If you're looking for one of the most iconoclastic design studios in the country, look no further than Nissan Design International Inc. in La Jolla, Calif. - home of the newly revised 2001 Frontier pickup. In addition to tinkering with the look of the Frontier, designers there have focused their creative powers on nonautomotive stuff, including medical instruments and preschool furniture. Other weird stuff on the NDI drawing board: a human-powered paddleboat that may be used in a new Olympic sport. We bring that up only as a preface to dissecting the dramatic look of the new Frontier. We both think it's the toughest, most rugged-looking compact pickup out there. A product of minds that are free to wander.

We drove a high-end Frontier 4X4 SEV6 that cost $25,585.

She: Sometimes when you're not home and it's late at night, I indulge in one of my secret pastimes - ...

He: What, eating?

She: No, buster. I was talking about watching the WWF Smackdown. I only bring that up because the new Frontier looks to me like a vehicle the Rock would drive. Let me put it another way. If kick-boxing is your idea of the perfect sport, you'll feel right at home in the new Frontier. The only thing that's missing on that aggressive, bulldog-like front end is a little bit of drool.

He: Gee. WWF Smackdown and The Real World. It's good to know you've become so culturally well-rounded. Now, if you just wanna talk about hardware, I can't wait to sample the new supercharged engine in the 2001 Frontier, which comes out later this month. In the meantime, I was pretty impressed with the optional 3.3-liter V-6, which makes 170 horsepower and 200 pounds-feet of torque. With the five-speed manual transmission, this is already a pretty peppy package. In the four-wheel-drive model we tested, fuel economy isn't that great - 16 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway. But it sure is loads of fun to drive.

She: In the past, auto critics have griped about the old Frontier's awkward and uninspired interior. I found the new cabin, especially from the driver's seat to be more comfortable. I especially like the $599 option we had that included an in-dash, six-disc CD changer with steering wheel controls.

He: Don't misunderstand - this is not a full ground-up redesign. But it's a pretty substantial makeover inside and out, and it works wonders for the Frontier's personality. In fact, the new truck's good looks tend to mask some of the shortcomings that still haven't been addressed. This is still a very rough-riding pickup, especially the 4X4 edition. And with the new four-door models that are on the market, the two-door extended cab makes less sense. I still see this truck appealing mostly to young singles who want to haul stuff. The problem is, young singles aren't buying that many pickups these days.

She: One of my negative experiences in the Frontier happened at the Detroit airport. It was a rainy morning and the parking lot was jammed with only a few tight spaces left. On my first try, I could not squeeze in between an Escort and an SUV. This truck clearly needs a tighter turning radius. Or else I should allow more time to make my plane.

He: We should probably talk about value at this point. Nissan, like many of the other major truck makers, offers a wide assortment of models from which to choose, starting from under $12,000. Interestingly, our test model was stickered at more than $25,000 - if you will, the price of two base Frontiers. And it wasn't even a top-of-the-line model. By the time you load up all the gizmos and gadgets, these compact pickups are getting frighteningly expensive. And frankly, if I had that kind of money to spend on a new vehicle, I'm more likely to look elsewhere - perhaps even at a nicely equipped full-size pickup from Chevy or Ford.

She: But if you have your heart set on a compact truck, the 2001 Nissan Frontier is one of the fre st-looking entries in the segment.

Anita's rating: Above average

Paul's rating: Above average

Likes: Most rugged looks in its class. Improved interior. New supercharged engine available. New audio lineup.

Dislikes: Ride may still be too trucky for some. Difficult to squeeze into tight parking spaces. We worry about value, especially on high-end versions. Two-door extended cab makes less sense than four-door.

Type: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, five-passenger pickup truck.

Price: Base, $23,849; as tested; $25,585 (inc. $520 destination charge).

Engine: 3.3-liter V-6; 170-hp at 4,800 rpm; 200 lb-ft torque at 2,800 rpm.

Fuel economy: 16 city/18 highway.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan (*Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower depending on coverage and driving record.): $1.053.

Where built: Smyrna, Tenn.