Mid-size trucks are in a full revival this year—the Toyota Tacoma is new, and the GMC Canyon and Chevy Colorado are just a year old.
The Nissan Frontier? It's still hanging in there, awaiting an upcoming redesign, but mostly carried over from the prior model year with very few changes. It's still a worthy rival to the Tacoma, but ultimately it's outpointed in comfort, performance, and economy by its GM rivals.
The Frontier comes from a previous era, but soldiers on with a right-sized do-it-all nature that still serves well. It shows its age mostly in its cockpit: while the exterior sheet metal is still interesting, modern, even fresh after all these years, the cabin wears lots of hard plastic and a slightly legs-out driving position that shows how long it's been since the Frontier was fully redesigned.
Two cabs are offered, the King Cab and the Crew Cab. With four doors and good rear seat space, the Crew Cab is the clear choice for Frontier shoppers who need to transport more than two people regularly. For the driver, a comfortable, upright seating position is comfortable for most; taller drivers may find the high floor level requires a legs-out seating position. As with most pickups, especially shorter-wheelbase models, the Frontier's ride can get choppy when the road—paved or unpaved—turns rough.
When it's the work that's rough, the Frontier has some handy factory features: a sprayed-in bedliner, available Utili-Track cargo tie-down system, and a Value Truck Package that bundles a trailer hitch, dual-zone climate control, a bed extender, and more.
Under the hood, there's a choice of a 261-horsepower, 281-pound-foot 4.0-liter V-6 engine or a 152-horsepower, 2.5-liter inline-4. The V-6 is the star of this show, with pep and pulling power that's almost equal to some smaller V-8s. Improvements to engine have boosted gas mileage slightly over the years, helping to keep the V-6 competitive. The 4-cylinder is OK for the commuter who occasionally needs a pickup, but it's ill-suited to heavier duty, and isn't that much cheaper or more efficient than the V-6.
Both 4x2 (rear-wheel drive) and 4x4 drivelines are available in the Frontier. In 4x2 guise, 4-cylinder models offer a choice of 5-speed manual transmission or 5-speed automatic; V-6 models can choose between a 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic. If you want a 4x4 Frontier, the V-6 engine is your only option, mated to either a 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic.
The 2016 Frontier earned top marks of "Good" in moderate overlap front-impact, side-impact, and roof strength tests from the IIHS. Federal officials haven't rated the truck beyond a calculated rollover score, for which the Frontier earns three stars.
Five trim lines are offered on the Frontier: S, SV, SL, Desert Runner and PRO-4X. The Frontier S is the entry point, with equipment and options increasing as you move up through SV and SL trims. The PRO-4X model has features and options selected with an eye for off-road suitability as well as on-road daily driving; Desert Runner is the rear-drive, slightly more streetable version.
Changes for this year are minimal. Last year Nissan made its NissanConnect connectivity kit standard on upper trim levels. It links the car's audio system with smartphones and enables mobile apps for infotainment.
There are very few competitors to the Frontier in the market, with the Toyota Tacoma far and away the best seller. While it's somewhat improved this year, the Frontier's real problem lies with the excellent new Colorado and Canyon. They're better at seating and hauling, have superior dynamics and straight-line V-6 performance—and get a new turbodiesel offering later this year.
The Frontier's running in place until a replacement arrives in 2017—by some measures, it can't come too soon.