The pickup truck as fashion statement has been with us for a long time. Last year's Nissan Frontier was earnest and practical, like Dickies overalls. The redesigned 2001 Frontier, on the other hand, particularly in supercharged Desert Runner trim, arrives looking like a refugee from Jean-Paul Gautier, wearing a front bumper bustier of molded composite accented with faux machine rivets--pushy or push-up, I'm not sure which. The aggressive front design also includes a blacked-out grille accented with a brush bar--also faux, which is really only a good thing if you are talking about wallpaper--and technical-aesthetic headlight assemblies.
The industrial-chic theme continues with the riveted and oversized fender flares and the matte aluminum rear bumper trimmed in thick rubber. All of this styling is supposed to convey boilerplate toughness and extreme-sports intrepidity, leaving little doubt who the audience is. This is the same kayaking and mountain-biking demographic targeted by the Nissan Xterra, itself a butch version of the sturdy Pathfinder. Nissan predicts the styling changes will lower the median age of Frontier buyers from 44 to around 30 years. Our test vehicle, a "Solar Yellow" Frontier 4x2 Desert Runner S/C, got plenty of looks from the soul-patch crowd.
Yet the Frontier's Machine Age facade merely conceals the fact that this is virtually the same truck as last year--or rather, doesn't conceal it. Look closely, and you will see the same old Nissan truck, that earnest and practical pair of overalls, peeking out from under all that body-cladding. In fact, the Frontier feels to me a lot like my brother-in-law's Nissan "Hardbody" pickup of 10 years' vintage. The engine still tends to twist noticeably in its cradle, wind and engine noise still roars in the cabin, and the 5-speed shifter wiggles and vibrates under high load. The finicky parking brake remains tucked under the dash to the right of the steering column. In short, it feels like the lightweight, cost-conscious truck it is, and was.
The 2001 Frontier is getting a lot of attention for another piece of bolt-on gadgetry--the optional Eaton supercharger, the first such device in the compact pickup segment. A supercharger--or "blower" is a relatively cheap and easy way to get more horsepower, as anyone who has ever hot-rodded a Chevy small-block engine can tell you. In simple terms, a supercharger compresses air before it enters the engine, creating a denser fuel-air charge that ignites more explosively in the combustion phase of the piston. The engine is also equipped with a water-to-air intercooler, which by lowering the temperature of the air intake makes it even denser, adding to the efficiency of the supercharger.
The Frontier's supercharger increases output of the 3.3-liter overhead-cam V6 engine from 170 horsepower to 210 horsepower. But there is no such thing as free horsepower. The Frontier's supercharger extracts its price first in decibels. Kick the gas pedal and an ugly, whining noise--a great big sucking sound, as Ross Perot might put it--quickly overwhelms and swamps conversation. More engine noise is the last thing the tinny Frontier needs.
Meanwhile, the supercharger chews up fuel mileage. The EPA rates the Frontier S/C at 16/19 mpg, city/highway, which is undistinguished at best. In the real world, even moderate experiments in acceleration drive those figures down into the low- to mid-teens.
And surprisingly--for all the commercials' dream-like, slo-mo footage of the Frontier tearing across the desert--the Frontier S/C hasn't got a lot of punch in the passing lane. Above 75 mph, the truck seems to hit an aerodynamic wall.
While in the role of commuter car, the Frontier doesn't feel as refined or livable as the Toyota Tacoma pickup--in fairness, thousands of dollars more than the Frontier in most configurations--the Frontier is still very sound in the role of utility truck. The unibody and ladder frame are bolted together very firmly, allowing little squeaking and creaking in the truck even over rough roads. The independent front suspension levels out ruts and bumps nicely and if the rear leaf-spring suspension seems bouncy, it's because Nissan has left it limber enough to handle a fair amount of cargo. Nothing settles this truck down so much as 300 pounds of mulch.
I also appreciated the redesigned, lockable cargo gate latch--the one on my brother-in-law's truck broke years ago. While I was tying down a load of old cardboard bound for the recycling bin, I wished for a couple more tie-down loops in the cargo bed. I spent a half-hour picking up cardboard while dodging city traffic.
The door panels and handles seem sturdier than before and the hearty stalks and steering wheel come from the Nissan parts bin shared with the Sentra and Maxima. The Desert Runner with the "Supercharger Value Package" comes saddled with snug and sporty leather bucket seats with "Supercharged" stitched into the headrests. In the rear of our King Cab model, the jump seats were tolerable to transport my 15-year-old son--we call him Gumby--but plainly this cab configuration is for the young unmarried types with no child tax credit on their return.
With a fairly simple, insightful stroke--offering the first full-size Crew Cab configuration in the compact truck segment--Nissan last year boosted Frontier sales almost 50 percent. Currently the company is adding capacity to its factory in Smyrna, Tenn., to keep up with demand. The redesigned Frontier seems to be a placeholder model, an expeditious tarting up of the truck while more integral engineering changes are being planned for the all-new 2003 model. The supercharger, too, is a quick fix for the powerplant, which needs both more efficient power and smoother, quieter performance.
Ironically, the new Frontier is likely to pull in lots of buyers with its shallow but pleasing looks. And more than that: With Regular, King and popular Crew Cab, 4x2 and 4x4 powertrains, automatic and manual transmissions and a variety of trim packages, the Frontier has a configuration for just about everybody shopping in this segment.
The question is, do you look good in a bustier?