As You Like It
Road Test: 1999 SE-V6 Nissan Frontier King Cab

by J.J. Gertler

In Shakespeare's comedy, Lady Rosalind dresses as a man and takes the name Ganymede. Does changing her clothing make her a different character? Discuss.

Nature or nurture? Genetics or upbringing? The debate over what forms our personality has provided full employment for graduates of psychological schools since mankind first began to cogitate about cognition.

The Nissan Frontier makes a strong argument for the nurture side -- that clothes make the truck. We drove two Frontiers, built on the same platform and engineered by the same people. Yet they are completely different trucks. Blood kin under the skin, from the driver's seat they seem at best e-mailing cousins. Or, for you Patty Duke fans:
The 4 x 2 loves
A shopping day
Some potted plants
The broad highway
But cousin 4 x 4's at home where elk and goats and bison roam
What a crazy pair!
But they're Nissans
Near identical Nissans, yet you'll find
You'll have to make up your mind --
These Nissans aren't two of a kind!

1999 Nissan Frontier 4x4

We were introduced to the Frontier by a two-wheel drive XE -- the lower trim model -- with the standard 2.4 liter four cylinder engine mated to a 5-speed stick. It was the color of the pea soup that made cafeteria lunches such a must miss, and the truck, too, lacked spice. In such a competitive market, with so many roughly equal entries, Nissan's revamped pickup seemed to miss the mark. Had we stopped there, you'd be reading a review entitled "The Mild Frontier."

Enter cousin 4x4. Red like lobster bisque, and with tangy performance to boot. The differences are simple but stark: A stiffer, high-riding suspension, upmarket SE trim, and a 3.3 liter six cylinder engine. They combine to wow.

To be sure, evolution is a traditional part of the small pickup scene. At first, the Japanese truck invasion came as a surprise. In the '70s, pickup trucks were big, brawny, he man machines. GM, Ford, Dodge, and Jeep full-size trucks worked the farms and hauled the bricks.

Then Nissan and Toyota brought over little trucks. Toy trucks. Small, tinny things that seemed more Corgi than real. And their success is now legend. People discovered that pickups were darn useful things, if they were small enough to use downtown and in parking lots. That forced American competitors to scramble for their own small trucks. Ford's Courier was a rebadged Mazda; the Chevy LUV (light utility vehicle, or so they'd have you believe) came from Isuzu.

Now, of course, even the Japanese-nameplate trucks are built -- and most designed -- Over Here. All Frontiers, for example, are built in Smyrna, Tennessee.

INSIDE & OUT

In designing the Frontier's exterior, Nissan indulged itself in the currently fashionable retro or "heritage" design phase (well expressed in Nissan's new Z-car prototype), drawing inspiration from the company's past. The XE backs off the aggressive "hardbody" styling of Nissan's recent past, using soft shapes and a minimum of creases. The result is conservative, even quiet, especially when compared to, say, Toyota's bolder Tacoma. Both trucks also echo the 70s in their use of chrome for the grille and rear bumper. The XE has a lean and hungry look, low and long; the SE adds fender flares and a different fascia for a more muscular, better filled out pose. Our reservation is with very front end: Particularly on the XE, the Frontier puts us in mind of the early Datsun pickup trucks of the 1970s. That wasn't one of Nissan's stronger efforts. Fortunately, the SE presents a tougher face to the world.

That SE Sport also sits 3.3" higher, even if you order a 4x2. The climb up is aided by a stylish tubular bar along the sides, flattened where you actually need to step. Its wells are filled with aggressive, 265/70 R15 Goodriches on alloy rims, while the SE makes do with 215/65R15 all weather Firestones, a bit noisy on concrete. Both sport full-size spares, one of the wonders of trucks.

Measure for measure, King Cab Frontiers give you a 74.6 inch bed. A Regular Cab trades the inside storage for another 2.6 inches out back. All Frontier boxes measure 59.8" wide and an impressive 17.1" deep.

From inside and at rest, the two Nissans are similar, and not furnished like a beggar. The instruments on both of our test vehicles were simple and clear; the basic four gauges (fuel, speed, revs, and water temperature) with white numbers on black and well backlit at night. Headlights -- and, on the SE Sport, fog lights -- are controlled by the left stalk, with wipers on the right. Materials are a mixed bag; some of them modern, some -- the XE's tan ones particularly -- a bit plasticky, with some seams showing. (Why can nobody do a tan interior well?)

Seats are a real high point, enrobed in durable velour that grabs your trousers like Velcro brand hook and loop fastener. They have decent bolstering and are quite firm. Headroom is about average for the class; maybe an eight-gallon will do. And all Frontiers bear commendably large side mirrors (power adjustable on the SE.)

One suspects most Frontiers leave home with the King Cab, which has two fold-down side-facing rear seats (separated by a subwoofer if you get the Big Stereo.). This layout puzzles us. Sure, lots of trucks have small rear seats in their extended cab. The Frontier differs by lacking a third or fourth door to help you get to those seats. As this truck was designed from a clean sheet of paper well after the introduction of competitive trucks with extra rear doors, the omission is hard to understand.

