Nissan has hustle. You see it in the company's TV ads -- edgy productions done in black and white with models such as the supercharged Frontier pickup truck scrambling over boulder-strewn terrain in stop-motion fury like a four-wheeled Ostrogoth bashing away at the gates of Rome. "Eat more rock," the promos say -- and this truck can do that, no problem.
The Frontier, Nissan's compact pickup that didn't even have a name until just a few years ago, comes outfitted with a brashly-styled body kit (color-keyed on higher trim models) and an available supercharged 3.3-liter V-6 engine that howls wonderfully the heavier your right foot gets. Both the "blower" and the aggressive, look-at-me body kit set the Frontier apart from the more utilitarian offerings of Ford and Chevy, even the sport-oriented Ford Ranger Edge, as well as the generally more affordable but much more subdued Toyota Tacoma.
You'll need some time to select the model you need, though: There are at least 19 different possible Frontier combinations -- XE, SE and S/C (supercharged) trim levels, plus a Desert Runner model -- as well as the choice of 2WD or 4WD, and King (extended cab) or Crew (four-door cab) models. And there are at least eight separate sub-groups, including a Utility Package, Basic Gear Package, Value Truck Package, Power Package, Sport Package and Leather Package. So sit down and take your time; you'll need it to review what's available.
Some basics, though, to get you started: XE Frontiers are the rough and ready versions with a heavy-duty off-road frame; SE models are the purty ones with standard 16-inch aluminum rims and body-colored bumpers and fascias; while supercharged S/C models, the subject of this review, are the road kings, fitted with 17-inch rims and sport-tuned suspensions.
Since this truck was an all-new offering in 2001, changes for '02 are slight — but they're significant. Of particular note is the addition of an available full-length 74.6-inch cargo bed (56.3 is standard) for the crew cab, the longest of any available compact four-door pickup currently out there.
2002 Nissan Frontier
Also new is a nuke-'em hard 300-watt Rockford Fosgate nine-speaker audio system with six-disc CD changer that you can buy for an extra $549, if only on crew cab models. All 2002 Frontiers also feature a redone instrument cluster that's more car-like than you'd expect in a truck. And the glovebox has been expanded to accommodate more stuff. Finally, the weird pull-and twist parking brake handle has been ditched in favor of the more familiar and easier-to-use pedal-type unit.
The Frontier's torquey (246 lb-ft) supercharged engine remains unique in the compact pickup class, something neither the Ford Ranger/Mazda B-series, Chevy S-10 or Toyota Tacoma even offer. The blower boosts the power output of the truck's 3.3-liter V-6 to 210 hp from the non-supercharged engine's 170 hp. (A 2.4-liter four-cylinder is the Frontier's base engine.)
The availability of that supercharger pumps up the image of the Frontier as the burliest compact truck currently on the market. It bests the aging S-10's strongest engine, the 180-hp "Vortec" 4.3-liter V-6, by a wide margin; ditto the Tacoma's optional 190-hp 3.4-liter V-6. Ford's 4.0-liter SOHC V-6, at nearly 210 hp, is the only compact pickup engine that offers similar scoot but it doesn't have the attraction of that fat blower sitting on top of the engine, looking all mean and surly.
In addition to the power boost, the supercharger also makes its presence known by the audible spooling up sound it makes when you stomp on the gas — the endearing (to enthusiasts, anyhow) "blower whine." In the S/C Frontier, it's not enough to be obnoxious or distracting, just sufficient to let others know what you paid extra for. And to peel your lips back, exposing a hillbilly smile that won't go away until you let off the gas.
If you like traction, though, you'll definitely want to go with the extra-cost 4x4 system, especially with the supercharged engine. In 2WD models, this engine (combined with the light rear end) easily overcomes the available grip under anything but the gentlest throttle. Four-wheel drive is highly recommended with the supercharged engine even if you don't plan to go off-road.
Oddly, the Desert Runner model remains a 2WD-only deal, even with the available supercharged V-6. It does come fitted with flares and skid plates, though, so it looks cool even though it would likely get stuck fast if you actually took it off-road. It would be super if Nissan saw fit to offer a no-nonsense, hard-core off-road version that had both the supercharged engine and 4x4 -- and little else to add weight or dollar signs to the bottom line. But that's not on the docket , at least not as of 2002.
2002 Nissan Frontier
Still, Nissan is to be applauded for jolting some life into what is, let's face it, a fairly basic kind of vehicle — and a market niche that was pretty boring before 2001. The mere presence of the Frontier has put pressure on the other automakers to make their compact pickups more interesting. Maybe Ford had the idea first (the full-sized SVT F-150 Lightning muscle truck has a supercharged V-8), but Nissan can't be faulted for running with someone else's good idea. As legendary Chevy designer Bill Mitchell once said of borrowing other's ideas: "If you're going to rob someone, rob a bank, not a liquor store."
Factor in the competitive price and excellent durability that Nissan pickups have earned a reputation for, and it's no great leap to pat the Frontier on the hood and say, "good truck."
2002 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab SC long bed
Base price range: $23,749 (2WD) $26,349 (4WD)
Engine: 3.3 liter V-6, supercharged, 210-hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive or part-time four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 131.1 in
Length: 217.8 in
Width: 71.2 in
Height: 74 in
Curb Weight: 3981 lb (2WD); 4295 lb (4x4)
EPA (cty/hwy): 15/18 mpg
Safety equipment: dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: supercharged V-6 engine (SC models), four-speed automatic transmission, six-speaker CD player with 100 watts, leather-wrapped steering wheel, air conditioning, power windows, locks and intermittent wipers
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles