2012 Nissan Frontier Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
February 15, 2012

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.

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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. 

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2012 Nissan Frontier

Styling

The Frontier's exterior is the coolest of the smaller trucks; the cabin puts its money on durability over style.

It's difficult to carve new styling territory out of the truck market. Once you've sketched in a bed and room for up to five passengers, you're 95 percent done. Nissan takes a few more steps to give its Frontier some distinction, and to us, it's the coolest of the smaller trucks as a result.

It's the not so little things that count. The Frontier's carlike fenders swell and curve at the wheel wells. The grille makes a valiant attempt to fair itself into the surrounding metal, to make some harmony where it usually doesn't exist. The overall look strikes a sweet spot between spartan and spunky, especially as a four-door. It has charisma.

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Inside, the design is quite straightforward, with inexpensive-looking materials but a tasteful layout. It's a little more plasticky, a little less fluid in layout, than the newest pickups, especially the larger ones.
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2012 Nissan Frontier

Performance

Six cylinders are the way to go with the Nissan Frontier.

Of all the mid-size and compact trucks on the market, the Frontier's a favorite of ours, not just for its right-sized dimensions, but also for its gutsy V-6 performance.

We haven't forgotten the four-cylinder versions, but unless you drive a Frontier for someone else, it's likely you've skipped it, too. The wheezy 2.5-liter, 152-horsepower four strains to provide the kind of acceleration most drivers want and need, and fuel economy isn't all that much higher than the six-cylinder versions.

The Frontier's 4.0-liter V-6 makes for a great substitute for V-8 power in this scaled-down truck. It makes 261 horsepower, and comes with a choice of manual or automatic transmissions. The manuals tend to have long shift throws but the clutch is more precise; the five-speed automatic isn't the newest shifter on the block, but it's set up well with the six-cylinder's torque, making the most of its available power for launches and mid-range passing. Towing capacity rates up to 6,500 pounds.

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Across the lineup, you'll find that the Frontier steers and handles quite well, with accurate, communicative steering and good body control—without the shudder and hop that affect some truck suspensions especially when lightly loaded. About the only down side for comfort is the Frontier's ride, which can get pretty choppy.
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2012 Nissan Frontier

Comfort & Quality

The Frontier's front seats are comfortable; the rear seats on four-doors are less ideal, and interior trim is more rugged than refined.

The Frontier splits the difference between old-school compact trucks and today's smallest full-sizers. For many drivers, it's just the right size, especially when configured as a four-door pickup.

No matter which body style you choose, the Frontier's supportive front seats afford a nice, upright driving position with good outward visibility. As a King Cab, the Frontier sports a pair of rear-hinged access doors twinned to the full-size front doors. That opens up the area behind the front seats to some more cargo, and technically, to a pair of jump seats that flip up against the cabin when not in use. They're puny and cramped no matter what, and we don't recommend them to any passengers except in emergencies. The Frontier Crew Cab has four full-size doors, and its back seat has enough seat room for small adults--or a trio of very close big guys who don't need to go farther than the nearest Chick Fil-A on lunch hour.

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The Frontier can haul cargo—which is, after all, what matters most for a large subset of pickup buyers—only as well as other compact or mid-size trucks, although its stout frame is certainly up to the task. Beds for the Frontier are six feet long at most. But the Frontier offers several features not otherwise found in pickups in this price range. The cargo bed includes a factory-applied spray-in bedliner, and for those who need to secure small or heavy items in back, we recommend the available Utili-Track cargo tie-down system.
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2012 Nissan Frontier

Safety

The Frontier scores well in crash tests, and it's one of the few pickups to do well in roof strength, too.

Nissan's earned many kudos for the Frontier, and it's our top-rated mid-size pickup. One of the reasons is safety. The Frontier gets better crash-test scores than any other mid-size or compact pickup on the market today.

Sharing its frame rails with the bigger Titan seems to have paid off. Though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't updated the Frontier's ratings since a 2011 change in criteria, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has. The IIHS calls Nissan's pickup "good" in front, side, and roof-crush tests, though it gets an "acceptable" rating for rear impacts. Those ratings are substantially better than other trucks in its class.

Otherwise, the Frontier has a reasonably good safety-features list, though it's worth pointing out that four-cylinder models have a less expensive anti-lock braking and stability control system that only controls the rear wheels--a less costly, but less than ideal solution.

There are no options for features like a rearview camera on the Frontier, but Bluetooth is available.

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2012 Nissan Frontier

Features

The Frontier's features cater to hard-working, hardcore off-roading types; getting directions will mean a stop at the gas station.

Like most pickups, the Nissan Frontier carves a few personalities out of its basic frame by bundling together the right features.

Workhorse Frontiers wear an S badge, and not much else: they have no power windows, no air conditioning, no tilt steering. The SV's a rich man's plaything, in contrast, with its 16-inch wheels, cruise control, power features, tilt steering, and keyless entry. The Frontier is positively gilded, with step rails, tie-down cleats in the bed, heated leather seats, Bluetooth, and a Rockford Fosgate audio system with eight speakers. It's only offered in the four-door Crew Cab body style, though.

Thinking of cutting a new logging road in that pristine forest nearby? That may require the Frontier PRO-4X. This version remains the way to go for those who plan to need serious off-road capability; it somes with upgraded Bilstein off-road shocks plus skid plates, plus huge BFGoodrich trail tires.

Options on the Frontier include a limited-slip differential, leather seats, that same high-powered Rockford Fosgate audio system, and satellite radio.  There's no navigation system on the options list, so plan ahead with directions, buy a paper map, or stop and ask directions--you know, how we used to do it.

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2012 Nissan Frontier

Fuel Economy

The Frontier still posts good four-cylinder fuel economy, but six-cylinders can be thirstier than some full-size pickups.

With very few pickups in the four-cylinder business these days--the Ranger's gone, finally--the Nissan Frontier is one of the few mid-size trucks to even offer the gas-saving engines.

In that form, the Frontier does a decent job of improving on the gas mileage you'd find in larger trucks. The in-line four gives the Frontier an EPA rating of 19/23 mpg in its most basic form, with a manual transmission. Add an automatic, and the mileage drops to 17/22 mpg.

Stepping up to the six-cylinder Frontier erases the advantage, and the EPA numbers drop to 16/20 mpg at best. At worst, the Frontier checks in with a 14/19-mpg rating for automatic-transmission, four-wheel-drive models--a figure far off the base Ford F-150's 17/23 mpg, and almost on par with the V-8 Fords. The six-cylinder Frontier will save you gas--when it's compared to Nissan's larger Titan, yes, but the Titan is one of the thirstiest pickups.

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