James Riswick, New and Used Car Editor
The name "Frontier" conjures up all sorts of images: prospectors in search of Alaskan black gold, adventurers crossing the Amazon, nomads roaming the sand-swept dunes of the Kalahari — the types of environments for which an off-road-ready pickup truck like the 2009 Nissan Frontier 4X4 PRO4X would be called into service. Even if we didn't quite make it up to Nome, we found the Frontier performed admirably when off the beaten path. And yet the Frontier sets itself apart by the way it performs closer to home. Its relatively compact dimensions and communicative steering make it feel manageable and borderline agile in the heart of the city and suburbs — the sorts of environments for which rough-and-tumble pickup trucks are usually tiresome burdens.
Suitably, we took to the snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains to exercise the Frontier's taut structure and 4WD system. With the PRO4X trim, we also experienced its added Bilstein off-road shock absorbers, skid plates, rock-crawling tires and locking rear diff that assured we never got stuck in sand, mud or damp melting snow. But beyond those exploits, the Frontier spent most of its time trekking through the concrete jungle. There were the daily traffic adventures, excursions to the mall and nighttime quests for Pizza Hut. And surprisingly, we didn't tire of driving it as we have with other pickups that are so clearly not intended for cramped city parking spots and quick traffic maneuvers. Nope, the nimble Frontier handled it all quite capably as well.
Of course, there are detractors. For one, fuel economy is about equal with V8-powered full-size trucks. Also, the PRO4X trim seems just a little too rough-and-tumble for daily driving. While its rugged shocks and tires make it Kalahari-capable, the jarring highway ride will have your head bobbling away like a Dodgers Stadium giveaway. Also, its squarish 5-foot bed limits its hauling ability. We'd therefore recommend to most truck buyers the Frontier LE, which provides a 6-foot bed option and a bit nicer on-road ride, while still being about 85 percent as capable off-road.
Like all Nissan Frontier crew cabs, our PRO4X test truck came with a 4.0-liter V6 that produces 261 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque (a four-cylinder engine is available with the extended cab). Standard on the PRO4X Crew Cab is a five-speed automatic that shifts quickly and smoothly. At our test track, the 2009 Nissan Frontier went from zero to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds. That's only a few tenths off the pace of the V8-equipped Dodge Dakota, and this torque-rich V6 actually feels more energetic in normal driving. It pulls hard early, and freeway passing in particular is accomplished with ease. Unfortunately, at 15 mpg city/19 mpg highway and 16 mpg combined, the Frontier's really no better than a full-size truck with a big V8.
Braking is quite impressive (for a truck) and the Frontier comes to a stop from 60 mph in a tidy 128 feet. The pedal is a little squishy and has a lot of idle travel, but that's how it should be for an off-road truck when minute adjustments are needed for tackling tricky terrain. No pickup's going to handle well in the traditional sense, but in the real world, the Frontier transmits a sense of agility and confidence no other pickup possesses (except for its Suzuki Equator (twin). The steering is admirably precise and weighted on the heavy side, which is a boon at higher speeds but a detriment at lower ones. Still, we're willing to throw in a little muscle while parking if it means being able to better control such a big, top-heavy vehicle along narrow streets.
Off-road, the compact Frontier is tremendously capable for antics more extreme than our mild sand and snow play. The 4X4 PRO4X packs a shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive system with 4Hi and 4Lo. Also included are an electronic locking rear differential, Bilstein off-road performance shocks, BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires and skid plates for the oil pan, transfer case and fuel tank. Our tester's Traction package further adds hill start assist, hill descent control and stability control (all standard for 2010 with the PRO4X).
As mentioned before, the PRO4X makes concrete freeway travel a very bobbing, unpleasant experience. Potholes and other bumps are met with a thorough thwack to your backside, although there's mercilessly less live rear axle chassis shake than other trucks. Road noise is on the loud side thanks to those off-road-oriented tires, but wind noise is surprisingly muted.
Even though it lacks a telescoping steering wheel, the 2009 Nissan Frontier nevertheless provided a comfortable driving position for the many sizes of driver we plopped in its driver seat. Adjustability is quite good and thanks to the high-mounted seat, front legroom is ample. Our tester's leather-wrapped seats were firm and supportive over many miles of driving, which was certainly appreciated given the jarring ride.
Despite our truck's crew-cab body style, we found the backseat to be on the cramped side. The seat rest is a little too close to vertical and the low-mounted seat bottom forces your knees into an uncomfortable rendezvous with your chest (and the front seats). We'd also suggest skipping the sunroof, as it lowers the roof line onto rear passengers' heads. Width is at least good, as three average-size editors managed to all fit in the back together.
The Frontier is a model of ergonomic stereo and climate controls. Both are located high on the dash and within easy reach, while also being very straightforward in design. The stereo's A-B-C preset banks are a welcome feature, allowing you to mix and match FM, AM and XM radio presets.
Interior storage is ample with two gloveboxes, a deep armrest bin and center console trays. The rear seat's backrest flips down and its seat bottom flips up, providing two ways to store bulky items like golf clubs and suitcases away from the elements. The backrest must be flipped forward to reach the child seat top tether anchors, requiring an awkward bit of maneuvering. Once in place, there's enough space for both front- and rear-facing child seats.
The PRO4X Crew Cab can only be had with the 5-foot-long truck bed. We fit a full-size bicycle diagonally, but if you really need pickup utility, we think going with the 6-foot-long bed optional on other Frontier trims is the way to go. On the upside, the PRO4X includes a durable spray-on lining and four movable tie-down hook points that can be locked down into channels in the side and forward bed walls, as well as the floor. Unlike the Tacoma's similar system, the Frontier's hooks are made out of metal rather than plastic.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Frontier's cabin is filled with hard plastic, but so is every midsize pickup. Only the Tacoma's interior is nicer, so it's difficult to fault the Frontier. On the upside, those hard plastics are at least low-sheen and nicely textured. Potential elbow contact points are also padded.
The exterior certainly conveys the agile, rugged nature of the Frontier. The front-end revisions for 2009 are attractive, especially with the PRO4X's body-colored grille (replacing chrome).
Who should consider this vehicle
If you live in an urban environment but need pickup truck utility, the dexterous 2009 Nissan Frontier is a top choice, but be wary of the PRO4X trim. Those who desire more interior space should consider the Toyota Tacoma, while those who are willing to trade off-road capability for both ride quality and interior space should try the Honda Ridgeline.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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