2013 Nissan Frontier Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
June 10, 2013

The 2013 Nissan Frontier is the best alternative to a full-size pickup: it's maneuverable, manageable, and a bit more conscious of gas mileage.

There's no way to buy a new compact pickup truck at a dealership for 2013; the last vehicles to fit that description–Colorado, Canyon, Ranger–all disappeared last year. Left in their place are a range of midsize trucks with much more utility–and among them, our top pick is the Nissan Frontier.

More a downsized big truck than an upsized small one, the Frontier shares some of its engineering with the Titan, Nissan's long-lived full-size pickup. The frame rails may be related, but otherwise, the Frontier's a more manageable size, with just as many body styles, and even more powertrain choice than the Titan--and a more comfortable ride than the rival Toyota Tacoma.

Visually, the Frontier has changed very little since the 2005 model year, when the current generation was introduced—although it did get some modest mid-cycle upgrades for 2009. We tend to think, as we note in our full review of the 2013 Nissan Frontier, that these models have aged much more gracefully on the outside than inside, where the Frontier's instrument-panel design and trims remind one how much designs have evolved in a decade.

There's no V-8 on offer in the Frontier, but the V-6 is a star, and what it provides rivals the gusto of V-8s in full-size trucks, if not their towing and hauling numbers. Nissan has reduced engine friction for 2013--and boosted gas mileage through that and a few subtle aerodynamic improvements--although ratings remain the same: 261 hp and 281 lb-ft. It pairs well with the automatic transmission; there's a manual, too, but throws are long. 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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Between the King Cab and the Crew Cab, the latter is the way to go if you regularly carry more than two front-seat passengers. These trucks have 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.

There's some innovation right where it counts: in the cargo bed. There's a factory-applied spray-in bedliner, and the available Utili-Track cargo tie-down system is a must for those who have weekend projects or outdoor gear to secure. For 2013, a new Value Truck Package adds those, plus a trailer hitch, dual-zone climate control, a bed extender, and more.

The Frontier was already one of the best small or mid-size trucks for safety, and this year it gets better with a backup camera and sonar parking sensors added to the feature set of much of the lineup. A Bluetooth hands-free system is now also included in all but the base S.

Frontier is offered in S, SV, SL, and off-road-oriented PRO-4X models, with SL models offered in Crew Cab form only. Most of the lineup can be equipped with rear- or four-wheel drive, in King Cab or Crew Cab body styles. New for 2013 is a Desert Runner model that essentially pairs the look and some of the equipment of the PRO-4X, but with rear-wheel drive. Otherwise a navigation-system has been added to the lineup, and SV and PRO-4X models get a new Display Audio system.

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2013 Nissan Frontier

Styling

The Frontier looks handsome and tough on the outside, although inside the design is showing its age.

Compact or mid-size trucks like the Nissan Frontier do casual duty as leisure and commuting vehicles probably more often than they're work rigs; yet the Frontier has changed very little in recent years to meet evolving tastes--especially rapidly-changing expectations about truck interiors. That said, the 2013 Frontier still has charisma, and strikes a sweet spot between spartan and spunky.

It's true, from a styling or design standpoint you can only do so much before you lose functionality. Considering that, the Frontier still manages a buff, brawny look from the outside, and at least from the exterior it's the coolest of the smaller trucks (admittedly, the bar is low, with the only other entry now being the Toyota Tacoma). The Frontier's carlike fenders swell and curve at the wheel wells, while the grille makes a valiant attempt to fair itself into the surrounding metal, although it looks a bit like an afterthought.

We'll call the interior design straightforward, but it's not at all charming, but its dash design and trims feel a decade on (as they are). It's straightforward, rather low-set for the truck, and a little less fluid in layout and somewhat more plasticky compared to the larger trucks.

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2013 Nissan Frontier

Performance

Go with the V-6 in the 2013 Frontier, and you'll be happy with its confident feel and maneuverability.

The Nissan Frontier has been one of our longtime top picks among mid-size or compact trucks, and that's mainly because of the gutsy performance you get if you opt for the V-6.

Unless you drive a Frontier for someone else--or you're an extreme cheapskate--you're unlikely to find yourself driving or considering a four-cylinder model, and that's fine. The 2.5-liter, 152-horsepower four is wheezy, and with any load strains to provide the kind of acceleration most drivers want and need; additionally, its fuel economy isn't much better than with the V-6 in real-world driving (although ratings are up to 19/23 mpg for 2013).

In this scaled-down truck, we otherwise think that the Frontier's 4.0-liter V-6 offers as strong of a kick as you're going to want--and it's the equivalent of a V-8 in the full-sizers. It makes 261 horsepower, and comes with a choice of manual or automatic transmissions. In manual versions you get a precise clutch feel, but the long throws could take some getting used to; otherwise the five-speed automatic works well for the V-6's torque (a peak 281 lb-ft), helping to get the most from it in passing or off the line. Towing capacities are unchanged for 2013, with the Frontier's peak of 6,500 pounds decidedly below that of full-size rigs.

