Apparently the execs at Nissan finally realized with some alarm that the Frontier pickup was in danger of upending the VW Beetle’s claim to the longest unchanged model run in automotive history. I can understand why they waited so long. Never a smashing sales success—although, astonishingly, it outsold the underwhelming new Ford Ranger in the latter’s debut year—the Frontier was nevertheless always a solid workhorse that remained just the right size while its competitors grew with each generation.
In 2015 Roseann and I drove a Nissan Navara, the twin of the Frontier except for the former’s exquisite turbodiesel engine, most of the length of South America and were impressed with its unassuming competence. Still, 16 years is a geologic era in truck model lifespan, so Nissan is introducing a “brand new” Frontier this summer. Why the quotes? Because apparently the chassis is more or less identical to the previous generation—far from a bad thing, as it is a fully boxed unit compared to the sales leader Tacoma’s partially boxed counterpart. (Four wheel disc brakes also carry over, of course, shaming Toyota’s antediluvian rear drums.)
Perhaps inevitably, body dimensions have expanded, although each body style remains an inch or two smaller in each direction than the equivalent Tacoma. Styling? It’s more or less generic current-midsize-pickup normal, although the front end is pleasingly crisper than the Tacoma.
There’s a “new” V6 (introduced during the last model year)—a direct-injection 3.8-liter, following the current, lamentable fashion trend of producing more horsepower than torque: a healthy 310 hp versus 281 lb-ft. I couldn’t find any information on where in the power band each of those occurs, but I’m willing to bet the torque peak is north of 4,000 rpm, as is the case with all competitors’ gasoline engines. Personally I think a truck engine should have a torque peak below 3,000 (or even 2,500) rpm, but aside from diesel engines I’m afraid this is a characteristic of the past. I will allow that current eight, nine, and ten-speed transmissions are able to make the most of this kind of high-rpm power band, but it’s essentially worthless for a manual transmission, requiring a wince-inducing level of clutch slippage to get underway with any kind of load. Fortunately the Frontier will have an up-to-date nine-speed auto, once again leaving Toyota in the dusty storerooms of the archaeological museum with its six-speed. (I’m half-expecting Toyota to re-introduce a carbureted engine in the next Tacoma, assuring us that it’s “better off road.”)
The new Frontier will have a seven-selection mode dial for various off-pavement situations, following, of course, along with everyone else on Land Rover’s Terrain Response dial introduced a decade and a half ago.
Otherwise? Well, we still don’t have a new Frontier to inspect in person, but it was clear from the media introduction that there will be no earth-shaking innovations in the truck. What will it take for some mid-size pickup maker to blow through the envelope with, say, coil-spring rear suspension with automatic load leveling (Range Rover, 1970)? Variable valve timing that could lower the torque peak for low-range four-wheel-drive or towing situations (my own thought invention)? Intelligent weight sensors at each corner that could detect when a tire was about to lose traction and lock the axle before any wheel spin occurs (also my own thought invention)?
As long as manufacturers can keep selling trucks built the way they are now, and temporarily edge past each other’s sales with styling tweaks, larger infotainment screens, and a few extra horsepower, probably not for a while . . .
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