EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit News's view

Nissan’s latest entry in the compact truck market is the Frontier – a brand new design for 1998 and the third-generation pickup to roll off the line at its Smyrna plant in Tennessee.

At a glance, the Frontier seems to do everything right, starting with chunky six-spoke wheels and fender flares. A jazzy graphic along its sides gives the illusion of movement, even when the pickup is standing still. Inside, it looks like a weekend on wheels, with such amenities as a standard sunroof and CD player on the top-of-the-line 4X4 SE King Cab version we drove. And the price tag isn’t that bad either. Our well-equipped Frontier cost $21,480 and, believe us, there are some competitors out there that can set you back as much as $27,000.

Anita gave the Frontier three stars. But Paul could only come up with two. Here’s why:

He: I gotta believe that guys who have their eyes on pickup trucks have two things in mind: Power and styling.

She: Oh, really. Not three things? Why do you think they call them pickups?

He: That’s a myth. Power and styling. Let’s talk about power first. Guys are going to be disappointed with the brand-new 1998 Frontier, especially the 4X4 version we drove. Right now, the only engine available is a twin-cam 2.4-liter four-cylinder. It’s quieter and smoother than last year’s single-overhead-cam 2.4-liter and it has better low-end torque. But it’s not powerful enough to haul around a 3,600-pound truck and a bulky four-wheel-drive system – not to mention any kind of payload. Sorry, guys. I’d wait until the end of the year when the Pathfinder’s 3.3-liter V-6 becomes available as an option. Or better yet, I’d buy a Ford Ranger, which is still the best-in-class compact truck in my book.

She: OK, so a new Frontier only makes 143 horsepower with that four-cylinder engine. I suppose you could argue that a Plymouth Neon is more powerful – and it is. That might be an interesting bet in a bar. But you can’t dismiss the Frontier that easily. What happens to the guys who think styling is as important as power? Besides, it’s not like you’re going to haul cattle in a compact pickup such as the Frontier. It’s an image vehicle. It’s a sports car. Oh, and, by the way, women buy trucks, too. Or did you forget?

He: But nobody wants just an average truck. And that’s the trouble with the Frontier. It’s strictly middle of the road. It doesn’t do anything much better than the rest of the pack. Yes, Nissan improved it for this year. The old Nissan pickup had a smaller cabin and it was a lot noisier and more rattly. But Nissan hadn’t done anything with their pickup for about six years, while competitors such as Ford and Chevrolet were constantly making improvements and coming out ahead. This year is no different. That’s why I gave it two stars. It’s average.

She: I think you’re not giving Nissan enough credit for doing a good job stylistically with the Frontier. Look at the angular, squared-off rear of the Fron tier and the chrome bumper. Manly – to borrow one of your goofy truck terms. Look at the big, chunky black fender flares over those six-spoke aluminum alloy wheels. Kind of reminds you of steel-toed work boots.

He: You sound like a commercial for Sears.

She: And that graphic along the sides looks like lightning. Walk around to the front and look at that chrome grille. That’s attitude. That’s what you want in a truck. And, hey, this is the first Nissan truck to have a real name. I think Frontier is a great name. The old model was just called the “Pickup” or the “Hardbody.” And you still don’t think there’s more to buying a truck than power and style?

He: So these guys weren’t always marketing geniuses when it comes to naming vehicles. But there’s another element. It’s whether the truck is car-like enough, especially on the inside.

She: OK, now I may be able to convince you to give the Frontier three stars. Check out our specs box and look at the line that sa options. There are none with the Frontier. It’s loaded with stuff – just about everything you could think of, from three cupholders, air conditioning and a pop-up sunroof to a stereo with a CD player and four speakers. They did forget to put a vanity mirror on the driver’s side and there was no hook for hanging your dry cleaning, but I guess those are fairly minor things.

He: I wish Nissan hadn’t decided to resurrect that silly old pull-out handle for a parking brake from the ’50s. I feel like I’m back in driver’s ed again. A floor pedal would have been less obtrusive. Nissan also forgot that some manufacturers make push-button four-wheel-drive. I recall hearing you complain about the confusing second shift lever on the floor of the Frontier.

She: I couldn’t figure out when I was in 2H or 4H. I guess I’ve been spoiled by those push-button shifters. I did like the fact that the SE King Cab model includes automatic locking hubs, which allow you to roll into four-wheel drive at speeds up to 50 miles an hour. My main gripe with the Frontier is that even with the four-wheel-drive system, it’s not a totally all-purpose vehicle. The 20-inch-plus step-in height was fine for me, but I had to borrow my dad’s car when I wanted to take great-grandma to the dentist. If you have anyone with special needs or small children, the Frontier is going to be a pain. The little jump seats in the back are difficult to reach, even with the King Cab version, and very uncomfortable if you are bigger than elf size.

He: Sounds like you’d better change your vote to two stars. I’m assuming, of course, that changing back to elf size is probably out of the question.

The Final Word

What we liked: Sharp styling, (Anita); good attention to safety features (Anita); $21,480 price tag on top-of-the-line 4X4 SE fairly easy to take, especially with such standard features as CD player, air conditioning and sunroof; bigger than previous generation.

What we didn’t like: Needs more power; hard-to-figure 4WD shifter; 20 inch step-in height can be intimidating.

1998 Nissan Frontier 4X4 King Cab

Type: Four-wheel-drive, four-passenger compact pickup

Price: Base, $20,990; as tested, $21,480 (inc. $490 destination charge)

What’s new for ’98: All new

Standard equipment: Cloth bucket seats with adjustable headrests, rear fold-down side-facing jump seats, AM/FM stereo with cassette, CD player and four speakers, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, power mirrors, power windows, power door locks, security system with remote keyless entry, passenger-side only vanity mirror, air conditioning, variable intermittent wipers, digital quartz clock, center console with armrest and three cup-holders, privacy glass sliding rear window, map pockets, 12-volt power outlet, flip-up and removable sunroof with detachable sunshade, chrome grille and bumpers, six-spoke alloy wheels, power steering, tinted glass, dual overhead map lights , P235/R15 all-season radial tires

Safety features: Dual airbags, passenger-side airbag cutoff switch, four-wheel antilock brakes, height-adjustable shoulder belts for front passengers

Options on test vehicle: None

EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city/21 mpg highway

Engine: 2.4-liter I-4; 143 hp at 5,200 rpm; 154 lb-ft torque at 4,000 rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Competitors: Chevrolet S10, Dodge Dakota, Ford Ranger, GMC Sonoma, Isuzu Hombre, Mazda B series, Toyota Tacoma

Specifications: Wheelbase, 116.1 inches; overall length, 196.1 inches; curb weight, 3,685 pounds; legroom, 40.8 inches front; headroom, 39.3 inches front; shoulder room, 55.3 inches front/55.9 inches rear

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,035. Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives 3-10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where approra e, discounts for air bags and seat belts.

Where built: Smyrna, Tenn.

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