Dark horse: Nissan's 'Midnight' Frontier punches above its weight

Look around: just about all of the latest full-size pickups proliferating on America's roads have descriptions like "larger in every dimension." They're boasting they can do more, but they're also taller to see over and harder to maneuver in the country's many saturated, dense driving environments. What happened to the smaller but often surprisingly useful trucks that could thread the needle just as well in urban concrete as off the pavement?

That's a question that particularly applies for tradesmen and fleets in cities and surrounding metro regions relying on the do-all pickup truck. It's one the Japanese automakers have long been good at answering, with offerings like Toyota's Tacoma logging more than 20 years of sales in the United States. General Motors has its Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, and Ford is about to leap back into the class with its reincarnated Ranger.

But the smaller, more compact pickup has perhaps had its most consistent place over the years at Nissan, which began rolling them off assembly lines in the early 1930s under its former name Datsun. And Nissan's current midsize Frontier, which also has been sold on these shores for more than two decades, offers some very full-size-like prowess and utility — particularly in the last dozen years or so, courtesy of its available (and large for the segment) 24-valve 4.0L V6. 

That engine is good for 261 hp. at 5,600 rpm and 281 lbs.-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm and allows the pickup, with its a fully boxed ladder frame, to tow up to 6,630 lbs. and handle up to 1,480 lbs. max payload. It all comes in a package that from the outside looks slim and distinctly not bloated, yet still has a commanding feel on the road for its size.

LAUNCH PHOTO SLIDESHOW

While the Frontier is no newcomer, it's been gaining notable new ground of late. Since 2014, the midsize segment overall has grown more than 80% in U.S. sales volume, which manufacturers have noted, but that growth tapered off quite a bit since last year. As of March, however, sales of the Frontier for 2018 were up nearly 47% vs. the prior year, and sales during that month alone were 28% higher compared with March 2017. 

Fleet Owner got a chance to see what the commotion's about in a weeklong extended impression with the Frontier in its new-for-2018 Midnight Edition. That package gives the truck a more sinister blacked-out treatment, including black grille, wheels, step rails, front/rear bumpers, door handles, side mirrors and badging. It's available only with a 5-speed automatic and ours came in 4WD Crew Cab configuration, which features an electronically controlled transfer case that can shift on the fly between 2WD, 4H and 4L low speed/high torque modes.

In the cab

The first thing that dawned on me as I started up the Frontier — its V6 roars to life with a "FOOM" — and pulled it out onto the road is it isn't unlike those pre-giant pickups from around the earlier 2000s in feel, only it's more advanced. And maybe there's something else it's got that's been draining away from many vehicles lately: character. That's a very good thing.

The interior is comfortable with good-quality materials and fit and finish, with seats covered in a perforated, breathable material like a thick sports jersey. It should be durable enough, but I could see the light gray in our test vehicle getting dirty fast with typical truck tasks. The leather-covered steering wheel and shift knob are solid and fit well in the hand.

There are technological and ergonomic conveniences like the various steering wheel buttons, voice commands, and dual-zone temperature controls — the first two standard and the latter included in the Frontier's Value Truck Package — but not too much to rob it of that sense of functional utility a truck ought to have. The rearview camera and its directional overlays make parking accurate and easy, and our test pickup also came with a rear sonar system that warns of any objects getting too close when reversing (also part of the Value Package).

One thing that could use some improvement is the inside door handles. They're a chromed, very light-feeling plastic that seemed a bit too much so. They didn't feel flimsy or like they'd break, necessarily, but as a needed and often-used control, metal or a heavier composite material would've been better there.

The center console is useful, providing a wide, squarish surface and decent storage space. It's covered in an unusually grippy material, which probably isn't a bad thing and may help if it's used to support some kind of cargo extending from the back seat area. And there's room back there for cargo if unoccupied; taller passengers in the rear will have only so much leg room, which is typical. The Frontier Crew Cab seats up to five.

On the road

The V6 is impressively solid and smooth and gives a noticeably heavier-duty feel to this midsize. It's got plenty of power to move the Frontier and whatever's in it, but the interior is well-insulated and sounds fairly refined and subdued.

As good as Nissan's engine may be, it's not particularly efficient, offering 15 mpg city/ 21 mpg highway for a combined 17 mpg — not great figures for a midsize. But you'll appreciate the pull and tank-like feel the pickup has courtesy of that 4.0L engine as you dart about on whatever roads.

The Frontier's suspension was a particular standout. I wouldn't change a thing about it; there was just the right amount of bounce and give to sail over city bumps and potholes without jarring the truck or those in it, while still feeling solid and controlled in turns and curves. And there's enough dexterity in this truck to dance down the road and weave around those potholes altogether. 

That leads me to my biggest single complaint in that regard: the controls didn't do as much as I wanted them to. The power and acceleration are there, the four-wheel vented disc brakes and active brake limited slip can bring the pickup to a halt decisively, and the Frontier has the nimbleness and maneuverability that come into play frequently wherever you're driving and can be a huge benefit in tighter quarters. 

