First Drive: 2001 Nissan Frontier
Copyright July 2000,
By Michael Levine

Related Links
2001 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab Debuts in Chicago

Buckle your seat-belt, Dorothy, 'cause Kansas is goin' bye bye. Nissan chose the red pill.

Look's like the folks at Nissan's Design Institute in La Jolla, California have been watching The Matrix because they have taken it upon themselves to awaken Nissan corporate in Japan from the illusion that pedestrian styling and practicality sells pickup trucks in North America. The 2001 Frontier is a brave new look at the compact pickup marketplace and its audience.

Normally a facelift is nothing more than a Band-Aid for most trucks. It's an attempt to keep a truck's styling, usually halfway through its lifecycle, fresh in the eyes of consumers until the next generation truck is available.

Seldom does a facelift completely change a truck's appearance and performance so radically that it appeals to a whole new group of buyers almost 180 degrees away from the group it did before the reskin. This is what Nissan is hoping to do with the revised Frontier even though its essentially the same truck as last year's model under all the new tweaks.

We can't help but draw comparisons to the Frontier's primary competitor, the Ford Ranger Edge, which also receives a facelift and powerful new engine for 2001. Like the Ranger, the Frontier is targeted right at the Gen X crowd. Specifically those young, adventurous and urban types who would rather go bungie jumping or mountain biking than fishing or hunting. Fans of Keanu Reeves as opposed to John Wayne. Where the median age of Frontier owners before this new truck was 44, new buyers are expected to be between 25-34 years old.

Nissan is taking a risk in the aggressive, even polarizing style of the Frontier because it has to use a more radical approach than well-established Ford to attract and retain a new audience of buyers. The new look is a significant departure from the previous Frontier, much more so than the 2001 Ranger compared to last year's predecessor. The Ranger also doesn't come in a crew cab model, something sure to appeal to the active set driving their friends to Tahoe.

Nissan describes the Frontier's new appearance as 'modern industrial'. The overall impression is of a truck precision lathed from raw steel and polished to a high luster. In some ways the Frontier reminds us of a compact version of the GMC Terradyne concept truck shown earlier this year in Detroit. Both trucks are examples of industrial design influencing today's and tomorrow's trucks.

From the A-pillar forward the Frontier wears all new sheetmetal. The front fascia sports large one-piece, multifaceted headlamps that look more at home on an Infiniti sedan than on Nissan trucks of the past. Between the lights is a prominent 'power bar' set in the grille, though on the pre-production trucks driven the bar was made from plastic and not the brushed aluminum shown on the Frontier models first displayed in Chicago. The prominent front bumper is nicely enhanced with fog lamps taken from the 2000 Maxima and the new hood is more muscular and taller than the previous truck's. P265x55R17 tires and 17" wheels on the upscale models are aftermarket in appearance and surrounded by large fender flares with simulated rivets found on all trim levels.

In the rear the Frontier has a new tailgate with standard security lock. Raised metal lettering spelling out the Frontier name tells folks in your rear view mirror what kind of truck they were just passed by. A long bed version Frontier Crew Cab will be available in the 2002 model year.

Under the hood is Nissan's other radical and much needed enhancement to the Frontier, an optional 3.3-liter 210 horsepower supercharged V6 engine - a first in a compact truck - over 20 percent more powerful than the naturally aspirated V6. The SOHC engine' s water-to-air intercooled, roots-type positive displacement pump was designed and built with the help of Eaton, the supercharger's manufacturer. Eaton also makes the supercharger found on Ford's F-150 SVT Lightning.

The supercharged engine will be available in four "SC" badged models - 4x2 Desert Runner SC, 4x4 King Cab SC, 4x2 Crew Cab SC and 4x4 Crew Cab SC.

Pricing for the supercharged engine is expected to run $1200-$1400 more than the standard V6 and will be available for delivery by November.

In 2003 SC equipped Frontiers will receive another boost in horsepower.

The standard 170 horsepower V6 is still carried over into the 2001 Frontier lineup along with a 2.4-liter I4 engine producing 143 horsepower.

Inside the Frontier the facelift continues.

A new instrument panel cover, gauges and steering wheel is complemented by new fabrics and color options. The HVAC controls are replaced with easy to use three easy to use dials. The door handles and armrests look and feel more solid than last year's model. In the supercharged version SC embroidered leather seating is now an option along with standard power windows, locks and outside mirrors. Order the six CD, in-dash stereo and you can switch tunes easier than ever. Look for an optional 300 watt stereo in the 2002 model year.

Nissan still retains the 1970's style parking brake, which remains just as temperamental as ever and, this is a real nit, the cheap aluminum ignition switch in the steering column.

Before revising the interior of the Frontier, NDI designers researched and created 3-dimensional 'themes' of what people like to do inside their trucks using everyday objects, such as tools, and photos. The designs were meant to inspire creativity in the materials used and to meet the lifestyle needs of different buyers. The SC model follows the 'wrench' theme for buyers who want industrial strength in their trucks. 'Bristol' is the theme for woodworkers and appears in the XE trim. Finally, for the SE trim, Nissan uses the theme 'orbit' to describe the durable interior fabrics, materials and colors desired by young, active surfer types.

