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Nissan has been building trucks for the U.S. market since 1958. Now in its seventh generation of pickup offerings, the company's 1999 Frontier-badged model comes after a major redesign last year that gave the truck more interior space and improved ergonomics. Alas, the 1998 model was available only with a four-cylinder engine that left the Frontier huffing and puffing when pushed hard either on- or off-road.
Therefore, the big news in '99 comes by way of a 3.3-liter V6 engine that produces 170 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque. The engine is more than capable of moving the large SE or XE 4x4 King Cab models. That's good, because the smaller, two-wheel drive Regular Cab Frontiers still come only with the 143 horsepower 2.4-liter inline four. The smaller engine is given a 3,500 pound towing capacity rating but true truck people will want the 5,000 pound towing capacity that comes courtesy of the new V6.
We recently tested a '99 Frontier XE 4x4 King Cab in its element high above Los Angeles. Bouncing and climbing our way over the off-road trails of Gilroy, Calif., we found that the V6, which is tuned to deliver 90 percent of its maximum torque at only 1,500 rpm, easily clawed its way over broken fire roads and up steep embankments. Unfortunately, under more demanding conditions, such as climbing out of dry river beds or over small and medium rocks, the relatively high transmission gear ratio worked against an otherwise stellar drivetrain. Most of the Frontier's competition comes with a 2.4-2.7 low range gear ratio. The Nissan, however, is saddled with a 2.01 four-low ratio, which leaves it straining when the off-road conditions move from casual to extreme.
In addition to providing more low-end grunt with a revised transmission ratio, Nissan needs to upgrade the Frontier's suspension for serious off-road duty. Between its stiff spring rate and limited travel, the Frontier's suspension proved too easy to max-out on all but the flattest of surfaces (like dirt roads). When venturing away from the safety of Gilroy's main trails, we quickly found ourselves tilting and swaying over broken wilderness.
Extreme off-roading aside, the Frontier is an attractive truck with the largest and deepest bed in its class. The body design is a combination of rugged good looks and contemporary styling, with a new body-color trim package available this year. All XE-V6 models are equipped with flat black fender flares, bumpers and outside mirrors. If you opt for the high-end SE-V6 King Cab, you get 15-inch machined aluminum-alloy wheels fitted with P265/70-15 radial tires.
Inside, the Frontier benefits from a well laid-out and ergonomically sound interior. Standard conveniences include cup-holders, coin holders and an LCD odometer with dual trip meters. Either bench or bucket front seats can be ordered with adjustable head restraints and, in King Cab models, side mounted rear jump seats come standard. If you want to load up your Frontier with luxury options, you can, with everything from power windows and door locks to a five-speaker audio system, complete with CD player and subwoofer.
Unfortunately for Nissan, the Frontier is missing the all-but-standard third door option found on just about every modern pickup truck in existence (with the exception of the Dakota, which gets it in 2000). How this will affect sales is anyone's guess, but for Nissan not to have offered a third door with the '98 redesign seems almost negligent.
For braking duty the Frontier employs ABS with a G-sensor that reads the road surface and adjusts braking for everything from billiard ball smooth pavement to loose traction surfaces such as dust, gravel, and sand. We tried out the system during our off-road jaunt and found it to work effectively under most conditions. Once, however, when trying to stop in deep sand we would have preferred the option to simply lock the wheels and slide the truck sideways rather than have it continue to roll toward an impending rock face. As it was, we still stopped in time but we were once again reminded of the potential pitfalls of ABS.
Besides ABS, Nissan addressed safety in the new Frontier with supplemental air bags that offer a key-type on/off switch for the passenger side. Other safety measures include side-door guard beams and three-point seat belts for the front passengers.
After only a few hours behind the wheel of Nissan's latest Frontier, we can say, without hesitation, that it's the company's best effort at designing a pickup to date. The exterior styling is attractive, the interior is roomy and well thought-out, and the drivetrain feels strong and capable. Nissan gets credit for making 200 foot-pounds of torque with this latest V6 while still maintaining 19 mpg (highway) in a four-wheel drive configuration. We also like that it is available in either a manual or automatic configuration and that it offers such a large cargo bed.
Changes we'd like to see include a four-low range that is a little lower, suspension travel that would allow for more serious off-road duty, and V6 availability throughout the entire Frontier range instead of just on the 4x4 King Cab models. And, of course, a third door option. We know that increased V6 availability is coming for the 2000 model year. As for the rest, we can only wait, and hope.