Once upon a time, way back in 1959, a company called Datsun imported a funny-looking pickup truck with a small bed and tiny engine, giving birth to the compact pickup market in the US. After a slow start, the market grew, as did the competition. The 70s brought onslaughts from Isuzu, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and even VW. After the dust settled, the small truck market in the US belongs basically to the Toyota Tacoma, Ford Ranger, Chevy/GMC Colorado/Canyon (for now, anyway) and Nissan Frontier—the direct descendant of the Datsun that started it all. Fifty years later, what hath Nissan wrought?
One thing they’ve wrought is a BIG truck. Even though the EPA classifies the Frontier Crew Cab as a small truck, it’s not. It sits on a 125.9″ wheelbase and at 205.5” is 3.5” longer than a 2009 Tahoe. It’s a half foot narrower, though, so don’t even think about squeezing a third person into the park-bench-like rear seat. Stretching to add that second row of seats gives it a bit of a dachshund look when viewed from the side.
The interior is refreshingly simple and there’s no doubt you’re in a truck. The windows, door locks and mirrors are electric, but the seats and steering wheel adjust via knobs and levers. The radio is an average AM/FM unit with CD player but no MP3 connection. Every surface looks and feels durable, as it they should in a utility vehicle. The instrument panel is a jigsaw puzzle, though. I counted sixteen different plastic parts wedged together to span the space between the doors below the windshield. And that didn’t include the parts in the instrument cluster or the various black plugs that proclaim there were options you didn’t opt for.
The front seats offer little in the way of lateral support. As you’re not likely to be autocrossing the thing, just sit back and relax. The chairs are just fine for the run to the big box store or a trip to the lake with the Jet-Ski. The back seats are a different matter. The seatback is vertical and the bottom is horizontal and close to the floor.
There’s no way I’d ever consider subjecting someone I love to the torture of sitting back there. Why spend the extra money for a crew cab pickup with a cab too small for your crew? Using the extra space for cargo doesn’t work too well either. The seat backs fold down, but they have a huge gap at the rear where small objects disappear. The seat bottoms fold up but that space is eaten up by oddly-shaped shallow cargo bins.
Face it: the only real reason to buy a pickup truck is the cargo box out back. While some “small” crew cab trucks give you all of four feet for your stuff, the Frontier has a six-footer. And, yes, when it comes to pickup truck beds, size matters. You can fit big-boy-sized toys in this one with the tailgate shut and actually use it to haul the kind of stuff you’d pick up at the home improvement store. The tailgate shuts with a satisfying “chunk” that sounds better than the doors in the average car.
Our test truck came with “SE Value Truck Package” which included a sliding bed divider. It slides in tracks on either side of the bed but when it’s in the front- or rearmost position it eats up at least six inches of the bed’s length. It carries a sticker that proclaims “WARNING This is not designed as a cargo retention device.” If that’s the case, I don’t really understand what its purpose is.
The Frontier’s 4-liter V6 churns out 261 HP and 281 lb·ft of torque. I didn’t try towing anything, but it felt like there would be more than enough oomph to handle boats or utility trailers. The five-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and unobtrusively. The ride and handling are, well, truck-like. Even with the long wheelbase, the ride is a bit stiff over broken pavement. On the highway, though, it’s no worse than many economy cars.
The fuel economy is terrible; even a 5.3L V8-equipped Tahoe is more fuel efficient. The Heavy Chevy is rated at 15/21. The V6-equipped Frontier only manages 15/20. You don’t buy a truck for the fuel economy, but this kind of mileage from a “small” truck is ludicrous.
The Nissan Frontier comes as either an extended cab or crew cab version (the standard cab is no longer offered). Our tester stickered $25,805— a reasonable price for a crew cab pickup. As a truck, it does just fine. As a passenger car, the back seat and fuel mileage conspire to drive home the point that it IS a truck. And that’s just as it should be.
[Nissan provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance and a tank of gas.]