Do the Dew with Your Whole Crew, Stu
Road Test: 2000 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab

by J.J. Gertler

Behold the paradox of the pickup truck. Mighty haulers, they provide a huge amount of room -- if you're cargo. That open bed utility, though, often comes with the cramped seating of a sports car, and little of the fun. Club cabs add volume, but aren't really practical for hauling extra adults. And early crew cabs came only attached to mega-size, spartan trucks dedicated to getting workers to the job site and back.

Came the dawn. Truck manufacturers now realize that you have a life away from work. (It may not seem like it, but really, you do.) And that life may involve not only hauling, but Friends! Families! The Zesty Good Life!

Here before you, the official chariot of the Zesty Good Life.

Nissan's Frontier Crew Cab is a new type of vehicle. For North America, anyway; quad-door pickups seemed the gun platform of choice for qat-crazed Somali warlords, and noted party scenes like Brazil and the Philippines have enjoyed little quads for quite some time. (Free, no-royalty pickup line: "Hey, babe, want to ride in the gun platform of choice for qat-crazed Somali warlords?")

Now they're here, and in force. 4-door pickups were all the rage at the 1999 Detroit Auto Show; in addition to Nissan, Ford showed two, Dodge had one, and (saints preserve us!) even Lincoln jumped in the pool. Chevrolet had
already shown a 4-door S-10, Dodge came out of the closet at this year's SEMA show, and don't be surprised if one or two more show up early in 2000. The formula is the same across the board: Take a long-bed pickup and stretch the cab at the expense of the box.

Nissan's Crew Cab is for the crew you hang with, not the crew you work with. It's a city truck at heart. Sure, it'll pull 5000 pounds (the same as a Ford Lightning), but the smooth suspension and quiet, pavement-oriented General tires betray its true nature. Yes, it has a bed, but that's not the raison d'etre (French for Raisinet) of this truck; you won't be too tempted to line the bed with AstroTurf, as 63" don't leave much room to mambo.

That 63" does let you put your next year's garden in the back; your amaryllis, your gloxinias, your bags of fertilizer. Your Christmas tree, with its stand and all the presents, with enough room inside for yourself and your family. Your tires and toolboxes for the Formula Continental -- yes, the filthy ones that aren't allowed in the back of the Explorer -- with the crew inside where it's dry. Your posse inside, their wet boogieboards out back. As Nissan design chief Jerry Hirschberg put it, "It's a truck with a clean side and a dirty side." Could you ride the frontier in this Frontier? Sure, but it's more at home at a Barenaked Ladies concert.

What can't you do? One prospective customer was disappointed that his motorcycle wouldn't fit in the bed, even with Nissan's optional bed extender. He's waiting for a Dakota Quad Cab, a much larger truck overall. But most ATVs will fit in the Frontier Crew Cab, and most muddy dogs, too.

INSIDE & OUT

This is no mere hyperthyroid club cab. The star of the show, the Frontier's rear seat, is real. Shaq has to go way out back, but medium to large folks can enjoy adequate headroom and, most importantly, you can wear a decent hat. Unless the people in the front seat are being terribly antagonistic, knee room's ample. The rear seat sports belts for three, but they'd better be astonishingly friendly; there's plenty of room for two. Even two who are astonishingly friendly. Finally, a pickup truck you can make out in.

The interior is standard Frontier, simple and functional if not terribly elegant. Dash plastics don't deny their heritage; neither do they offend. Our tested SE featured seats covered in a very hardy velour. They're unusually well bolstered for a pickup, broad and very grippy. We'd wish for a bit longer bottom cushion, but then we couldn't bring the rest of the string quartet (Cello in the bed, please!)

A center armrest flips up to reveal a deep bin. Rear passengers get two molded-in middling large cup holders; there's two more in the front, shaped like keyholes to take your mugs . Boomboxes, laptops, or air compressors benefit from two 12V power ports up front. Oh, and you'll have to turn it up to be heard over the compressor, but the SE package includes a CD player as standard.

Instruments are simple and backlit with white numbers on a black foreground. Climate controls are also simple and logical; one switch for fan speed; one for temperature; one for direction. From left to right the instruments are a small fuel gauge, the 110 mile per hour speedometer, an 8000 rpm tachometer with redline at 5800, and a smaller water temperature readout.

ON THE ROAD

At first impression, the Frontier feels a little strange because you've got just as much truck behind you as you do in a regular long bed Frontier, but the rear window and bed aren't in easy view. You have to stop thinking "pickup" and start a mantra of "SUV". It's thus helpful that the Frontier sits way up; although our test vehicle was a four by two, Nissan has chosen to put all crew cabs on its elevated chassis, not least to allow generous wheel travel for a better ride.

In that, Nissan has certainly succeeded. Even over rotten pavement, the Frontier Crew Cab rides firmly, but without jarring. Part of the reason is the street oriented, long-sidewall tires that also contribute to the Frontier's impressive quietness for a truck of this nature. It proceeds up the road unaccompanied by the tire whine and engine histrionics of so many smaller trucks.

That smooth and unobtrusive motor is Nissan's 3.3 liter six, also found in Pathfinders, upmarket Xterras, and even the Infiniti QX4. It's good for 170 horsepower, with plenty of off-the-line pep, and gave us a consistent 19 mpg in mostly local driving.

Handling, again, is more SUV than pickup. With the extended cab and short bed, the Crew Cab has much more weight on the rear wheels than a standard pickup. The result is docile handling, with deliberate effort required to make the back end come around. It's not a greyhound in the corners, but not a Rottweiler, either.

SUMMING UP

Nissan unquestionably benefits from being the first out of the gate with a 4-door for the real world. That's why they're selling like Pokémon cards (Pokémon keychains, Pokémon shower curtains, etc.) Those who follow will have to do better than the Frontier, both on the road and on the sticker. Neither is an easy challenge. For now, though, load up the posse in the Frontier and Go Zesty!

2000 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab SE

Base price: $19,640 Price as Tested: $21,319

Price as tested includes power package (windows, door locks, mirrors, security system with remote locking, and cruise control), $1080; floor mats, $79; destination, $520.

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