2005 Nissan Frontier 4WD Review

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High Gear Media Staff High Gear Media Staff  
December 10, 2004

In recent years, Nissan’s compact pickup has earned a solid reputation and been serious competition for Ford, Chevy, and Toyota. While Nissan has long been respected for compact pickups, the company just in the past year entered the market with its first full-size pickup, the Titan — all-new, domestically built, V-8-powered.

The Titan kicked off a new family of Nissan trucks. The acclaimed boxed-frame platform has already birthed the Armada full-size SUV, then the Pathfinder mid-size SUV, now a new Frontier, and soon, a new Xterra, the youth-activity-oriented SUV.

But for now we’ll concentrate on the Frontier. The most obvious first impression is that it’s larger. Wheelbase is the same for all Frontier models — a long 125.9 inches, up nearly ten inches from the former Frontier. The overall length has gone up by 2.6 to 5.6 inches. The new truck not only rides higher, but it has a taller cabin, too, so it gains at least three inches in height; more width, too. There are only two bed lengths — 73.3 inches for the King Cab, and 59.5 inches for the Crew Cab.

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The King Cab has two small, rear-hinged doors providing access to the smallish space behind the front, where resides a small back seat that children can be happy with or that two adults can marginally use in an absolute pinch. The Crew Cab offers a full-size back seat like an SUV, with normal forward-opening doors, easy entry, and enough space for two adults to sit for extended trips. The two-seat standard-cab model is gone, reportedly due to a lack in demand.

The XE 154-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder model, available only as a 4x2 King Cab, will be the price leader, offered only with a five-speed manual or an automatic. Nissan says that less than 15 percent will be equipped this way. We didn’t get a chance to drive this model, so we can’t comment on its performance. The outgoing Frontier had acceptable performance with the standard cab and manual transmission, when there was no load to haul, but the new Frontier is somewhat heavier.

2005 Nissan Frontier 4WD

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Above that, the V-6 Frontiers are available in three different trim levels: SE, LE, and NISMO. SE models come simply equipped, while LE models add full power accessories, more trim, and many of the typical car conveniences. A fifth, normal-size alloy wheel and tire are included in place of the usual non-matching spare.

Off-road-ready, if you so desire

The most expensive NISMO (Nissan Motorsports International) models are equipped in a similar way to LE models, but with more of a sporty, flamboyant appearance and seriously kitted-up for off-roading.

The NISMO Off-Road model adds special-spec Bilstein high-performance shocks tuned toward enhanced off-road response without sacrificing on-road performance, plus skid plates for the oil pan, transfer box, and fuel tank. An electronic locking rear differential is offered as part of the system. Both the NISMO Off-Road package and the locking rear diff are available on two-wheel-drive models, echoing the Pre Runner spec that Toyota has offered for several years on its Tacoma. For the NISMO, approach angle is a very impressive 32.6 degrees, with a good 23.3-degree departure angle and a 10.1-inch ground clearance figure.

Virtually nothing has been carried over from the previous Frontier to the new one, even though the profile is similar, along with some of the design cues. The last-generation Frontier got a makeshift facelift with add-on plastic fender flares in 2000. Nissan officials said that customers liked the flares but wanted them to look more genuinely tough, as part of the sheetmetal. To further that image of authentic, classic toughness, all Frontiers have chromed steel bumpers this time around.

In front, there’s a multi-link wishbone (or A-arm) setup replacing struts. This allows more underhood space and a shorter engine bay overall. In back there are the ol’ traditional load-bearing leaf springs, overslung, with an asymmetrical shock-tower setup to counter the torquing of the body during hard acceleration.

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Steering is through a standard rack-and-pinion unit, with engine-speed-sensitive power steering. It doesn’t feel as certain as it should on-center, but gets the job done as well as any other pickup. Confident four-wheel disc brakes are standard on all Frontiers.

Of all vehicles, pickups probably get used in the widest range of extreme conditions and loads, and it seems that smaller trucks are more likely to approach their load limits, therefore a very flexible, torquey yet powerful engine and responsive powertrain are needed.

