Our top-of-the-line, near-$30,000 Frontier reminded me of the once-skinny kid who chugged steroids, hit the weight room and suddenly sprouted facial hair. It’s grown into an impressive-looking specimen, but questions remain about its capabilities.
With plenty of styling cues shared with the Xterra sport-ute, Nissan’s compact pickup has proved to be a hit with youths and wanna-be youths alike. Bolted-on fender flares and fascias on the tailgate and nose reek of testosterone. The nosepiece, in particular, gives the Frontier an almost cruel, Darth Vaderesque aspect, handy for intimidating slowpokes blocking the road. Kudos to the crowd at Nissan Design America in La Jolla, Calif., who sought to create a “modern industrial” look for the Frontier—they’ve succeeded in spades. A colleague’s Chevy S-10, parked alongside, looked almost puny in comparison.
Now available in 19—count ’em—19 different models, the Frontier can come with a standard two-door cab, an extended cab, or a four-door Crew Cab; two- or four-wheel drive; three bed lengths; and three engine choices: a 143-hp, 2.4-liter four; a 3.3-liter V-6; and the latter’s blown variant.
The last is only one mill to spec if you’re at all concerned with getting anywhere in a reasonable amount of time—the 3.3-liter V-6 capped with an Eaton-built, Roots-type blower, fully warranteed by Nissan. Our black-on-charcoal Frontier was so fitted, and bright red decals proclaim to all your supercharged engine choice. The blower and enlarged fuel injectors provide horsepower and torque numbers of 210 hp and 246 lb-ft. You can chirp the P265/65R17 Goodrich Rugged Trails away from the line and as you start passing maneuvers, but torque peaks at 2800 rpm, and much as Steroid Boy discovers in a wind sprint, the engine runs out of breath. Nissan may have opted for a conservative blower pulley size before giving the blown mill the warranty.
Crew Cabs all come standard with a four-speed electronically controlled automatic tranny with overdrive, as smooth and responsive an automatic as we’ve ever tested. Fuel addiction is an expensive problem with this drivetrain, though. Stated mileage is 15 city/18 highway, and the drug of choice is premium grade. Thirty-buck fill-ups can be expected.
If Steroid Boy’s lungs are questionable, there’s no doubt about his physique: exterior fit and finish on our tester was impeccable, and we never detected a single squeak or rattle during our six days with the body-on-frame bad boy. All supercharged Frontiers get a limited-slip rear differential, stiffer front torsion bars, retuned damping and a slightly lower ride height, which all help create a very smooth ride and sharp maneuverability characteristics. The solid rear axle/leaf spring combo does lead to wheel hop, however, on all but the smallest bumps.
The cargo bed itself is double-walled to eliminate the showing of dings on the exterior, and sports a nice complement of tie-down hooks. The tailgate also locks, providing secure storage should buyers mount a cap or hard cover.
Rubber was shod on some of the best-looking 17-inch alloys we’ve ever seen. Our Frontier also sported an Xterra-type tubular roof rack with wind deflector that obscured the front two-thirds of the view through the pop-up sunroof. The step-up bars mounted below the doors sure look good, but they are rather closely mounted for entry/egress purposes. They are handy, however, for loading stuff in the roof rack.
The interior has been freshened up for 2002. Gauges are found in a clean, three-cluster center pod. HVAC controls are centrally mounted, up high, with switchgear large enough to operate while wearing gloves. The plastics aren’t of the best quality, but I quickly forgave this point when I discovered that both center-console cupholders have cutouts for coffee-mug handles—outrageously thoughtful. And the quirky, dash-mounted emergency brake has been replaced by a conventional floor unit. We had the leather package, in which the charcoal seats boast red stitching.
The interior was where the only episode of unwarranted noise occurred. The driver’s seat belt flapped maddeningly against the B-pillar when windows were opened under speed. Raising the shoulder belt adjustment, thus moving the hanger away from the B-pillar, solved the problem, but for some drivers this may not be a particularly safe option.
Interior noise that we absolutely loved was provided by the optional 300-watt, 11-speaker with/subwoofer Rockford Fosgate stereo. We may have loosened some fillings testing the capacity of this sucker.
Despite the second set of doors—which open very wide to ease entry and egress, the rear bench seat is suitable only for children. Leg room, in particular, was cramped.
Overall, this is a solid effort for Nissan, one that brings welcome ’tude and flash to the compact truck market. And at 4056 lb, it presses the envelope of just what defines the category. But much like Steroid Boy, it can’t back all of its claims to power and capacity. It still needs to mature.
2002 Nissan Frontier SC 4x4 Crew Cab
Base price: $26,349; as tested $29,174
Engine: 3-3-liter supercharged V-6, 210 hp
Drivetrain: Four-speed electronically controlled automatic with overdrive, four-wheel drive, two-speed transfer case
Length x width x height (inches): 196.8 x 71.2 (excluding mirrors) x 74.0
Wheelbase: 116.1 inches
Curb weight: 4056 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 15/18 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front supplemental airbags; front crumple zones; front seat belts with pretensioners, load limiters and adjustable upper anchors; energy-absorbing steering column; passenger airbag on/off switch, single-channel rear anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: 12-volt auxiliary power outlet, variable intermittent speed windshield wipers, cargo-bed tie-down hooks, cargo bed light, tachometer, limited-slip differential, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD audio system, adjustable tilt steering column, map light with compass and outside temperature display, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 74.6-inch cargo bed, auto-locking hubs, skid plates, tubular roof rack, locking tailgate, power locks, power windows, fog lamps, alloy wheels
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles