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.
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.
SC-V6 Crew Cab 4x4 Drive
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.