No Fixed Abode: The Final Frontier

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Some people have one mid-life crisis; I’ve had a series of them, rearing their ugly heads in widely disparate manners, off and on over the past 20 years. In fact, I’m now having midlife crises that are repeats of previous crises.

Example: After a fairly successful knee surgery last month, I decided to buy some new BMX bikes and go riding again, the same way I did back in 2001 or thereabouts. Last time, my partners in this ill-advised venture were a bunch of Bolivian pro BMX racers whose constant orbits around my house combined with the glossy presence of a CL55 AMG and an Audi S8 in my driveway to convince my neighbors that I was involved with the cartels. This time, my main homeboy is my seven-year-old son, newly mounted-up on a watermelon-green Sunday Primer 16 skatepark bike.

The last time I got this serious about riding, I bought a Nissan Frontier. This time I’ve thought long and hard about doing something similar. True, I have a very nice Tahoe Z71 as part of the dowry from my recent marriage, but driving anything as profoundly elephantine as a Tahoe depresses the hell out of me. What to do?

Back in the millennial year, I had at least the following choices for a low-cost manual-transmission compact truck:

  • Toyota Tacoma
  • Nissan Frontier
  • Ford Ranger
  • Chevrolet S10/GMC Sonoma
  • Dodge Dakota

Probably a few I’m missing in that list. In truth, I never really considered anything besides the Toyota, the Ford, and the Nissan. Of the three, the latter had the lowest transaction cost and the most attractive equipment spec, so that’s what I bought.

In 2017, my choices for an affordable stick-shift extra-cab compact truck are:

  • Nissan Frontier
  • Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon*

I’ve put an asterisk after the Chevy because, as far as I can tell, the stick shift is available in an extremely limited number of configurations. But that’s okay; I’m not talking about buying a whole fleet of different trucks. I really just need one.

About $22,000 would get me a decent example of the Nissan or the GM twins; compared to the $14,000 I paid 17 years ago for the Nissan, that seems reasonable enough. There’s a stripped-out $18,700 Nissan available, but it’s short a few things that I’d want, like a sliding rear window and A/C. In both cases, we’ve got a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine; the Nissan is a five-speed against the Chevy’s six-speed.

The Colorado is a brand-new truck that has proven popular; the Frontier is an old soldier. Nissan didn’t even bother to bring one to this year’s Detroit show. Both of them are considerably larger than my old 2000-model-year Frontier. It’s best to think of them as halfway between a traditional Eighties compact truck and a traditional Nineties full-sizer.

One immediate shock and annoyance; neither of them rides nice and low like the compact trucks of yore. It used to be that only the 4WD “import” trucks felt lifted, but even the humblest two-wheel-drive Frontier nowadays seems a long way from the ground. This matters, because a tall truck on relatively soft springs is a genuine annoyance to drive. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like the Tahoe. The lower the roll center is, the less you feel the wallowing effect that happens if your suspension is designed for the demands of the mid-Ohio (farm roads) and not the demands of the Mid-Ohio (Sports Car Course).

It might just be a combination of preconception and prejudice on my part, but I don’t get the feeling either the Frontier or Colorado are particularly proud of being compact pickups. The old Toyota Truck (don’t call it a “HiLux” unless you have a passport from a country where it’s sold as such, you jerkoff) never pretended to be an F-150. It was an alternative to the F-150, a vehicle that offered most of the functionality at a far lower operating cost and pavement shadow.

These “compact” trucks, by contrast, have the same high doors and dark cabin as their full-sized relatives, and they conduct themselves in the same ponderous fashion. Surely they’re not aimed at people who can’t afford a new F-150; with the lease rates the way they are, if you can afford a Frontier, you can absolutely afford an F-150. And by the time you equip either of them the way a common-and-garden XLT full-sized Ford sits at the dealer, the money is about the same anyway. The only way the small trucks make sense is if you buy them as low-equipment four-cylinder bargain-basement 36-month-finance specials.

