Scott Mead, Contributor
Ever since the first Commercial Roadster rolled off the Ford Dearborn assembly plant in 1910, pickup trucks have taken on a utilitarian -- almost cookie-cutter -- look that fits right in at the construction site. Sure, they may have subtle styling cues that differentiate the makes and models, but the general mold is the same. When Nissan set out to perform a facelift to the 2001 Frontier, the designers not only broke the mold, they obliterated it with a radical styling departure from the norm that literally has "move over" written all over it.
The Frontier's provocative new exterior offers a tough, industrial look with a forward-thrusting front grille, oversized headlamps and large fender flares with rivet-type caps. Maxima-ized fog lamps grace the front fascia and a new tailgate has been added with an integral lock. The overall appearance is like the upcoming Hummer H2, but with a more civilized look. The new guise commands attention wherever you drive, and it didn't matter if we were in the Regular Cab, King Cab or Crew Cab: kids stared, senior citizens gawked, and chicks dug it.
Market gurus see the new Frontier more as an avenue for extroverts (who want to lead an active lifestyle while creating an image for themselves) than that of a rough and tumble truck. There are 14 different model choices for the Frontier in 2001: the XE Regular and King cab with a four-banger; the XE, SE and SC V6 in Desert Runner, King and Crew Cab guise. With the exception of the four-cylinder models (which are only rear-wheel drive), all are available in 4X2 and 4X4 models.
The suspension, while being a vast improvement over the same platform-Xterra on road, is rather harsh when the pavement of suburbia ends and the wilderness begins. On road, the freshened Frontier exhibited virtually no pitch or wallow (unlike its predecessor) and handled the twisties with aplomb. The steering is still numb, slow and non-communicative. We also experienced almost 2 inches of steering wheel play before the rack responded -- a bit too much for an "on-road-specific" vehicle.
Nissan admits that the 2001 Frontier is a street machine first, with some "light" off-road capability. Just take a look in the Frontier's wheel wells: there's hardly enough travel on 4X4 models to really go off in the brush. However, Nissan engineers promise a "real" off-road version of the Frontier is in the pipeline that will hit dealer showrooms in 2002.
The Frontier's interior features a new instrument cluster with reversible gauges, cruise control on the steering wheel and enlarged HVAC switches, that latter of which feel flimsy and look cheap, a la Toyota Celica. The leather seating surfaces in our SE tester were optional and provided excellent lumbar and thigh support, but we found the lateral support to be lacking -- especially when we took the Frontier off the highway. The soft-touch dash is a welcome enhancement over many a competitor's hard plastic variant and all of the essential controls fell easily at hand.
The base XE Frontier comes equipped with a 143-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder that provides a decent amount of grunt for the value. Have a boat to tow or looking for additional power? Step up to the tried and true 3.3-liter SOHC V6 and 170 horsepower is available to your right foot. With 200 foot-pounds of torque, the V6 has a good amount of low-end pull, but like an Xterra with the same powerplant, it runs out of steam in the upper rpm range.
Thank goodness the engineers at Nissan realize that many people want to be able to pass another car on the highway without revving the engine into the stratosphere. To that end, a third engine will be added to the Frontier lineup this November, and it's a powerplant that we believe should be introduced right now. A first-ever for a compact truck, Nissan will add the "SC" series that will likely blow the doors off the competition.
Yep, the SC stands for supercharged. Making 210 horsepower and 245 foot-pounds of torque, and backed by a heavy-duty five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic, you can really feel the additional 45 foot-pounds of torque generated by the Eaton huffer (set to produce a conservative 6 pounds of boost) on the 3.3-liter SOHC V6. Besides the immediate throttle response and increased torque across the engine's rpm band, the blower motor is fully Warranted and affects fuel economy by only 10 percent.
SC-optioned Frontiers will also come standard with power windows, locks and outside mirrors; body-color fender flares; titanium-colored gauges and a 100-watt AM/FM/CD audio system.
Grinding the Frontier to a halt is accomplished through a front disc/rear drum arrangement that features rear-wheel ABS on base models, while V6 and Crew Cab models receive four-wheel ABS. Our SC Crew Cab tester exhibited linear emergency braking and minimal pedal pulse. The brakes were easy to modulate and exhibited virtually no fade after repeated stops. However, with the SC model, we'd like to see four-wheel discs fitted for additional stopping power given the blower option.
Pricing for the 2001 Frontier was not available at the time of this writing, but it's safe to say that a small premium will be tacked on for the new look. For the meek or timid, this may not be the truck for you. On the other hand, testosterone junkies looking for the ultimate bad-to-the-bone ride and boulevard cruiser, the Frontier should be at the top of your list. As for our take, we can't wait until November rolls around for one of the SC models. The 2001 Frontier is one truck that doesn't roll down the boulevard, it struts.
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