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In going with a smaller truck, you probably expect greater maneuverability--and that's true in the Frontier, to a point. Steering is communicative, and handling is confident, with good body control; and while the Frontier can get choppy over imperfect surfaces, it's without the full-frame shudder that some trucks get when fully loaded.
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2013 Nissan Frontier

Comfort & Quality

The cabin look is more rugged than refined, but a good seating position, decent back-seat space (Crew Cab), and good cargo solutions mean it doesn't miss a beat on usability.

With the Ford Ranger now discontinued, and no standard-cab, short-bed version of the 2013 Nissan Frontier on offer, there's really nothing left of what we knew as compact trucks. Although the Frontier is mid-size, it's right-size for those who want to own a pickup in the city, as it splits the difference between old-school compact trucks and today's smallest full-sizers.

Getting into the Frontier doesn't require quite as much of a climb, and the supportive front seats offer a pleasant, upright driving position. Visibility is good, too.

In King Cab versions, 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. But these seats are just too tiny for regular use--even for kids--and we recommend you step up to the Crew Cab if you need space in back. There you get four full-size doors plus a back seat large enough for smaller adults--three in theory, but there's simply not enough elbow-and-shoulder room.

Hauling 'stuff' is the Frontier's forte as a truck, of course, and there it delivers, with its stout frame essentially inherited from the larger Titan. Beds for the Frontier are six feet long at most, but again, those with a normal-size garage or those who live in the city won't want much longer.

There's some innovation right where it counts, too: in the cargo bed. There's a factory-applied spray-in bedliner, and the available Utili-Track cargo tie-down system is a must for those who have weekend projects or outdoor gear to secure.

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2013 Nissan Frontier

Safety

The Frontier is one of the few smaller pickups to do well in roof strength; and you can now get a backup camera.

Compact and mid-size pickups have typically sacrificed a little safety in the name of maximizing their capability; but the 2013 Nissan Frontier takes good care of those in front, as well. It's our top pick in this category, in part because of its relatively good safety scores and a strong list of safety features. And this year, Nissan has added some more modern safety aids, like a backup camera and sonar parking sensors, to the feature set of much of the lineup.

Simply put, the Frontier gets better crash-test scores than any other mid-size or compact pickup on the market today. Though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't rated the Frontier in recent model years, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates it 'good' in front, side, and roof-crush tests, though it gets an 'acceptable' rating for rear impacts. For roof strength in particular, it stands out as a step above any other model in the class.

For 2013, Nissan has expanded availability of Bluetooth to all models but the base S, and both a backup camera system and new sonar parking system have been added; and they're available as part of a new Value Truck Package.

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2013 Nissan Frontier

Features

Hard-working, hardcore off-roading types have plenty of options; meanwhile navigation is now available and more models get Bluetooth.

Just like most other pickups, the 2013 Frontier comes in a wide range of models, and several body styles, to suit needs of everyone from basic commuters looking to haul garden supplies once in a while, to hobbyists or tradesman, or even those needing focused off-road features.

The Frontier is offered in S, SV, SL, and off-road-oriented PRO-4X models, with SL models offered in Crew Cab form only. Across most of the lineup you can get rear- or four-wheel drive, in King Cab or Crew Cab body styles.

Frontier S models are the workhorses of the lineups, although most of them are likely heading straight to fleets as they still have no power windows, no air conditioning, no tilt steering. SV models are better equipped, and this year get Bluetooth, in addition to cruise control, power features, tilt steering, and keyless entry. The Frontier SL is packed, inside and out, with what some might see as must-have items: step rails, tie-down cleats in the bed, heated leather seats, Bluetooth, and a Rockford Fosgate audio system with eight speakers.

New this year is a Value Truck Package, adding Dual Zone climate control, the RearView Monitor, rear sonar system, a sliding bed extender, fog lamps, a trailer hitch, spray-in bedliner, and Utili-track tie-downs.

If off-roading is your thing, then you should head straight to the Frontier PRO-4X. It includes upgraded Bilstein off-road shocks plus skid plates, plus huge BFGoodrich trail tires.

Dual-zone automatic climate control is a feature that's new to the Frontier for 2013; other new items include rear sonar sensors and a RearView Monitor system. All of those have been added to SL models, while a navigation system is on offer on SL models as part of the PRO-4X Luxury Package.

Also, a Desert Runner model is new on the 2013 Nissan Frontier; offered only with rear-wheel drive and the automatic transmission, it's a PRO-4X in look, albeit without the 4WD. Features includes 16-inch Off-Road alloys, Bilstein off-road shocks, fog lamps, a special seat upholstery, embroidered logos, decals, and badging.

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2013 Nissan Frontier

Fuel Economy

V-6 models of the 2013 Nissan Frontier are no longer as thirsty; but even the four-cylinder Frontier isn't all that fuel-efficient.

People shopping for a compact or mid-size truck expect better fuel economy; but over the past several years, with some models of the Ram 1500 and Ford F-150 stretching into the mid-20s, that hasn't been the case.

Now the 2013 Nissan Frontier improves on that complaint, somewhat. With the in-line four, the Frontier gets up to 19/23 mpg with a manual transmission, or 17/23 with the automatic, while V-6 models improve to as high as 16/22.

Those numbers are better than the Titan; but the Titan is one of the thirstiest pickups. Several full-size models in base V-6 form still do better for 2013.

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