In a market now crowded with compact pickup trucks — the omnipresent Toyota Tacoma, the new Ford Ranger and the upcoming Ford Maverick — it was clearly time for Nissan to provide a major rebuild for its long, long-running Frontier.
After a week spent in a preproduction, $44,315 Pro-4X crew cab edition of the 2022 Frontier — set to go on sale this fall — I can heartily attest to the fact that the new machine is poised to give Tacoma, Ranger and even General Motors’ mini-trucks a run for their money. I also drove the new Pathfinder at roughly the same time and will report on that soon.
The new Frontier is all macho angles, slashes of ultra-bright LED running lamps and the brightest LED taillights around, with a smoothly sculpted look that’s modern but not quite as blocky as the full-sized trucks have become.
And yes, it does look a lot like a Tacoma in some ways, but when you mix the tall bed rails, the texturized bumper and the broad plastic wheel well cladding, it’s got enough of a unique flavor that it ought to help bring some traffic to the brand.
I decided the best way to see if it really could keep up with not only the direct competition but more dedicated off-roaders like Jeep’s Wrangler and Gladiator was to join them on the long weekend trails in Gilpin County.
The Tactical Green Metallic-colored Frontier sports a 310-horsepower, 3.8-liter, V-6 introduced for use on the 2020 model, and that seemed to offer just the right amount of comfortable highway cruising power and a healthy 281 pound-feet of torque for my many uphill grunts.
Unlike the increasingly sophisticated, perhaps overly complex and often electronic 4×4 systems found on Jeep, the guts of the Frontier remain straightforward and basic.
There’s a simple knob that offers you shift-on-the-fly 4×4 high range, and a competent low range that came in handy in helping to pull the still truck-sized Frontier up super-steep slopes — or keep it from spinning gravel on my own driveway.
Besides a single rear differential lock button and hill descent control, that’s literally it, plus Bilstein off-road shocks and some meaty all-terrain tires on 17-inch wheels. A new nine-speed transmission provides some additional gear range and, during my highway drives, also helped push the mileage to over 22 mpg.
Simple as that setup might be, Frontier’s Pro-4X model was absolutely unstoppable in doing very much the same challenging terrain as the Jeep crowd, including a couple of gully styled streambeds that were probably much more suited to quads. But my Frontier powered along, with improved rack-and-pinion steering that worked great but still felt a little heavy on the highway, given those big tires.
In its more rugged 4×4 build, Frontier was still way more comfortable to drive than Toyota’s TRD Pro off-roader, with a front cabin that also feels less cramped than the Toyota. Seating is very high — the wheel only tilts and does not extend — and I had to roll up a jacket to provide myself with some missing lumbar support while doing the most vibrant trail-pounding work. Highway bounce was only occasionally an issue; the big tires and right-sized layout give it a nice feel, even on the highway.
And while the 2022 Frontier looks considerably larger, it actually still has the same 126-inch-long wheelbase as the old model, meaning just slightly cramped legroom in the rear of the cab and a relatively short bed. Here, that bed got a full spray-in bedliner, three sets of tie-down rails and a weatherized 120-volt electrical plug. There’s also another 120-volt plug in the rear of the cab.
Style is certainly a big part of Frontier’s rebirth and its substantial grille, low-key lamps and busy lower fascia — including a full skid plate and three more covering the fuel tank, transfer case and oil pan – all contribute to a much more contemporary look.
Like the Fords and the Tacoma, the cabins are pretty black-on-black and maybe a bit austere by bigger truck standards, but it’s all quite functional and attractive here. A full digital midscreen readout scrolls to provide off-road and auxiliary gauges, with red-edged instruments in what looks to be the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” font. The touchscreen is made a little deceptively large with a gloss black frame — you’ll find gloss black on the door inserts, shift gate and even inside the cup holder and grab handle rims — but it provided excellent mapping and had handy physical buttons on its edge.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Golden. Contact him at email@example.com.