From the September 2000 issue of Car and Driver.
After floundering for the past five years, Nissan appears to be back in the game. In just two years, the Japanese automaker has introduced a revised Maxima sedan, pumped up the Pathfinder SUV, and rolled out the all-new, entry-level Xterra sport-ute.
The Xterra has done quite well for Nissan, selling at a pace of about 90,000 a year, some 30,000 more units than Nissan had expected to move. Nissan is now hoping that some of the Xterra’s success will rub off on the Frontier pickup line, with its aggressive new bodywork and an optional supercharged engine.
The Frontier clearly needed work. The last version, which appeared in late 1997, was a consensus dud. In August 1998, we placed one in a five-truck comparison test, and it finished last. It combined a jittery ride with backpedaled styling, and only one other truck was slower. Perhaps the humdrum truck has appealed to a listless clientele, as current Frontier customers say watching television is their favorite pastime. To find out if we’d crave some tube time after experiencing the 2001 model, we got our hands on a prototype two-wheel-drive crew cab with an automatic transmission—and the newly supercharged engine—for this early test.
That engine is a definite godsend, as the last Frontier’s 170-hp V-6 was one of the weakest in the class. An Eaton Roots-type supercharger, the same type used by Mercedes-Benz and General Motors, provides a maximum of 7.5 psi of lag-free boost and bumps horsepower from 170 at 4800 rpm to a much-appreciated 210 at the same rpm. Torque goes up 45 from 200 pound-feet at 2800 rpm to 245.
Helping the blower do its job are larger fuel injectors and a higher-pressure fuel pump that supplies the heavier-breathing engine with more fuel. There’s also a higher-capacity radiator, a recalibrated engine controller, and subtle modifications to the clutch on manual-transmission models.
But don’t expect the supercharger to turn the Frontier into a sleeper drag-strip burner. Our test truck still needed 9.5 seconds to reach 60 mph and 17.2 seconds to get past the quarter-mile mark at a less-than-scorching 79 mph. A 170-hp crew-cab four-wheeler we tested last August needed 10.9 seconds to reach 60 and did the quarter-mile routine in 18.2 seconds at 75 mph. What is strange is just how urgently the supercharged Nissan leaps off the line with nothing more than a tap of the gas pedal, belying the mediocre drag-strip numbers. It turns out that an overly aggressive throttle linkage disproportionately opens the throttle plate when the pedal is depressed. Pure mechanical trickery, but the supercharged Frontier now easily merges into 80-mph freeway traffic.
We couldn’t help thinking there should be more beans, but Nissan says drivetrain reliability compromised how much power the blown motor could produce. Why not use the Pathfinder’s DOHC 250-hp V-6? Nissan says it’s too wide to fit in the Frontier (not to mention too expensive), and Nissan says it wanted to keep the Pathfinder unique anyway.
So the engine definitely increases the appeal of the Frontier, but we think the new bodywork will attract more than a few customers. It was penned at Nissan’s design studio in La Jolla, California, and we found only a few casual observers who didn’t go for the new industrial look. We would have preferred, however, if the large fender flares didn’t abruptly end at the doors and if the fake bolt heads that ring the flares were the real thing; it would look so much cooler. The hood was also raised 48 millimeters to make room for the blower. Not a single onlooker claims to prefer the humdrum 2000 model over the new truck.
All Frontiers—regular cabs, King Cabs, and crew cabs—get new clothes, but Nissan is positioning blown trucks as top-of-the-line models. Which means all supercharged trucks are loaded with plenty of goodies. Their interiors have light-gray-colored trim around the climate controls and reversible gauges that change from black-on-white to white-on-black at night. There’s also a tubular roof rack that’s similar to the one found on the Xterra sport-ute. The few options that are available include leather seats, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, and a pop-up sunroof.
There’s more. Realizing that only a few owners take their trucks off-road, Nissan lowered ride heights to improve on-road feel. Two-wheelers are lowered 10mm in front and 30mm in the rear. Four-by-fours go down 10mm at both ends. The lowered stance, combined with the lower-profile 17-inch tires (supercharged models ride on P265/55HR-17 tires; the largest tires on lesser models are P265/70R-16s), provided 0.75 g of lateral grip, 0.05 more than did our last crew-cab test truck. The numb steering is still apparent, however, new tires and all.
