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Dead-Truck Walking, Test Drive: The 2020 Nissan Frontier Has Some Goodness Up Its Sleeve

Automobile logo Automobile 7/6/2020 Aaron Gold,Manufacturer
a van parked on the side of a toy car: 2020 Frontier Engine 3 © Aaron Gold,Manufacturer 2020 Frontier Engine 3

Right off the bat, there's one unusual thing that makes the 2020 Nissan Frontier interesting: Nissan openly acknowledges the 2020 Frontier is a dead truck walking. There's an all-new Frontier coming for the 2021 model year, and we should see the rest of it any day now.

This is strange, because often when a new version of a vehicle is coming out, standard operating procedure for the automakers is to pretend it doesn't exist until just before its premiere. Never mind that it's complete hogwash; a year ahead of launch, company employees know pretty much everything there is to know, yet they will disavow all knowledge of its existence, let alone its details, because they fear people will stop buying the current version.

So why bother reviewing and test driving the 2020 Nissan Frontier? Because a bit of the 2021 Nissan Frontier is present in the 2020 model: The all-new engine and transmission. And I've just driven it.

Surprise, Surprise: A New Engine For an Old Frontier

Frankly, we were all a bit surprised Nissan would introduce the new powertrain a year early. Why bother? Nissan's answer, and I'm paraphrasing here, is that the powertrain was tested and ready to go, and with Frontier sales as strong as they are, it made good business sense to deliver a more powerful and fuel-efficient version of the truck available right now.

Nissan is right about the sales, by the way. I assumed they weren't very good, as the Frontier is pretty well outdated. How outdated? The design dates from 2005. At this year's Chicago Auto Show, Nissan gave a brand-new 2019 Frontier to a guy who had a 2007 with a million miles on it. When the two trucks were parked side-by-side, we couldn't tell them apart. The 2020 Nissan Frontier's competitors—Tacoma, Colorado, Canyon, Ridgeline, and Ranger—are all much newer designs. But my assumption was wrong: Nissan sold 72,000 Frontiers last year, nearly double the sales of the GMC Canyon. Even when compared to the Tacoma—Toyota sold 249,000 in 2019—the Frontier certainly isn't insignificant.

a close up of an engine © Aaron Gold,Manufacturer

Enough Throat-Clearing! What About That New Powertrain?

The new engine is a 3.8-liter V-6 that produces 310 horsepower, an improvement of 49 hp over the outgoing 4.0-liter V-6. Torque remains unchanged at 281 lb-ft, though it now peaks 400-rpm higher in the rev range. The horsepower bump may be a function of speed: The new engine maxes out at 6,600 rpm rather than the old engine's 6,000, and that horsepower peak comes at 6,400 rpm rather than 5,600.

Nissan says 93 percent of the engine's parts are new or redesigned, and highlights include direct fuel injection, exhaust manifolds integrated into the cylinder heads, a variable-displacement oil pump, and variable valve-timing technology. Accompanying the new engine is a new nine-speed automatic transmission, closely related to the one used in the freshly updated full-size Titan. With a broader gear range, it lets the 2020 Frontier take better advantage of the new engine.

Towing With the 2020 Nissan Frontier

I set out to do a few truck-like things during my test drive of the 2020 Nissan Frontier. First, some towing: I hooked up our horse trailer, which weighs around 3,500 pounds empty, and headed for the steep grades of the Santa Susana Pass on Los Angeles' 118 freeway. The new engine proved it had the muscle for the hills, though its high torque peak showed itself: Keeping a steady pace required manual downshifting to keep the engine revving at more than 4,000 rpm. Left to its own devices, the transmission would upshift and slow down, then I'd floor it and rocket ahead. A good tow/haul mode could fix this, but the 2020 Frontier doesn't have one—an oversight I hope Nissan has addressed in the 2021 Frontier.

a car parked in a parking lot © Aaron Gold,Manufacturer

The Pro-4X Frontier model I test drove is rated to tow 6,290 pounds, which meant we could have loaded up our two horses and still been within capacity. I chose not to, because the Pro-4X's short wheelbase and softer off-road springs meant that towing stability left something to be desired. (You can see how the back of the truck squats under the trailer's weight.) My wife and I never take a risk with our equine passengers, so they stayed back at the ranch, but had we been driving a long-wheelbase two-wheel-drive truck, we would have tried it. I think the engine would have done a reasonable job with the extra 2,400 pounds.

When towing livestock, it's important to drive smoothly; if you're too abrupt on the pedals, the animals get thrown around in the trailer. Here, the 2020 Nissan Frontier's new powertrain really excelled: Upshifts and downshifts were sublimely smooth, even when the engine was working hard, and the throttle calibration makes it easy to accelerate gently. Fuel economy wasn't great, though: 11.3 mpg, compared to the 12-plus I've seen with full-size trucks towing this same trailer (with horses) on the same route.

Off- and On-Road With the 2020 Nissan Frontier

Since my truck was a Pro-4X, I took it to one of my favorite off-roading spots, and here, too, the new engine did a commendable job. The inherent smoothness in the powertrain I noted when towing came in handy, allowing me to feed-in the torque gently and make steady, even progress on the steep rutted hills. That said, I did miss the older engine's lower torque peak—this new engine takes a lot of revs to get the power to the ground.

Test driving the truck around town, the new Frontier engine behaved perfectly: Good power, nice refinement, and reasonable fuel economy. The four-wheel-drive model is EPA-rated for 19 mpg, and excluding my towing test (but including my off-roading), I averaged 20.8 mpg. I think we can fairly credit the nine-speed transmission for this, as it does a nice job of keeping the revs low for economy, but it never hesitates to get you a lower gear when you demand more power.

a car parked on the side of a dirt road © Aaron Gold,Manufacturer

The Rest of the Story

And what of the rest of the 2020 Nissan Frontier? Well, it's as you'd expect from a design this old. The interior is dated, and the plastics on the dash are somewhat crude. The back seat is cramped, and it doesn't take much of a test drive to feel the ride is rougher than most other trucks in the segment. The Frontier has reliability going for it, but then again, so does the Toyota Tacoma. The 2020 Frontier is at this point pretty roundly out-classed by its competitors, most of which tow and haul more. (The Honda Ridgeline doesn't, but for casual use it's a far more comfortable driver.)

For now, if anyone asked me, my recommendation would be to take a pass on the 2020 Nissan Frontier. New engine or no, it's simply not as good of a truck as its rivals. And with the coming of the new V-6, Nissan has dropped the four-cylinder engine for the 2020 model year, meaning there's no low-cost bargain truck to be had as the model takes its final breaths. If you really want a Frontier, you're almost better off buying used.

Thankfully, we know there is a better version on the way. If the 2021 Nissan Frontier makes the same advances as its competitors—and there's no reason to believe it won't—it should be a good truck. This new powertrain certainly is evidence Nissan is moving in the right direction.

2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X Crew Cab Specifications
ON SALE: Now
PRICE: $39,690 (base)
ENGINE: 3.8L DOHC 24-valve V-6/310 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 281 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 9-speed automatic
LAYOUT: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD pickup truck
EPA MILEAGE: 17/23 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 205.5 x 72.8 x 69.7 in
WHEELBASE: 125.9 in
WEIGHT: 4,368 lb
0-60 MPH: 7.5 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 105 mph (est)

Gallery: 2021 Kia K5 (US) (motor1)

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