A more powerful V6 revives our interest in the dated-but-lovable Frontier.
Depending on how you count dog years, the 2020 Nissan Frontier is the oldest single-generation vehicle on the market today. The current midsize pickup first hit the scene in 2004, as a 2005 model, with precious few updates in the intervening 15 years. But the 2020 model brings significant mechanical changes that help modernize the little pickup without ruining some of its inherent charm.
The fully boxed ladder frame, which was very impressive in 2005 and is still something of a rarity in cheap trucks, now contains a new heart – a standard 3.8-liter V6 routing power to the rear or all four wheels through a standard nine-speed automatic gearbox. With 310 horsepower and 281 pound-feet on tap, the new engine makes 49 more ponies than the outgoing Frontier’s optional 4.0-liter six, with an identical torque figure. Fuel economy is up too, with better EPA efficiency ratings than the 2019 truck’s standard (and underpowered) 2.5-liter inline-four.
The new engine and transmission also serve as an amuse bouche for the forthcoming 2021 Nissan Frontier, which will feature significantly more modern entertainment and safety technology to go with its heavily updated structure, interior, and exterior. For 2020, however, does the new powertrain update the Frontier enough to be competitive with the Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma, and Chevrolet Colorado?
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There’s no denying it: The 2020 Nissan Frontier is an ancient truck. However, some of us think that the blocky, butch styling is still best-in-class, particularly compared to the soft Ford Ranger and the cloyingly aggressive Chevy Colorado Z71. In Pro-4X form, the Frontier comes equipped with purposeful Hankook Dynapro AT tires mounted on 16-inch aluminum wheels, giving it a trail-ready appearance that is a testament to design simplicity. Even after all this time, the Frontier looks good because it has resisted trends that become tacky within a few years.
Inside though, things start to go wrong. Hard plastic abounds, with the only soft-touch materials appearing on the door and center console armrests (both of which are too small for those who need to sit closer to the wheel). The Playskool-chic dashboard and door panels showed scrapes and scuffs that seemed a bit premature for our tester’s 2,500-mile odometer reading. Positives include a pleasant, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and charming white-faced gauges that would have been out of date five years ago, but today look almost retro – blame this 31-year-old’s high school nostalgia.
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The midsize pickup market has become markedly more carlike in terms of space and ride comfort, and here, the Frontier falls short. Its seats are rather high, impinging on headroom for taller folks. The front seats are poorly shaped for adequate lumbar support, but we have to give marks for good thigh support thanks to the height-adjustable seat bottom. The rear seat’s nearly vertical backrest and short seat bottom are suitable for contortionists with 24-inch inseams and no one else – this is one case where we don’t think the expense or loss of bed space is worth it, because the crew cab’s rear quarters just aren’t that comfortable.
Ride comfort is middling (blame the Pro-4X’s off-road–optimized Bilstein dampers), but surprisingly, the cabin is quiet and composed most of the time. Wind and road noise are isolated well, and the husky roar of the big V6 makes its presence known only on full-throttle – where the VQ-series engine’s bellow is most welcome.
While most new Nissans boast responsive, attractive infotainment systems and modern smartphone integration, the Frontier Pro-4X’s standard navigation touchscreen is hopelessly outclassed. Measuring just 5.8 inches, the previous-generation NissanConnect system falls behind with dated graphics and a lack of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, even as options.
Bluetooth and Siri Eyes Free come standard, but neither is very useful since the Frontier’s voice recognition is completely unworkable – commanding even the embedded navigation with voice prompts is impossible. We wish Nissan chose instead to offer a more basic radio system that worked perfectly, even if it had fewer features, because at least then we wouldn’t be disappointed.
There wasn’t that much wrong with the outgoing 4.0-liter V6 engine found in the 2005 to 2019 Frontier. The ancient mill was gutsy down low, which made it ideal for truck duty compared to the peaky, rev-happy 3.6-liter V6 in the Colorado and the torque-light 3.5-liter V6 in the Tacoma. But the 3.8-liter six found in the 2020 Frontier is still an improvement over its predecessor. Direct injection provides both better power and efficiency, and torque is unchanged (and very nearly best-in-class). Conspiring with an intelligent nine-speed automatic transmission, the new V6 makes the Frontier feel light on its feet when the light turns green.
On-road handling leaves quite a bit to be desired, with some worrisome sway appearing on the highway when encountering an expansion joint or pothole. However, when the pavement goes away altogether, the Frontier Pro-4X comes alive. Its trim-specific shock absorbers do a masterful job of handling swift dirt roads and bumpy trails with equal aplomb, and there’s plenty of ground clearance and suspension travel.
A standard locking rear differential makes quick work of mud pits and slick surfaces, and underbody skid plates protect the oil pan, fuel tank, and transfer case. The short front and rear overhangs make for nimble proportions, and the Frontier is a bit narrower than its competitors as well. While not quite as extreme as a Colorado ZR2 or Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, the Frontier still comports itself very well off-road, particularly considering the $38,745 as-tested price – thousands less than those particular pickups.
The Frontier’s robust, high-strength steel, fully boxed frame means decent things for crashworthiness, with “Good” scores from the IIHS for moderate overlap, side-impact, and roof strength tests. A “Marginal” score on both the driver and passenger small overlap test is worrisome, however, and the poorly rated halogen headlights are pretty dim even for in-town use.
What’s worse is a total lack of crash prevention features. Blind spot monitoring, forward collision warning, and lane departure monitoring are unavailable on any Frontier trim level, to say nothing of automatic emergency braking. Ford, Honda, and Toyota feature emergency braking and forward collision warning standard, and Chevrolet offers forward collision warning on the Colorado as an option. While the Luddites in the room might cheer for the Nissan, the fact is those features save lives and prevent accidents. The company promises they’re coming to the redesigned 2021 Frontier.
The 2020 Nissan Frontier with four-wheel drive achieves 17 miles per gallon city, 23 highway, and 19 combined, as rated by the EPA. Our driving, much of which was off-road, yielded a hand-calculated number of 16 mpg. We believe the Frontier would have no trouble achieving its rated numbers in more normal use.
Trucks with similar drivetrains and powertrains are in the Frontier’s neighborhood, too. The Toyota Tacoma V6 gets 20 mpg combined, while the Chevrolet Colorado V6 gets 19 combined. The Jeep Gladiator gets 19 combined, while the Honda Ridgeline nets 22 mpg (sans low range). The Ford Ranger achieves 22 mpg combined, thanks to its torquey, turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine.
The 2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X starts at $37,490, or around $10,000 more than the updated Frontier's starting price. With a $1,095 destination charge, we had an out-the-door price of $38,585. That’s plenty of truck for the money, particularly for those who prioritize backwoods playtime and a rough-and-tumble persona over tech gadgets and doodads.
Truth be told, the 2020 Nissan Frontier is one of the last surviving members of an endangered species, offering “trucky” driving dynamics that are fast being quashed in newer, more carlike competitors. While it’s objectively flawed, the updated Frontier’s muscular engine and throwback platform offer far more personality than the somewhat gutless Toyota Tacoma or the might-as-well-be-a-Malibu Chevrolet Colorado.
We hope that somehow, somehow, Nissan is able to keep the mischievous, puppy-like attitude in the 2021 Frontier, while still adding modern safety features and improving comfort. We’ll see.
Gallery: 2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X Review
2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X