Monday, November 14, 2005

Nissan Making Things Hot for Dakota, Tacoma With New Bigger Frontier Pickup

For a long time the only mid-size pickup truck on the market was the Dodge Dakota. But in the past year Toyota, Chevrolet, GMC and now Nissan have all upsized their previous compact offerings to give the Dakota some genuine competition.

Nissan’s Frontier came in for some heavy criticism in this space when its last generation debuted, but the move to the larger size gets all cheers. Yes, I am a sucker for high performance vehicles and my Aztec Red 4X4 tester was the “Nismo” edition and Nismo is the Nissan performance bunch.

But the brisk acceleration provided by the 265 horsepower 4.0 liter V-6 under the hood and the unexpectedly adept handling generated by the firmed suspension turned the bigger Frontier into a real fun machine on the road, while losing none of the virtues that make pickups so appealing.

The muscular V-6 is actually the most powerful mid-size pickup powerplant on the market, with a 45-horse advantage over the Chevy Colorado and even a five-horse edge on the Dakota’s strongest V-8. But the Frontier’s V-6 matched with a six-speed stick shift still manages 21 mpg on the highway.

The Nismo package includes special Bilstein shocks, skid plates for the tranny, oil and fuel tanks and transfer case. The rear suspension includes overslung multi-leaf springs and the two-speed transfer case is complimented by an electronic locking differential.

The Frontier’s exterior styling immediately calls to mind the full-size Nissan Titan, but the Frontier’s shorter wheelbase and overall length produces a crisper and more striking appearance.

The fenders are severely flared and the Frontier’s stance is much enhanced on the Nismo edition by the presence of 16-inch BFGoodrichs mounted on six-spoke alloy wheels. The windshield is wide and tall, as are the side windows, which gives the Frontier an expansive, airy interior feeling and makes it look even bigger on the outside.

Inside the Frontier, we find large gauges, easy to find and use switches and front seats that are quite comfortable and supportive. My King Cab configuration featured rear-hinged rear doors, while the larger Crew Cab has four full-size doors.

Bed length is nearly 75 inches with the King Cab and towing capacity is 6,100 pounds. Driver and front passenger front and Advanced Airbag System bags are standard, as are four cup holders, three 12V power outlets and two glove boxes.

Best of all, my very nicely appointed Nismo tester stickered at $26,030. This Nissan is a serious candidate for tops in class in my book. And I say that despite having raved about the latest Dakota and the recently upsized Tacoma.

I rate those three at the head of the class, with the Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon twins trailing a bit behind, chiefly as a result of the lack of an available v-configuration powerplant. Don't know about the Mitsubishi Raider, as I've not yet driven that rebadged Dakota.

And is Ford ever going to do something to grow the Ranger?