As versatile as a mid-size pickup truck needs to be, there are surprisingly few of them currently on the market. Sharing the segment with Nissan’s Frontier, are but four other serious players, Toyota Tacoma, Ford Ranger, Chevrolet Colorado, and GMC Canyon. Yes, Honda’s Ridgeline is arguably a player, but frankly it’s in a category of its own—as it is based on a car.
Frontier, like Tacoma, Ranger, Colorado, and Canyon, are built the way a pickup truck is supposed to be built—with its body on a separate frame. Available here in the States since 1998, Frontier fits into a class of trucks just as likely to be a fashion statement as it is a working vehicle. Thus, while it is configured to do light industrial duty, it also hosts a number of features designed to make it more livable on a day-to-day basis.
There have been but two generations of the Nissan Frontier available since its introduction.
1998 - 2004
Prior to Frontier, Nissan’s pickups were known as “Hardbody” in the United States. At launch, the truck had but one engine offering, a 143-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline four cylinder engine, generating 154 ft-lbs of torque and mated to a five-speed manual transmission as the standard configuration.
The regular cab version was offered in two states of trim, base and XE, with the two differentiated primarily by the fact the XE offered four-wheel drive. The extended cab iteration offered a choice of two trim levels as well, XE and SE, both of which offered four-wheel drive. Regardless of cab choice, all XE and SE models could also be had with a four-speed automatic transmission as an option.
Pretty utilitarian, the base model’s interior features were basically vinyl seating and, uh, that’s about it. An AM/FM/cassette audio system was an option. Those who opted for the XE got cloth seating, air conditioning and power steering. Options at this level included a CD changer, a tachometer, cruise control, a tilt steering wheel, and an AM/FM/CD audio system.
To get a serious standard equipment list, you had to go SE extended cab. This model bought you bucket seats, a center console, a keyless entry system, an anti-theft alarm system, leather steering wheel trim, power windows, door locks and exterior mirrors, and an AM/FM/cassette/CD audio system.
For 1999, the base model was dropped, leaving the XE trim level the only regular cab choice. Two new king cab models debuted, offering a V6 with the Frontier for the first time. The 3.3-liter powerplant produced 170 horsepower and 200 ft-lbs of torque. Counting the different drive configurations, cab configurations and engine choices, there were a total of seven different Frontier models offered for 1999. Four-wheel drive V6 models were offered with the option of a limited-slip differential. Automatic locking hubs were standard equipment.
For 2000, the ever-burgeoning line of Frontier trucks swelled to a whopping 11 models with the introduction of Desert Runner King Cab, and Frontier Crew Cab. With its rear-drive, V6 powertrain, the Desert Runner was the urban Frontier (despite its name). Desert Runner was designed to deliver the look, if not the outright off road capability. Frontier Crew Cab on the other hand, was designed to be a working truck. With its four full-size doors, Crew Cab could accommodate five passengers. Other than Desert Runner, all 2000-model year Frontiers could be had with either rear- or four-wheel drive.
Model year 2001 ushered in a styling update, the introduction of a supercharged V6, new interior fabrics, gauges, and dash trimmings, and a new steering wheel. A five-speed manual was the standard transmission offering with the supercharged V6—although one could also purchase the engine with a four-speed automatic. The supercharged V6 displaced 3.3-liters and made 210 horsepower and 231 ft-lbs of torque—with the five-speed manual. Equipped with the four-speed automatic, torque output was 246 ft-lbs. At this point in the evolution of the Frontier, there were 16 iterations of the Crew Cab alone—once you factored in the various transmissions, driveline, and engine choices.
The long bed Frontier made its debut in 2002, making the Nissan the first mid-size crew-cab pickup to offer a long bed. Other changes included a redesigned instrument panel and console and an available Rockford Fosgate engineered audio system.
Seemingly never satisfied, Frontier’s product planners hit 2003 hard with a number of changes to the truck. The V6 engines got a power boost to 180-horsepower, Crew Cab models got dual-stage front airbags and the "Open Sky" top, AKA a big-ass sunroof. King Cabs got ABS as standard equipment. Stability control and tire pressure monitoring were offered as options, making the Frontier the only compact pickup with those features at the time as well. For 2004, the last year of the GEN1 Frontier, the only change was the adoption of a 17-inch wheel for the SE.
2005 – Current
All-new, the 2005 Frontier incorporated the best of all that was gained from the years of evolution of the 1998 model, housed in sheetmetal somewhat mimicking its more aggressive Titan big brother. Key features included a spray-in bedliner, Utili-track bed channel tie-down system and fully boxed, all-steel frame. The regular cab version was done away with in favor of Crew and King Cab configurations.
The Utili-track system employed five special "C" cross-section rails mounted in the bed along with utility cleats designed to slide into the channels to offer custom configurable tie-down points for securing cargo. Accessories offered with the channel system included bed dividers, sliding cargo trays, modular storage units, and bike racks.
Engine choices included a 2.5-liter inline four and a 4.0-liter V6. The four made 154 horsepower and 173 ft-lbs of torque. It was paired with rear-wheel drive and either a five-speed manual transmission or a five-speed automatic. The V6 produced 265 horsepower and 284 ft-lbs of torque.
King Cab trim levels were S (base) and SE. To get air conditioning, a CD player, power windows, locks and mirrors; in addition to alloy wheels and cruise control you had to go SE. Options included leather and Rockford Fosgate audio. Crew Cab variants included SE, LE and Nismo. The Nismo version was equipped with an extra-duty suspension system and a more robust set of tires suited to offroad use.
For 2006, Nissan added a power package with keyless entry, cruise control, power windows, locks and mirrors for the King Cab XE. The long bed came to the Crew Cab configuration in 2007 and both engines saw power ratings decreased. The four dropped to 152-horsepower and 171-ft-lbs. The V6 was reduced to 261 horsepower and 281 ft-lbs.
Hi Tech found its way into the Frontier for 2008. Nissan’s Technology Package for the 2008 Frontier included an upgraded sound system, an auxiliary audio jack, Bluetooth, satellite radio and a security system. Other features of the Tech Pack included Bluetooth, steering-wheel audio controls, an auxiliary audio jack, an in-dash six-CD/MP3 changer, and if it was ordered with the Crew Cab, the Tech Pack included a Rockford Fosgate 10-speaker sound system with a subwoofer.
A light styling update hallmarked the 2009 Frontier. The front fascia, headlights and instrument panel were reworked. The Nismo package was renamed PRO-4X. Its features included 16-inch alloy wheels with rugged off-road tires, a locking rear differential, Bilstein off-road shocks, underside skid plates, splashguards and white-faced gauges.
Model year 2010, saw Frontier get more standard safety features, including front side airbags, side curtain airbags and stability control.
The 2011 model is largely unchanged from 2010.
As all-around transportation, the Nissan Frontier is a pretty compelling argument. You get the utility of a pickup, with the comfort and conveniences of a car. Frontier offers good power (with the V6), a strong history of reliability and enough different configurations to make building your ideal truck a rather promising proposition.
There have been recalls of the Frontier; models built between 2002 and 2004 were recalled in November of 2010 to replace the steering column shaft and joint. These items were replaced with a shaft of a different design to correct a potential corrosion problem, which could ultimately cause the shaft to break. You’ll definitely want to make sure that recall notice was responded to if you’re interested in a Frontier from that period. To find any other recalls on the Frontier, simply search Nissan Frontier recall, indicating your model year of interest.
And, as always, make sure you subject any used car you’re about to pull the trigger on to a thorough pre-purchase inspection, by a trusted professional mechanic who knows the vehicle of your interest very well.