With squinty eyes and an itchy ass, I skipped a 2014 Nissan Frontier over Moab's corrugated Sand Flats fire road at an aggressive gallop. The headlights finally landed on two dudes and a dog hunkered over a campfire, and after thirteen hours of travel an adventure was about to begin.
[Disclosure: This expedition was born, like so many others, by an overzealous claim made under the influence of alcohol. "If you want anybody to care about the Frontier's mini-'off-road performance' trim," I slurred to a Nissan rep at some corporate-sponsored circle-jerk, "You've got to let us see what it can actually do." They agreed.]
A few lucky Americans live within arm's reach of "decent off-roading," the rest of us have to drag-ass down highways for hours to get from our houses made of ticky-tack to the trail. I got to experience the latter.
Picking up the Nissan Frontier at the Denver airport 'round abouts noon, I figured a hot-charge to Moab at full tilt would set me up for an early-evening arrival. 'Course I'd forgotten there's no way to cross any length of US-70 without hallucinating bikini carwash mirages on the relentless horizon and hitting up every rest stop to do drugs with truckers. It's just now occurring to me that those things could be related.
Whatever method you use to maintain your sanity, the 2014 Frontier provides a somewhat-aggressively upright seating position from which to survey the endless scrubland and cartoon-bat attacks western Colorado has to offer.
The BF Goodrich All-Terrain tires aren't terribly noisy for knobbies, but the wind cries in pain as it's pulverized by the flattish face of the truck. The stereo's just about good enough block it out though, and the multi-texture (leatherette and some kind of nylon-net) bucket seats aren't horrible places to hang out in.
The EPA claims 21 highway MPG for this truck, I was able to hit around 19 running at a good gallop for some 300 miles.
Local Road Driving
The bigger annoyances of driving the Frontier on-road pretty much evaporate when you drop off the highway. You don't have anything close to the rigidity of a heavy-duty truck, and while you don't get the reassuring ride-height bigger rigs command, visibility is generally excellent.
The double-DIN infotainment deck works so well and easily that I can't get too upset it looks like some Best Buy base-model bullshit. As far as other toys; you get heated seats and a sunroof (more than can be said for Toyota's TRD Pro Tacoma) but that's about where luxury ends.
There's plenty of power for driving at any reasonable speed with the truck filled to at least half it's payload capacity, and it seems to be disproportionately efficient at lower speeds. I think that has a lot to do with aerodynamics, which become a bigger tax on the highway. Especially if your truck bed's full of tools and empty beer cans.
What Exactly Is The PRO-4X Off-Road Package?
"PRO-4X" (pronounced "pro forks") (just kidding no it isn't) is not so much a package as a trim level. Starting at about $4,000 more than the mid-range Frontier (the SV) the PRO-4X gives you squishier Bilstein shocks, things like dual-zone climate control, a rear-view camera, and bed storage cleats.
The PRO-4X Luxury Package (which you can order on the PRO-4X for about $2,600) gets you the navigation screen, embroidered half-leather seats, a sunroof, power heated seats, and a few other such things a modern human shouldn't be expected to drive without. Down on the SV level, Nissan's still using "power windows" as a bullet point in the brochure.
The Frontier's rather enormous 4.0 V6 is a little disappointing on volumetric efficiency; you're looking at 261 horsepower and 281 lb-ft of torque. The powerband is alright; peak torque is crested around 4,000 RPM. But as far as usable oomph, the Frontier never really came up short... and hardly had to step into low range at all.
The size of the truck makes it pretty easy to place in tight trails, though I never really got the hang of seamlessly switching into descent control. It seemed to only want to work in four-wheel low range, at which point the gears are pretty well walking the truck down anyway.
What stops the Frontier before it can get into anything too hairy is its departure angle. I didn't have much trouble getting the nose up or over anything, but that trailer hitch receiver got an absolute ass-whopping and I'm pretty sure the trailer wiring harness was destroyed after the first big dip.
I understand why Nissan didn't want the Frontier to be too much higher... 21 highway MPG is borderline at best when full-size pickups are hitting that with 6.2 V8s, and worsening the airflow wouldn't do them any favors there.
But after running up and down Moab's slickrock without breaking anything that wasn't dangling off the bumper, I gotta believe there are some small tweaks Nissan could make to give the Frontier a lot more capability.
Rock Crawling And Open-Country Shenanigans
Moab, Utah is famous for tight tracks with steep holes to drop your wheels in. The Frontier's 9" of clearance is good, but not great. You have to be a lot more deliberate in your wheel placement where a Ford Raptor or even TRD Tacoma could swallow your mistakes with their suspension. In the rough stuff, you're either planning ahead or breaking out the winch.
But being low has its benefits; the Frontier is an absolute riot to run out in flatlands. The throttle's easy to modulate for power-sliding and circle work, and the newbs will be diving hard into corners a lot more aggressively than you'd dare do in something taller.
Compared To The Competition
The new Frontier feels a lot more primitive than the new Colorado or Canyon. Hell, it's like parking spaceships next to a donkey cart. The Nissan does have one thing on the GM trucks though, and it's a big one for some of us; a V6, 4WD, manual-transmission configuration.
Meanwhile the Frontier's reputation as inferior to the Tacoma is utter nonsense. The Frontier does everything the Toyota can do with less clatter and more comfort... until it's time to get into the steep stuff. The Tacoma TRD Pro, which starts at almost $10,000 more than the PRO-4X Frontier, may get a 2" lift kit but in my daily driving I'd rather have the Nissan's heated seats and sunroof.
The two-wheel drive base Frontier is less than $20,000 off the shelf but you're in for something like $30,000 to step into a PRO-4X, maxing out at around $36,000. That sounds a little ambitious when you could get a superior driving experience in a 2015 Chevy Colorado; or the exact same experience with a five-year-old Frontier in great shape for a something like half that new MSRP.
But the Nissan Frontier PRO-4X is a great little truck in its own right, and excellent value for a second owner and beyond. It's easy to live with and packs enough capability for most with a lot more off-road potential just a lift kit away.
The fact that today's Nissan Frontier was introduced a decade ago shows in the styling and options selection, but the ride quality and everyday-usability won't disappoint anybody who's used to trucks.
At then end of the day the Frontier is a highly versatile, and honest, small pickup truck. Off-road it does more than hold its own, right up until it runs out of ground clearance.
Images by the author.