But I found myself having to crank the steering farther than I expected around sharper turns. The brake pedal had a little more sponginess than I'd like, requiring a heavier step to bring that braking force into play when needed. And the 5-speed automatic at times seemed to meander about in a higher gear or linger in a lower gear than it should have, kind of misreading the situation. I had to lay into the accelerator pedal more or back completely off and wait for it to figure out where it needed to be.

That was where this truck's available 6-speed manual would have been a huge help, and I suspect would really bring that V6 to life and direct it to respond to things like a sudden need for acceleration much better. That's readily apparent with the Frontier's sometimes pokey automatic. It's a shame, since the manual isn't available in the attractive Midnight Edition, but it is on other of the Frontier's configurations and trims.

Still, when the automatic is "on," it does the job and is more convenient in stop-and-go traffic. It would be the choice for some, but likely not all, businesses and fleets; just depends on needs, drivers, and geography. Enthusiasts may no doubt have a different opinion.

The Frontier is most in-character (and fuel-efficient, of course) in rear-wheel-drive, although I'd have liked a little more steering wheel cut to shave down its turning circle. Four-wheel-drive will certainly have its uses, and it's great to be able to shift on-the-fly between modes. But tighter steering suffers a bit in 4WD, sometimes with tires chirping and the truck sort of fighting itself directionally in sharp maneuvers.

Hauling

As it so happened, this wasn't just a test drive for show. I was right in the middle of a move 30-plus miles away, shuttling furniture and boxes and bags and a variety of odd-shaped things between locations. And that "in between" involved some fast-moving, hilly, twisting and otherwise variable roadway; time to put this thing to work.

In that regard, the Frontier does not disappoint. Its V6 has plenty in reserve, as noted, and didn't seem to care what I stuffed the pickup with. I nearly always used the flip-out bed extender to allow as much cargo as possible, and the black, spray-in bed liner, which feels about like 20-grit sandpaper, seemed tough and helped keep things from skidding around. On the other hand, it also holds in any kind of dirt or dust and scuffs up easily, making it trickier to clean.

The pickup bed's channel system and adjustable tie-down cleats — also part of the Value Package along with the bedliner — worked well enough, but aren't perfect. You've got to fiddle with the cleats a while to undo, position and tighten them back down, especially if you've already got anything loaded, and some kind of quick-release system would've been welcome. I'd also have liked some more tie-down points for cargo securement, but did successfully use what was available to keep whatever I could load in the rear staying put.

The first time I loaded it up was after dark one day and I found, rather clumsily, that the rear sonar system sees anything loaded in the bed as an object the truck will collide with imminently. So if there's something back there and you shift into reverse, you'll get the most urgent, continuous warning beep; you'll want to familiarize yourself with the defeat button right there in the middle of the console controls that I managed not to notice.

Unnecessary snafu moments aside, there's a lot you can do with this pickup. The cab offers plenty of usable space to load up as well if you don't have people-hauling needs — and if I didn't, I might even consider replacing the rear seats with a modular storage or shelf system. The cargo bed lamp is excellent and will see plenty of use if you're loading and hauling after the sun goes down.

Recap

The Frontier is a very capable midsize pickup, and I would guess much more so as tested with its solid V6 powerplant, though I'd have to drive the optional 4-cyl. engine to say for sure. The truck's size is highly manageable and allows it to tuck in handily and weave through denser driving environments, and its thoughtful design offers a good balance of utility, functionality and finesse.

It can handle as much hauling and hard work from Point A to B as its dimensions will allow, which is actually quite a bit. I didn't get a chance to tow, but our test truck had a Class IV hitch, yet again part of the Value Truck Package. That adds a large group of useful equipment and is worth considering. 

The Frontier is an entertaining drive as well, with spirited, competent performance including acceleration, braking and maneuverability. And yet on all those points, the steering, braking and shifting could use a tighter tune, with the controls in many cases requiring more input — more of a turn to the steering wheel or deeper stomp on the brakes or accelerator — than I felt they should have.

Even so, the model we tested was responsive and very drivable, and its just-right suspension added a lot in that regard. It would be great if Nissan could wring a little more fuel economy out of the V6, but for those looking for a truck with a slightly dialed-back size and easy placement on the road without sacrificing utility and flexible capability, this pickup should be on your list. 

The pricier $33,560 MSRP of our test Midnight Edition, as outfitted, might not be necessary, since you can get all of this pickup's personality and performance with less costly trims (the V6 is available on S models starting under $25,000). And as noted concerning the 5-speed automatic, which would typically be the choice for businesses and fleets, there's a good chance the 6-speed manual brings out gobs more of this truck's character and responsiveness with the larger engine and would warrant a test drive if it's a fit for your needs.

 

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