Which truck to pick? This is where bias and pre-existing notions rule the roost for me. I’m intellectually aware that General Motors now offers vehicles that match the “foreign” competition for quality, but my heart tells me the Nissan will still be chuggin’ along 20 years from now while the Colorado will be sitting in a junkyard. Surely there is no factual basis for this — not even the Toyota Tacoma is built like the old half-ton minitrucks, and Nissan was never the small-truck quality leader anyway — but it’s how I feel.

So. A Nissan Frontier King Cab SV it is. Except. Do I really want to stick my son in the King Cab section? That looks and feels like the proverbial deathtrap to me. I grew up riding around to BMX tracks in the back of a 1984 Nissan King Cab, but let’s face it; life was cheaper back then. I’m too old to raise another son from scratch. I literally wouldn’t live to see him get a doctorate. So maybe I should get the Crew Cab. But is that any better, really? And at that point, I’ve lost a stick shift.

There’s also the little matter of am I really dumb enough to buy a truck that can’t tow my race car? What’s the point of buying a new truck if I’ll be back behind the wheel of the Tahoe every time I want to see a checkered flag? I’d better sit down and make a list of what I really need from a truck:

  • Safe enough for a 7-year-old in a crash, particularly a side-impact crash, because we’re always best-equipped to fight our last war;
  • Carries three BMX bikes and three people.
  • Can haul a full-sized racing kart in the bed — there’s a story there, I’ll come back to it another time.
  • Can pull a 2,500-pound Miata or Neon on an open trailer.
  • Has a decent stereo, since you can’t swap them out any more.

If you try to meet that list of needs with a compact truck, you wind up with a very expensive compact truck. And then you’ll still find yourself wishing you had a larger truck every time you’re towing a car.

I don’t want a $40,000 compact truck. At that point, it makes more sense to get an F-150. So maybe I’ll do that. But the problem is that I really don’t want to drive an F-150. Not one single bit. Don’t want to park it, don’t want to struggle with its bulk everywhere I go, don’t want to get fifteen miles to the gallon, don’t want to fill up my driveway with one.

Still. I can see why compact trucks are a dying breed. It’s too easy to envision a situation where you won’t have enough capacity for the task. Which is, somehow, much worse than buying a car that can’t do truck things, because a compact truck still exacts a considerable penalty in terms of fuel economy, ride quality, crash safety, parking space, and interior comfort.

The sad part is that GM used to make the right vehicle for my task set. It was called the B-body wagon. They’re great. I know, because I used to own one. A Caprice Classic Estate built to modern standards would be the perfect BMX/racing/family-truckster car. Since they don’t exist, it’s F-150 or nothing. I’d kind of rather have nothing. Watch this space, I suppose.

[Image: Nissan]

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Frank Williams Frank Williams on Jan 18, 2017

    I cast another vote for the Ridgeline (or “El Hondamino,” as I call mine). The one I have meets every criteria you list. It would haul your bikes and/or your cart (and has the “in-bed truck” you can fill with ice and beer), and would transport your son more safely than any of the trucks you’re considering. It handles much better than any body-on-frame pickup could ever dream of, and it outruns most any any other midsize truck. Unless you just have to have something that projects a more manly image (aka “overcompensating”), the Ridgeline is worth a long, hard look.

    • See 2 previous
    • Kato Kato on Jan 18, 2017

      The Ridgeline ticks the most boxes on his vehicle mission statement, but I strongly suspect he wouldn't be caught dead in one, so I didn't bother suggesting it in my post above.

  • Mor2bz Mor2bz on Jan 18, 2017

    I have a PILE of money just lying around. I have numerous vehicles but feel the need to buy another. I am American and my balls will drop off soon if I don't have a pickup truck. I like to live vicariously through my kids, and can justify any outlay if they are remotely involved. Even though I have drunk myself half to death and been reckless my entire life, I now need to have a SAFE vehicle that will do 0-60 in 5.8 seconds, like a F-150 with TWO turbos so I can drag with 3.5 Altima enroute to the BMX racecourse conveniently located three hours away. Can you please help me spend this money? I don't know much about cars and things.

  • EBFlex At the summer property putting boats in the water, leveling boat lifts, cleaning the lots for summer, etc. Typical cabin stuff in the most beautiful place on the planet
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.