SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide
Nissan introduced the compact pickup to the North American automotive world nearly forty years ago, when the company sold vehicles under the Datsun name. The 1959 Datsun 1000 was a 37- horsepower utility vehicle with a 500-lb. payload - not exactly the norm for a pickup in those days. Nissan trucks became closer to the American mainstream over the ensuing years. They have broken new ground, with the first extended-cab compact pickup in 1977 and U.S. production since 1983 being among the highlights. Over 1.6 million pickups have been built in the Nissan plant at Smyrna, Tennessee, near Nashville. For 1998, the factory has a completely new compact truck, the Frontier. Although previous Nissan trucks have had nicknames, this is the first time a one has had an official name.
More than the name is new. An improved engine provides more power and a sturdier, more rigid ladder frame is found underneath the slightly larger, restyled body. But the Frontier is true to its heritage, an unpretentious vehicle designed for the hard-working, hard-playing compact truck buyer.
Three trim levels are being offered, Standard, XE, and SE. Versions of each are targeted at specific segments of the compact truck market. Cost-sensitive buyers have the standard model, available in 4x2 regular cab form only. The top-of-the-line SE comes in 4x2 or 4x4 King Cab style. The XE is expected to be the high-volume model, and can be had with either cab and a choice of 2- or 4-wheel drive.
Press fleet vehicles always seem to be top of the line, and the Frontier SE 4x4 that I had recently was no exception. Still, "top of the line" is a relative term. The Frontier has no luxury car pretensions, it's just an honest truck. Even though the SE King Cab 4x4 has enough of the right features for comfort, convenience, and utility, it's made for truck work: hauling, towing, and just plain work.
APPEARANCE: The Nissan Frontier has new style to go with its new name. It is slightly larger than the old Nissan truck, and gently rounded at the edges and corners. It has contemporary looks without going over the "aerodynamic look" edge. A flat, sloping front panel contains a chromed grille flanked by simple rectangular headlights. Character lines on the hood and sides prevent slabbiness and add interest and strength. The SE 4-by-4 King Cab is a well-proportioned small pickup with a rugged look thanks to its high stance, black fender flares, chrome-trimmed bumpers, and alloy wheels.
COMFORT: Inside is where the Frontier is most noticeably improved. Although the amount of cabin space is about the same as in the previous generation, the Frontier utilizes it better and is much more civilized. Noise, vibration, and harshness reduction was a successful design goal. A new, contemporarily-styled instrument panel places instruments and controls well, especially for the climate control and sound systems. Seating arrangement and materials depend on trim level. The SE 4x4 King Cab has good cloth-upholstered bucket seats in front and two folding, side-facing rear jump seats. Power windows, mirrors, and door locks with remote keyless entry are standard on the SE, as are a tilt-adjustable steering wheel, air conditioning, and a 100- watt AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo. There are plenty of cupholders and storage spaces around the cab. A long, floor-mounted gearshift lever and four-wheel drive lever let the driver know that it is undeniably a truck. The cargo bed has double wall construction so interior dents don't show outside. It also has built-in partition slots to allow two-tier loading or horizontal partitioning for extra versatility.
SAFETY: Every 1998 Nissan Frontier has dual airbags with a shutoff switch for the passenger-side bag, a front crumple zone, and side door beams. Two wheel drive models have antilock rear brakes. 4x4s have a sophisticated 4-wheel antilock system.
ROADABILITY: The Frontier rides and handles like a modern pickup. It's not as soft and quiet as a family sedan, but it's no Conestoga wagon. Steering effort is light, and the 4-wheel antilock brakes of the 4x4 models ensure good stopping ability on all surfaces. Even the base rear-wheel drive Frontier has rear antilock brakes, important especially when the cargo bed is not loaded. Nine inches of ground clearance on the 4x4 Frontier and seven on 4x2 models make either a good choice for off-road use or urban pothole-dodging.
PERFORMANCE: All Frontier models have a 4-cylinder, 2.4-liter engine that has been significantly revised for smoother, quieter operation, lower emissions levels, and improved low-rpm torque. With 143 horsepower and 154 lb-ft of torque, it is one of the most powerful 4-cylinder compact truck engines. However, in 4-wheel drive King Cab form, a 3700 lb. curb weight means that acceleration is acceptable but on the leisurely side. No apologies necessary, this is a working truck, not a sports car. It is undoubtedly far quicker than a 37- horsepower Datsun 1000, and holds much more than 500 lbs. In fact, towing and payload capacities are the Frontier's high-performance parameters, with 3500 and 1400 lbs. respectively. The 5-speed manual transmission used in 4x4 models has a good choice of gear ratios. Four-wheel drive may be engaged at any speed up to 50 mph.
CONCLUSIONS: The new Nissan Frontier is an honest, unpretentious working pickup truck.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 20,990 Price As Tested $ 21,480 Engine Type inline 4-cylinder, dual overhead cams, 16 valves Engine Size 2.4 liters / 146 cu. in. Horsepower 143 @ 5200 Torque (lb-ft) 154 @ 4000 Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 116.1 in. / 196.1 in. Curb Weight 3685 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 26 Fuel Capacity 15.9 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires P235 / 70 R15 m+s radial Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone with torsion bars / solid axle with leaf springs Drivetrain front engine, on-demand four-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 21 / 19 0 to 60 mph 13 sec (est.) Towing Capacity 3500 lbs. OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination Charge $ 490