- Trucky styling
- V-6 is strong
- Hauls and tows confidently with V-6
- Crew Cab is spacious
- Good safety scores
- Ride can feel busy
- Grainy, plasticky interior
- Bed is six feet long, at best
You may not need to go full-size--the 2012 Nissan Frontier pickup truck can cover a lot of the same ground a bigger pickup can.
Built on the same frame as the bigger Nissan Titan, the Nissan Frontier is more than a compact pickup. It's a mid-sizer in the mold of the old Dodge Dakota and today's Toyota Tacoma, and as such, it's the perfect downsize from a full-size truck when cabin room and pickup capacity are still important. And yet, the Frontier also excels when frugality's at the top of the list, since it still comes in a four-cylinder, bare-bones model.
Since it's gone almost a decade without a major redesign, the Frontier could be judged a little stale-looking. By truck standards it's still handsome, masculine and chunky, with just enough detailing to pick out a distinct Nissan identity without going to the roofline extremes you'll see on the larger Titan pickup and Armada SUV. The interior's where its age shows through: the dash is plasticky and grainy to the touch, and less fluidly shaped than the latest pickups, particularly the newest Ram 1500 and Toyota Tundra.
If you absolutely must have a V-8 engine in your truck, the Frontier's off the short shopping list. But its 4.0-liter V-6 is worth a shot for full-size fans. It makes 261 horsepower and teams up well with a five-speed automatic, twisting out plenty of torque for strong mid-range acceleration and powerful passing. There's a manual transmission available and it's fine, though the lever throws are fairly long. Properly equipped, the six-cylinder Frontier can tow up to 6500 pounds. There's a four-cylinder option as well, and it's rated higher for fuel economy, though the spec-sheet ratings could disappear as you push the 152-hp, 2.5-liter four with heavy payloads and extra passengers.
The Frontier's available in rear- or four-wheel-drive form, with either an extended "King" cab or a four-door "Crew" cab offered on most trim levels. The Crew Cab is the way to go if you regularly carry more than two front-seat passengers. The King Cab model has seats for occasional back-seat passengers, and it has a pair of rear-hinged doors to make it easier for them to get in, but in all, the space is puny and those flip-down seats are uncomfortable for even short trips. In front and in back of four-door Frontiers, the seats are supportive, and the truck has a good, upright seating position, with a somewhat high floor forcing taller drivers into a stretched-leg position. About the only down side for comfort is the Frontier's ride, which can get pretty choppy.
For hauling cargo, the Frontier has a choice of small to not quite as small beds; the longer one's still six feet long, a couple of feet shy of the usual full-size length. However, there's a stout pickup frame underneath and the Frontier's bed has some nifty features not found on other trucks in this segment. The pickup bed gets a factory-applied spray-in bedliner, and there's a system of tracks and tie-downs that helps drivers sort out gear that would otherwise roll around in back.Safety is among the best of compact and mid-size trucks. The IIHS calls the Frontier "good" on all its tests, but since stability control at all four wheels is not standard on all models, it's not a Top Safety Pick. There are no options for features like a rearview camera, but Bluetooth is available.
The Frontier starts in very basic form, and can be trimmed out into very specific forms. The base four-cylinder Frontier S models remain very basic and go without air conditioning, power windows, and even a tilt steering wheel. SV models get more popular equipment, like larger 16-inch alloy wheels, chromed bumpers, a sliding rear window, tilt steering, cruise control, air conditioning, keyless entry, tilt steering, and power windows and locks. Top SL models, only offered in the Crew Cab body style, get a roof rack, step rails, fog lamps, tie-down cleats, the Utili-Track system, plus heated leather seats and Bluetooth hands-free, in addition to a Rockford Fosgate eight-speaker audio system. The PRO-4X remains the way to go for those who plan to need serious off-road capability; it comes with upgraded Bilstein off-road shocks plus skid plates. Options on the Frontier include a limited-slip differential, leather seats, a high-powered Rockford Fosgate audio system, and a choice of either XM or Sirius Satellite Radio.