Powerful engine brings confidence

2005 Nissan Frontier  NISMO King Cab 4x4

2005 Nissan Frontier NISMO King Cab 4x4

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Nissan engineers did a great job in assuring the Frontier has a confident and powerful main powertrain combination this time around. The new 4.0-liter V-6 is not related to the durable but wheezy 3.3-liter V-6 design long used in the Frontier and the hardbody trucks that preceded it, but it’s essentially a truck-tuned version of Nissan’s long-lauded passenger-car V-6, which has over recent years been offered in 3.0- and 3.5-liter displacements. The engine—aluminum with cast-iron liners—was brought to 4.0-liters with a longer stroke, and has been strengthened and tuned for truck duty. It does, however have advanced features otherwise reserved for the car set, like continuously variable intake valve timing, two-stage timing chain, and a variable induction system, all design elements aimed to reduce the compromises in engine tuning between low-rev torque and higher-rev passing power. All said, it makes 265 hp and 284 lb-ft of torque, very impressive figures for a “compact” pickup. Even more impressive, that you don’t have to reach for the “premium” pump.

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Being very flexible at the wide range of revs is important in a modern pickup, as it may be asked to pull off a high-speed pass on a two-lane road, maintain speed up a long highway grade with a full load, or pull a trailer confidently but gingerly up a boat ramp. The new engine fills that need, and works especially well with the five-speed automatic transmission, which never hesitates to find the right gear and go if a burst of power is needed. Upshifts are silky smooth on gradual acceleration yet snappy and down to business when dashing up to 70, and downshifts are decisive and without drama. It’s essentially the same transmission unit that’s used in the full-size V-8 Titan truck, so it’s bound to be unstressed and unflustered over time in the Frontier. A new six-speed manual transmission is standard on V-6 models, but we didn’t get a chance to drive a Frontier equipped with it.

The V-6 feels very smooth, vibration-free, and powerful in virtually all conditions, but noise-wise it becomes rather loud and coarse-sounding anywhere above 3000-rpm or so. Usually that is just during a pass or acceleration, but our one powertrain complaint coming out of a rather hotfooted morning of driving on “blue highways” was for a little bit more noise insulation at the firewall. On the other hand, road noise isolation in the new Frontier is excellent, which is probably why we noticed the engine.

Despite the hefty powertrain, maximum towing capacity stands at 6500 pounds—on par with some minivans. When we asked those with the project why this was the case, they responded that the powertrain was likely up to the task but that it was more a case of vehicle safety and stability. Interpret that as you might in legalese.

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The NISMO model we spent the most time in had a somewhat jittery ride on the irregularly surfaced roads around Texas Hill Country, although a base V-6 SE model we drove briefly had a slightly better ride with a light load.

Tough truck stuff, with electronic helpers

The manually engaged four-wheel-drive system is gone; all 4x4 Frontiers now get a shift-on-the-fly system engaged by a dash-mounted knob. It’s a traditional truck system with a limited-use low range, but it also includes help from the stability system’s modern anti-wheel-slip electronics. Over half of Frontiers will be sold with four-wheel drive.

The electronic throttle is a bit touchy and aggressive in ordinary driving, in high range, which could be problematic while off-roading. Fortunately it goes to a different calibration (“map”) when in low range, allowing tippy-toeing in delicate off-road situations, such as those we encountered in a short but very challenging boulder-hopping off-road excursion.

A sophisticated VDC stability control system is optional on both LE and NISMO models, and in the Frontier it aids stability both on and off-road, helping counter losses in traction through selectively applying individual brakes or cutting the throttle. It can be turned off easily with a dash button.

Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist — two seriously useful off-road electronic aids — are offered in the Frontier along with VDC. It’s the first such application of this equipment together in this pickup class. HDC can be activated at speeds of up to 31 mph in high range and 15 mph in low range, helping you moderate your descent down loose or slippery steep slopes by electronically modulating the brakes, front to back, to slow to about 3.5 mph and maintain it. The driver can speed up or slow back down incrementally within HDC with the gas pedal. HSA electronically manages brake application for up to two seconds to avoid rolling backward when starting from a stop pointed uphill. The system is meant for off-road situations, and again, it’s especially useful on surfaces with challenging traction.

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Titan hand-me-downs

2005 Nissan Frontier NISMO King Cab 4x4

2005 Nissan Frontier NISMO King Cab 4x4

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Several innovative features introduced on the larger Titan pickup have been passed down to the new Frontier. An available system called Utili-Track, standard on LE models and optional on NISMO, helps secure any size of cargo with removable sliding cleats that fit into several tracks, and an optional spray-in bedliner eliminates the need for an aftermarket liner — and lessens the chances of damage or rust to the all-metal bed.

As is typical with much of the new Nissan lineup, the interior design is amazing, but a little lacking in the quality of the materials. A clever dual glovebox allows two separate storage compartments, one for manuals and paperwork, another for doo-dads. There are plenty of other smaller storage bins elsewhere in front. In both the King Cab and Crew Cab, there’s a center console storage area and a large storage compartment/bin under the rear seats, plus the front passenger seatback folds forward to a flat, horizontal position to accept long cargo in the cabin.

Some of the cabin-design gripes of the outgoing Frontier are just a fading memory with the new version. Wind noise is remarkably absent at highway speeds, and the footwells are commodious rather than shallow. The driving position is upright and good, and the seats feel more comfortable than in any other compact pickup we can remember.

Safety-wise, both front-seat side-impact airbags and side curtain-type airbags are available. Dual-stage front airbags are standard. The new Frontier should also boast improved crash performance through a construction that includes front and rear crumple zones along with the body-on-frame construction.

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2005 Nissan Frontier 4WD

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Ambiguously sized or practically sized?

Nissan is calling the new Frontier “mid-size,” and names the Toyota Tacoma, Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, and Dodge Dakota as its chief competitors. All but the Ranger have seen a complete redesign in the past year. The Ford Ranger has for years been the sales leader among compact pickups, but it’s very long in the tooth and, relatively speaking, cramped and lacking refinement. The Toyota Tacoma and Dodge Dakota have also become larger and are getting quite close in size to the full-size trucks, further blurring the distinction.

With the pickup market dangerously oversaturated, competitive pricing is important for the Frontier’s success, no matter how great it is. With huge incentives on full-size trucks, smart shoppers can get a full-size pickup for about the same price as we suspect the bottom line for the Frontier will be.

But those who keep asking why you wouldn’t just buy a full-size truck for about the same money or a little more should just do so. If you only have light-duty tasks to accomplish, there’s an advantage to driving a truck the size of the Frontier. If you ever have to drive around the city in a full-size pickup, you might have found it a little too big to easily park, a little too wide to pass comfortably through narrow urban side streets. For those of us who don’t live on a ranch, the Frontier is large enough to haul real people and cargo, but sized for the urban-congestion reality.
2005 Nissan Frontier NISMO King Cab 4x4
est. $29,000 as equipped
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6, 265 hp/284 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic, four-wheel drive, high/low ranges, electronic locking rear differential
Length x width x height: 205.5 x 72.8 x 69.7 in
Wheelbase: 125.9 in
Curb weight: 4339 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 17/21 mpg
Safety equipment: Anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes; optional stability control, HDC and HSA, side curtain airbags and side-impact airbags
Major standard equipment: Power windows, locks, and mirrors; keyless entry; air conditioning; cruise control; AM/FM/CD player w/ six speakers; Bilstein shocks; front fog lamps; alloy off-road wheels with 16-inch OWL tires
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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November 21, 2015
2005 Nissan Frontier 4WD SE Crew Cab V6 Manual

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I have had my Nissan Frontier for 3 years. Gets 20mpg tows my boat and camper with out problem. Has been very reliable only minor issues like power window motor, brakes, tires. I have had to replace clutch as... + More »
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