Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Full-size pickup trucks are about as all-American as baseball and apple pie, but come December that's all going to change. That's when Nissan, a Japanese car and truck manufacturer, will begin sales of the Titan, a true full-size pickup designed to go head-to-head with the domestic stalwarts from GM, Ford and Dodge.
Although another Japanese car builder, Toyota, has marketed its Tundra "full-size" truck for several years now, it's never been considered a true full-size due to its slightly smaller dimensions and rather tame V8. But with the Titan, there's no denying that it's a true full-size in every way.
Two models will be offered: a half-ton extended cab (called King Cab) with a pair of reverse opening rear access doors and a 6-foot-6-inch bed, and a half-ton crew cab with full-size front-hinged rear doors and a 5-foot-6-inch bed. Both are sized within a few inches of their domestic counterparts and both will be available with either two- or four-wheel drive.
The standard drivetrain is a 5.6-liter Endurance V8 coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission. A smaller V6 power plant and a heavy-duty diesel for a 3/4-ton model are being studied for future production, but for now the gas V8 is the only choice. Final specs have yet to be released, but initial numbers rate the aluminum block Endurance V8 at over 300 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque. Compare those numbers to any of the domestics' V8s and it's clear that the Titan stacks up favorably in both categories.
We had a chance to drive a prototype King Cab version of the Titan alongside its main competitors from GM, Ford, Dodge and Toyota to see just how well its drivetrain really stacks up. We didn't have any high-tech test equipment, but based on our initial seat-of-the-pants observation, the Titan should have no trouble impressing even the most die-hard domestic truck buyers.
Anyone who knows big trucks knows that the biggest news in engines as of late has been the introduction of Dodge's 5.7-liter Hemi V8. Rated at 345 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque, it's the top of the heap when it comes to high-powered half-tons. After driving both the Hemi-equipped Dodge and the Titan back to back, however, you would be hard-pressed to tell which one was the more powerful vehicle. The Titan's V8 produces 90 percent of its peak torque at just 2,500 rpm, giving it an off-the-line punch that was every bit at strong as the vaunted Hemi. Although no official acceleration figures were quoted, the Titan's chief product specialist, Larry Dominique, said he's confident that the Titan will post 0-to-60 times comparable to Hemi-equipped Rams.
The Titan's swift acceleration is due to more than just raw horsepower, however, as its standard five-speed automatic uses its extra gear ratio to keep the engine right in the heart of its power band. Gear changes are smooth and sharply executed; although, those used to the truly neck-snapping downshifts of GM's big trucks might be a little disappointed by the Titan's smoother transitions, as they tend to mask how much power is really getting to the ground.
Such a smooth power delivery was no accident, however, as Nissan's engineers took advantage of the new V8's electronic throttle control to fine-tune the power delivery to produce a more linear acceleration feel. This, and a special tow/haul mode that reduces gear hunting under heavy loads, should make the Titan a fine tow vehicle. It boasts a maximum tow rating of 9,400 pounds, just 100 pounds shy of Ford's 2004 F-150's max rating. For those who intend to tow on a regular basis, there is an optional tow package that adds a higher-capacity cooling system, transmission temperature gauge, 3.35 rear axle ratio, 7-pin wiring harness, trailer brake prewiring and a stability control system.
The Titan may use a high-tech engine and transmission to get it moving, but the underlying suspension is of a more traditional design. Up front, there are double wishbone control arms and coil springs, while the rear uses a straight axle and leaf springs. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard across the board, while standard 17-inch wheels and tires provide the final connection to the road.
After several runs over varying types of terrain, it's clear that the Titan will offer one of the most tightly controlled rides in the segment. Much of the credit for the truck's precise ride quality goes to the fully boxed frame and rack-and-pinion steering. The ride is definitely not pillowy soft, but there's plenty of give to soak up rough roads. We also noticed that, unlike most of its competition, the Titan's steering has some heft to it for better road feel. Orth Hedrick, one of the lead product planners on the Titan project, said that at various times during development they had to choose whether to go for slightly better handling or a softer ride they went for the handling. "We wanted this truck to drive smaller than it really is."
Certain elements of the Titan's cabin design reinforce that smaller truck feel. The instrument panel is more compact than most big trucks despite the fact that it still has all the necessary gauges you would expect. The console-mounted shifter of our prototype test truck was easy to reach and its gated shifter makes finding individual gears considerably easier than traditional column shifters. This setup will be reserved for uplevel models, while the base model will come standard with a bench seat and a column shift.
Interior room is generous, and it's obvious that plenty of research went into assuring that its design emphasizes functionality above all else. The center console features no less than four cupholders, a storage bin large enough to hang file folders for those who use their truck as a mobile office and external side bins perfectly sized for stray cell phones.
We didn't have a chance to try out the King Cab's rear seats but a brief trip in the rear quarters of the crew cab model revealed a surprising amount of room in back. We didn't exactly get out the measuring tape, but head-, leg- and shoulder room were all exceptional for a crew cab truck.
There will be three trim levels available on either the King Cab or crew cab: base XE, midlevel SE and top-of-the-line LE. Base models will come well-equipped with air conditioning, cruise control and a CD stereo. Moving up to the SE will add captain's chairs and the center console along with power windows, locks and mirrors and chrome trim for the exterior. Top-line LE models will add power-adjustable leather seats, a Rockford Fosgate audio system, tubular side steps and a utility package for the bed.
Like most full-size trucks, the Titan will offer a substantial options list. Some notable items include a DVD-based navigation system, side curtain airbags, a DVD rear entertainment system, a sunroof and the first ever factory-applied spray-in bedliner. Off-road enthusiasts will also be glad to know that the Titan will offer an off-road package that includes Rancho shocks, heavy-duty skid plates, BFGoodrich all-terrain tires, an electronic rear locking differential and shorter rear differential gears.
Our short introductory drive gave us just a small sample of the Titan's full capabilities. We'll be conducting a more thorough test-drive in a few months that will cover both Titan models in more detail, but until then this is about as much as we could tell you.
It's obvious that Nissan has done its homework and built a legitimate competitor right out of the chute. It has the size, power and features to match up well against anything in its class. As Larry Dominique said at the end of our day with the Titan, "We built a truck that buyers in this segment simply can't ignore." We couldn't agree more.
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