been burning the midnight oil and performing magic tricks to make their trucks ride like cars. The Frontier's truckiness makes me long to go on a lengthy drive across an open range, rounding up cattle or dropping off hay, and I like that.

Offroad Driving

But, back to the PRO-4X: We stopped mid-climb on one of the track's hills to try out Nissan's Hill Start Assist, which is engineered for rugged, low-speed offroad driving. The feature allows you to stop and release the brake without rolling backward for up to two seconds. This allows you to move your foot to the throttle and make a smooth, controlled start.

We also tested Nissan's Hill Descent Control, which is engaged via a switch when the transfer case is in 4-High or 4-Low. It's most handy - and safer than straight braking - on steep downhills, but it's useful on any traction-compromised hill. This trick technology can be activated at speeds up to 21 mph, and it slows the vehicle without the use of the brake, working both in forward gears and in Reverse. It worked well on the trail; the frequent, drawn-out sound of the antilock braking system squeezing the rotors was the primary indication the system was working.

The Frontier has great approach and departure angles, and the underbody mechanicals and precious parts are tucked up into the frame rails for a minimum of 8.9 inches (in the four-wheel-drive Frontier) or 8.6 inches (rear-wheel drive) of running ground clearance on PRO-4X models.

Crawl ratios are about average for the segment; 42.33 for the six speed manual shifter and 33.86 for the five speed automatic transmission.

Models & Features

In the 2009 Frontier PRO-4X, you'll ride on Bilstein offroad high-pressure shock absorbers, with the benefit of additional skid plates on the oil pan and transfer case. You'll also get an electronic rear differential locker (which PickupTrucks.com considers the hallmark of a true offroad pickup), two- or four-wheel Active Brake Limited Slip, and unique machine-finished 16-inch aluminum-alloy offroad wheels with large BFGoodrich P265/75R16 Rugged Trail tires.

Exterior styling cues for the PRO-4X include several body-colored elements, including the grille, bumpers, fog lamps, outside mirrors and door handles. Inside, you'll find distinctive styling cues like a leather-appointed red-stitched shifter knob (on manual versions) and steering wheel, plus a chrome accent ring around the white-faced gauges and trip computer. PRO-4Xs also come with cruise control, remote keyless entry, power windows and door locks, and dual power outside mirrors. If you select the PRO-4X King Cab, you'll also get a factory-applied spray-on bedliner, bed-rail caps, Nissan's Utili-Track Channel System and four adjustable tie-down cleats (which are also standard on crew cab models).

There's also a new PRO-4X Value Truck Package for the crew cab LE that includes black leather-appointed front seats with red stitching, plus luxury appointments like an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat, a four-way power-adjustable passenger seat, heated front seats, dual heated outside mirrors and a rear fold-down center armrest.

PRO-4X models are only available with the 261-horsepower V-6 engine (281 pounds-feet of torque), and can have a manual transmission in King Cab versions; crew cab PRO-4Xs are automatic. All Frontiers have a 125.9-inch wheelbase, and King Cab and crew cab models with the regular bed measure 205.5 inches long.

A rear-wheel-drive Frontier PRO-4X King Cab starts at $24,930, with four-wheel-drive versions going for $26,580 (manual) or $27,630 (automatic). Crew cab versions go for $26,280 for two-wheel drive and $28,980 for four-wheel drive.