We frankly thought it would be much ado about nothing; after all, mankind existed quite happily for eons with food from the land, natural cunning, and two-door pickups. Then we took a Saturday suburban shopping trip,

going from mall to mall, tossing bags behind the seats. That's when it struck us that this is the way many (most?) small pickups are used now: not to carry feed, but vanity mirrors and Nintendo sets and jumbo packs of Star-Kist Solid White Tuna in Spring Water -- items you don't really want back in the bed. That's when you really notice the lack of extra doors. Nissan will partially rectify this competitive disadvantage with its forthcoming Crew Cab, which goes all the way to a second bench and four full-size, front-hinged doors. (And, of course, you'll read a full review of it here.)

The Frontier interior features two rubber-lined cup holders with mug handle cutouts in front of the center console. The liners say "Remove for larger cup"; do that and the Big Gulp'll fit. Two standard cupholders are molded into the center console for folks in the back. Under the armrest, a deep, square bin holds non-cupular items. You also get two 12-volt power ports.

The SE also boasted a midsummer night's dream, a large sunroof with removable privacy panel. We couldn't find anywhere to securely store the panel, so it went behind the seats with the Star-Kist.

The Frontier's parking brake is way forward along the steering column down low to the right, with an umbrella handle. In the XE, the lower dash was rather amateurishly (and incompletely) assembled, with all the attachment tabs showing; we're willing to chalk that off to local repair work, as the SE's fit and finish were flawless except for a wonky power socket.

ON THE ROAD

The two gentlemen of Smyrna both provide an entertaining drive. While the amount of road feel in the steering depends largely on the tires you choose, it responds to your commands precisely and without fuss. Look under the truck, and you'll find a surprise: Independent double-wishbone front suspension, like that on the sports cars for which Nissan is so well known, with a stabilizer bar. Out back, typical multi-leaf springs give a smooth or tenacious ride, depending on the taming of the axle (about which more in a moment.)

All's well that ends well, and the Frontier stops surely, with an easily modulated pedal (and rear ABS for the modulation-challenged.) Nissan claims the SE will haul down from 60 in 137 ft; that's 154 feet for the skinnier-tired XE.

The difference in noise control and feel is greater between high- and low-end Nissans than any other manufacturer. That goes beyond the cosmetic (entry Frontiers get a black grille and bumpers; upmarket SE models sport chrome) to the feeling of solidity and even the sound a door panel makes when you lock the door. When a Nissan is good, it is very, very good. When a Nissan is not, nobody does tinny sheet metal the way they do.

With a few exceptions, we found that same dichotomy between the two Frontiers. The SE 4x4 felt more solid and more pleasing in most respects than the XE. Even with the automatic, there's plenty of torque (200 ft/lb@2800); certainly one can steer the tail very well with the throttle. It exhibited the kind of broad shouldered handling found in, say, Ford's Ranger Sport, but with a sense of even more tire on the road. The rear suspension is admirable, refusing to skitter or bounce on even our meanest test road.

The exception came when we locked the SE's door, and the outer door skin reverberated with a hollow ping that reminded you how Nissan got started in this country.

By contrast, the 4x2 XE seemed much lighter on its feet, although (thanks to the long wheelbase, rear antilock brakes, and relative lack of engine oomph) not at all tail-happy. With a softer suspension, particularly in jounce, it gave a more citified ride. But the tailgate rattled, and closing the doors - or, yes, locking them - yielded sounds that were not up to par for this class of truck.

The 143-hp 2.4 liter engine's performance was adequate, although we ran it only with one driver and no load. The 2.4 is fine for around town, at least with the manual transmission; we suspect the automatic would sap the kind of acceleration and low-end torque a proper working truck requires. Going for the four banger cuts rated towing capacity to 3500 pounds, versus 5000 for the 3.3 (although it increases payload by 200 pounds, to 1400.) One can't quibble with the economy figures, though; the 2.4 liter yielded over 25 mpg around town, and bested 28 in highway running. Not bad at all for a vehicle with, er, unsubtle aerodynamics. What is the price of power? The 3.3 -- running only in two-wheel-drive mode -- averaged 17.6 mpg.

SUMMING UP

Describing Nissan's Frontier is like interviewing Sybil. The answers depend on which personality you're talking to.

They start from a pretty good platform. Across the line, Frontiers combine a good basic structure, modern if unexciting interiors, strong brakes, and restrained styling. Build quality is generally good, and their seats and interior quiet keep the tempest securely outside.

So, the basic genes are there. How do you raise them? SE or XE? Four or Six? 4x4 or 4x2? It's all up to you. The Frontier can be put together just as you like it.

1999 Nissan Frontier 4x4 SE-V6 King Cab

Manufacturer's suggested retail price: 21,240 Price as tested: 24,017

Price as tested includes:

power package, 980 (includes security system,

remote keyless entry, cruise control, power windows, power door locks, power mirrors); sport package, 749 (AM/FM cassette with CD and subwoofer, flip up glass sunroof) limited-slip differential, 200; floor mats, 59; king cab over-the-rail bedliner, 299; destination 490.

J.J. Gertler's automobile reviews are available at www.hardrive.com