We couldn’t detect a major refinement in the on-road ride, either. The ride of this Frontier was bouncy. We also noticed a distinct tendency to wander that required constant steering correction. With about 600 pounds in the truck’s bed, the wandering worsened significantly. We didn’t get a chance to tow anything (automatic supercharged Frontiers can tow 5000 pounds, and manual models can pull 3500 pounds), but it’s safe to say that if you have a serious load to haul, stick to a full-size truck. (By the way, Nissan has a brute of a full-size V-8 pickup in the works, expected to appear in the next few years.)
Perhaps the neatest part of the supercharged engine and its added equipment is the low price Nissan says it will charge for it. Prices have not been set, but Nissan expects 2000-model-year stickers to carry over to next year’s trucks. The blown-engine package will add about $1300. We figure the loaded prototype pictured here will be about $24,000.
We can’t say whether this new Frontier will continue to create that strange desire to watch television, but we do know that owners will at least be able to get to the video store a lot quicker.
How Much Quicker Is the Manual-Transmission Frontier SC?
Our test Frontier pickup came with a performance-sapping automatic transmission, which is not the recipe for the quickest zero-to-60-mph time. The potentially quickest Frontier is the two-wheel-drive supercharged King Cab, which does come with a manual transmission. Unfortunately, the only manual-tranny Frontier available for testing was a four-wheel-drive supercharged crew cab. We confirmed what we’d guessed—automatic versions are slower in standing-start acceleration tests.
Despite weighing 234 more pounds than the automatic version (thanks to the four-wheel-drive hardware), the manual model shaved 0.3 second off the 60-mph sprint and did it in 9.2 seconds. That 0.3 second also carried through the quarter-mile as the shift-it-yourself model made it through in 16.9 seconds at 79 mph versus 17.2 seconds at 79 mph for the automatic.
The story doesn’t end there. The rolling-start 5-to-60-mph test revealed that the manual truck was actually 0.3 second slower than the auto pickup. Without the benefit of a drop-clutch launch, the four-wheel-drive manual version could not overcome its extra weight.
Even so, if you want the quickest Frontier, stick to one with a manual tranny.
Revamping a product is always a challenge when there’s not much money in the till, but Nissan has performed magic with the new Frontier. The revised sheetmetal gives the pickup a RoboCop look that is not only distinctive and modern but attractive, too. And the addition of a supercharger transforms the old single-overhead-cam V-6 from a gasping wheezer into a powerful mill that performs its duties without breaking a sweat. In particular, the mechanically driven blower is appropriate to the duty cycle of a truck, where low-end grunt is far more useful than frenetic revving. With guts and good looks, the Frontier is in the hunt again. —Csaba Csere
Nissan’s trucks finally have an engine worthy of their chassis. This publication has spilled much ink extolling the carlike ride of trucks and sport-utes from Nissan, but we have always deemed its powertrains to be merely adequate. The years of suffering with lethargic iron-block lumps will melt away with one shrill poke of the supercharged six. Sure, for the Frontier SC’s price you coulda had a V-8. But not everyone wants to steer a slab of lumbering Detroit iron through afternoon traffic. For these people, Nissan has revived the old “four-door sports car” as a nifty pickup with intriguing crypto-BladeRunner styling. I approve. —Aaron Robinson
I’m probably in the minority, but I liked the Frontier crew cab before it got its beauty makeover. The new bolt-on styling pieces are beautifully designed, but they deserve to be fastened to something with a more shapely figure. To my eyes the squared-off shape of the original fender flares integrated better with the overall boxiness of the cab, plus the tidy horizontal grille visually pulled things together in front. On the other hand, the new supercharger sure gives a nice shot of adrenaline to what was previously a real slowpoke, and it makes nifty noises, too. For my money, though, the Dodge Dakota Quad Cab looks beefier and offers a honkin’ V-8 for about the same price. —Jeffrey Dworin
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