Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2018 Nissan Frontier SV Midnight Edition

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car
  • Safety

The 2018 Nissan Frontier is a brand-new, 14-year-old truck. A rolling semi-classic pickup. A four-wheel-drive time capsule.

It’s old-school cool – functional, charming, unique.

The currently available generation of Frontier hit the road in 2004. Since then, other than a few wee updates (centred mostly around the infotainment system, paint colors, and repackaging of various equipment groups) nothing has changed.

Frontier has counted the likes of Colorado, Canyon, Ranger, B-Series, Tacoma, and Dakota amongst its competitors. Some of these have since come and gone, and most other trucks on the market have been updated several times since the still-on-sale Frontier launched.

It all begs a simple question: “Geez, Nissan, why not whip us up an all-new Frontier?!”

The answer is simple: sales haven’t slowed. In fact, lately, they’re increasing. In Canada, the 14-year-old Frontier is in a virtual sales tie with the much-newer, full-size Nissan Titan.

So, it seems like, in a world of pickups going to twin-turbo engines, carbon-fibre body parts, 10-speed transmissions, and light-hybrid electrification, there remains a shopper who believes in “Keep it simple stupid,” and “Leave well enough alone.”

Several guys and gals in my circle are multi-time Frontier owners for just that reason: Frontier is a pickup they’re not scared to own once the warranty expires. These trucks look solid where reliability is concerned, and Nissan has some 14 years’ experience building the engine, transmission, driveline, and other components.

The cabin is like stepping into another world of Nissan interior design. For model year 2005, Nissan cabins were trying to differentiate themselves with some pretty unique styling elements, and some visual cues inspired by the brand’s sports car models, like the 350Z. Little in the cabin, other than the central touchscreen, is familiar from any modern Nissan product. It’s old-school cool – functional, charming, unique. It does look shamelessly dated though. Passengers will frequently ask, jokingly, where the tape deck is (there isn’t one).

So, pros and cons. The cabin is trimmed almost entirely in crispy hard plastic, which feels and looks fairly low-budget, though these surfaces are very easily cleaned when dirty, and the overall build quality looks and feels quite well done. Frontier is roomy enough, but not as roomy as any number of crossovers you can find for similar money, if you’re not set on a pickup.

My tester packed plenty of nearby storage for smaller items, including two proper cupholders with rubberized inserts for a firm grip on your jav’; two shallow bins for wallets, phones, and the like; and a decently sized centre-console storage bin. Several power points are available nearby, and a small divided bin, ideal for change, pens, and other doodads, is moulded into the centre console.

Entry and exit are relatively trouble-free, and rear seats can semi-snugly fit two adults, or be flipped up or folded down to accommodate more gear or groceries. If you’ve got a four-legged friend along for the ride, they’re likely best on a blanket on the rear seat – the surface beneath the flipped-up seats is very uneven and not ideal for comfy canine lounging unless you remove the plastic storage bins.

For the human at the wheel, the driving position is decent. Some will wish for a slightly deeper floor, but Frontier mostly lacks the awkward, toboggan-like driving position you’ll find in a comparable Tacoma, with its low-mounted seats and shallow floorpan.

My almost-loaded tester packed many must-have features, including remote entry, cruise, air, power accessories, steering-wheel audio controls, and that modernized touchscreen infotainment unit. There’s also a back-up camera, and parking assist radar. And, should you have things to haul, the handy rail-mounted tie-down system in the box makes it easy to set up tie-down or tie-off points wherever needed.

In all, a few modern touches break up the otherwise old-school-ness of the Frontier – which is, mostly, delightful.

Start the engine (by turning a key in a slot!), and you feel the starter motor pulsing vigorously through the floor a moment before the big V6 blurts to life, with a signature roaring blast of clutch-fan sound effects for the first few moments of idling.

Or the headlights, which perform well, and also turn on and off in sync with the instrument cluster, the way it should be. You probably won’t be an idiot driving after dark with your lights off, unless you somehow miss the blacked-out instrument cluster, too.

Said cluster is even pleasingly old-school, with orange back-lit illumination, that signature Nissan font from days gone by, and a simple segmented LED indicator that references the currentlyselected 4x4 drive mode (which you engage from a little twist-dial on the dash).

Also, don’t miss the little lick of wind noise you get from the doors when you hit a good bump at highway speeds, thanks to a touch of jiggle-flex that breaks the door seals for a split second at times.

The steering is classic. Frontier uses an old-school power-steering pump in a world where everything else has gone to electric motors. I haven’t felt steering like this in ages – there’s a mechanical feel and some feedback. This is how steering used to be.

Thing is, Frontier’s steering is one of my two biggest problems with this machine, because the turning circle is comical. Those after a smaller truck for manoeuvrability in tight quarters will be hilariously disappointed – the turning radius caused some swearing at times, and it can feel like you’re trying to park a grocery store.

My second gripe? The fuel mileage. It’s not horrible given the available jam from the big V6, but with just five gears (a six-speed stick is available, awesomely), and the lack of more modern fuel-saving implements, you’ve got to drive fairly gently indeed to keep Frontier from sucking back the sauce like an orbit-bound rocket. Here’s a fun fact: NRCan fuel economy ratings say the Frontier will drink a smidge more fuel than, say, a (much larger and more powerful) Chevrolet Tahoe 4x4. Take that as you will.

Frontier’s big V6 is a 4.0-litre unit with 261 horsepower. It stands up nicely today and is a solid performer. Notably, there’s enough low-end snap that it can be tricky to get off the line without a slam into your seat. It’s rich with torque and more eager at lower revs than the comparable V6 in the Colorado/Canyon and, if memory serves, the Tacoma too. Mid-range power is also solid and meaty, and the engine isn’t whisper-quiet, but mostly sounds pleasing, especially when you avoid max revs.

Brakes are nicely done – a more-precise-than-average action and feel at the pedal combines with a linear build-up of stopping power for a feeling of confidence when you’ve got to get stopped, fast. My tester was rolling on winter tires, which did a great job of chomping vigorously into icy and snowy surfaces.

Highway noise levels are quieter than expected. It’s no Cadillac, but I found no need to raise my voice for a conversation with nearby passengers, even up to and beyond the highway speed limit.

The best part of driving the Frontier? The ride. It’s pure pickup truck, nicely tuned, and feels calibrated for a feeling of toughness and durability, without undue scrambling of occupant internals on rough roads. Also, it doesn’t feel like you’re driving an inflatable amusement park ride, which is swell. Specifically, even on very rough surfaces, the Frontier feels rigid and dense, but not harsh. It virtually never seems to slam into anything, and even on the nastiest roads and trails I could find, it never caused me to wince or worry about breaking a suspension component beneath (or a spinal component within your writer).

You may well think that Frontier is available for a song, given that the development costs have long been paid off, and that Nissan has spent nothing on updating this machine in ages.

Not quite, though: at about $35,000, my nearly loaded tester came in a few bucks cheaper than most comparable competitors, but not by a whole lot.

Seems Nissan is betting on continued support from shoppers who want to stick to simple – and the steady sales numbers continue to back that up. Frontier is priced from $24,000.

Engine Displacement 4.0L
Engine Cylinders V6
Peak Horsepower 261 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Peak Torque 281 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Fuel Economy 15.8/11.5/13.9 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 1,861 mm (73.3") bed
Model Tested 2018 Nissan Frontier SV 4x4 Midnight
Base Price $35,398
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,795
Price as Tested $37,428
Optional Equipment
$135 – Metallic Pearl Paint $135