Beneath the paint the Frontier is still a double-sided, steel unibody mounted on a five crossmember H-frame. The independent front suspension remains the same consisting of torsion and stabilizer bar on both 4X2 and 4X4 versions. A rigid rear axle utilizes conventional leaf springs

Overall Nissan will offer 14 models of Frontier available in 132 build options. Production trucks started rolling off the assembly lines in Smyrna, TN the week of July 10th. Nissan expects to build 3500 Frontiers per month to meet demand which has skyrocketed 45% in the last year since the introduction of the 2000 Crew Cab model and is only expected to keep increasing with the 2001 model.

We drove pre-production standard and supercharged V6 Frontier Crew Cabs around San Diego on surface streets, the highway and a short off-road stretch.

SE-V6 Crew Cab 4x2 Drive

The standard SE-V6 Crew Cab Frontier for 2001 is, well, standard except for the handsome new looks inside and out. Most manufacturers are offering compact crew cab pickups with four full size doors next year, whereas Nissan was the first to offer that option last year, so there is nothing too remarkable about it.

The engine is anonymous. Full of sound and fury as you stomp on the pedal it signifies little power, like when it comes time to enter a freeway onramp. It gets a little harder to accelerate at speeds above 70mph.

We took the 4x2 on the off-road stretch of our drive. Bounding around on this fire-road quality trail the Frontier was remarkably quiet on the inside. Though a pre-production unit this truck showed not the slightest hint of a squeak or rattle inside or out.

Nissan has made the rear of the five passenger crew cab a bit more livable by slightly

scalloping out the back of the front seats for 2001 to allow more leg room for rear passengers. More cramped than other crew cab trucks in the rear, if you can move the front passengers forward those in the back will stay pretty happy on medium length trips. On the highway at speeds over 70mph there was significant wind noise in the cabin, especially in the back seat.

The SE-V6 drew a moderate amount of attention and head turning on the road but nothing like the solar yellow SC-V6 we drove.

SC-V6 Crew Cab 4x4 Drive

Immediately after driving the SE-V6 we hopped into the SC.

With its supercharger, bright yellow paint, 17" aluminum alloy wheels and performance tires we're not sure you'd really take this truck off-road, but it sure is great for getting from stoplight to stoplight. You really feel like taking on all comers at the green.

The extra 40 horsepower and 45 foot pounds of torque power provided by the supercharger over the non-supercharged engine is immediately apparent. Just
stepping on the gas you feel lots more power than the standard V6 and mashing the accelerator brings
satisfaction to the enthusiast's soul.

The whine of the Eaton supercharger was prominently heard if you opened the throttle wide open and stayed that way until you reached cruising speed. Appealing to the younger crowd that Nissan is going after with the SC, daily commuters might find the high pitched whine a little tiresome over the long term, but as long as you don't stomp down too hard, you don't even know the supercharger exists.

On the road behavior was quite good for a 4x4. Nissan has done a nice job balancing the suspension and ride height while still leaving ground clearance quite high.

Our SC-V6 was fully loaded with the standard Power Package, which included remote keyless entry and power everything, and Supercharger Value Package, which included leather seating surfaces, pop-up sunroof, security system and the CD changer.

Inside the leather seats felt comfortable and reminded the author of the leather seating found in the discontinued Nissan 300Z sports car. Very supportive and durable, the leather gave an impression of high quality. The
embroidered S/C emblem on the seats was also a nice touch.
Built into the leather wrapped steering wheel were controls for the radio and CD player to quickly change through the station settings.

The same high level of wind and road noise penetrates the cabin at highway speeds, but its a small price to pay for the extra performance. Hopefully production units will have more sound proofing.

Summing it Up

Quick Specs
2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve I4:
143 hp@5,200 RPM
154 ft-lbs torque@4,000 RPM

3.3-liter SOHC 12-valve V6:
170 hp@4,800 RPM
200 ft-lbs torque@2,800 RPM

3.3-liter SOHC 12-valve V6 Supercharger:
210 hp
240 ft-lbs torque

5-speed manual or 4-speed electronically controlled automatic

Drive Configuration
Front engine/rear-wheel drive (4x2) Front engine/4-wheel drive (4x4)

Double wishbone front suspension with stabilizer bar Rear leaf spring suspension (stabilizer bar on 4x2 V6)

Wheelbase (Reg. Cab/King Cab and Crew Cab): 104.3 in./116.1 in.

Overall length (Reg. Cab/King Cab/Crew Cab): 191.3 in./203.1 in./200.1 in.

EPA Fuel Economy
4x2 I4 M/T: 22/26 mpg City/Highway A/T: 20/24 mpg City/Highway

4x2 V6 M/T: 17/19 mpg City/Highway A/T: 16/19 mpg City/Highway

4x4 V6 M/T: 16/18 mpg City/Highway A/T: 15/19 mpg City/Highway

Nissan has just announced that its investing around $1B in the expansion of its two US manufacturing plants over the next four years to increase production capacity. Part of that capacity will go into increased production volume for future editions of the Frontier.

If Nissan puts as much effort into the next generation Frontier as they did into the facelift of the 2001 truck they can look forward to a nice return on their investment. The demand will be there.

We look forward to doing a more thorough road test of the Frontier in the near future.