The Nissan Frontier's Problems Aren't Solved by a New Engine, But It Doesn't Hurt

For 2020, the aging Frontier gets a hand-me-up gift from its unseen replacement: a new powertrain.

2020 nissan frontier pro 4x

What is it?

Nissan's aging midsize pickup truck, outfitted with a gift from its upcoming successor: a new powertrain.

Is it new?

God, no. Believe it or not, the current Nissan Frontier dates back to 2004 — which means it's literally old enough to drive itself. Still, the carmaker has kept it relatively fresh over the years by repeatedly facelifting and updating it here and there — most recently for the 2020 model year, which will also be the last for the current version.

2020 nissan frontier pro 4x

What makes it special?

The powertrain, which, strangely enough, actually hails from the all-new 2021 Nissan Frontier expected to arrive soon. In a strange case of counter-chronological trickle-down technonomics, the Frontier of tomorrow gifted its 3.8-liter V6 and nine-speed automatic (the same one found in the Titan) to its predecessor. The new setup better sets the truck up to battle the likes of the Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma and GMC Canyon / Chevy Colorado...all of which, to be fair, are also rather aged for modern vehicles.

The Pro-4X version I tested, which sits at the top of the lineup, is the off-road-oriented model of the family, combining burly features like standard part-time four-wheel-drive and Bilstein shocks with leather seats and a standard moonroof.

2020 nissan frontier pro 4x

How does it drive?

Like a 15-year-old pickup truck. While the new powertrain is a definite improvement over the aging 4.0-liter V6 (and a huge upgrade over the old base engine, an anemic 2.5-liter inline-four), the transmission doesn't mesh well with the engine and throttle in unladen around-town driving. First gear is so snappy, I found myself spinning the tires off the line on slightly damp pavement. It almost felt like Nissan didn't recalibrate the throttle mapping for the added power and extra gears, leaving it feeling as though it's in permanent sport mode.

Sadly, my time with the Pro-4X was restricted to the urban jungle of New York City, so I didn't have a chance to give features like its 10.1 inches of ground clearance or hill descent control their due diligence. The truck did prove fine at soaking up potholes, however, so I have little doubt that it would have any trouble with the impacts and issues of off-road life. On the highway, however, it still rides rougher than the likes of The Big Three's newer full-size trucks, which have benefited from millions upon millions of R&D dollars since the Frontier was dialed in.

2020 nissan frontier pro 4x

What’s it like inside?

Cramped, hard and basic, by modern truck standards. Much like the 370Z, it's the interior that most shows the Frontier's age; there's a small color touchscreen that looks somewhat out of place up top, but the rest of the controls are old-school LCDs, traditional analog gauges and backlit hard buttons — the latter small and numerous enough to remind you why carmakers started going to glass cockpits in the first place. (The large buttons for the seat heaters, diff lock and traction control are appreciated, though, as is the chunky 4WD knob.)

And while pickup trucks might bring to mind expansive cabins made for stretching out, the Frontier is cramped to an uncomfortable degree for those of us who are long of limb. I couldn't move the seat far enough back to keep my legs from rubbing against the dash, a problem that even my 36-inch inseam rarely runs into in modern cars. Granted, if you're not in the 99th percentile of height, that might not be an issue — but definitely try fitting your family inside before you buy.

2020 nissan frontier pro 4x

What’s it cost?

The Pro-4X will run you $37,490 before the $1,095 destination charge. If you just want a basic four-wheel-drive Frontier, you can snap one up for less than $30K before destination; the sweet spot in the lineup, the Frontier SV 4x4 Crew Cab, starts at $32,410.

2020 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X

Powertrain: 3.8-liter V6; nine-speed automatic; part-time four-wheel-drive

Horsepower: 310

Torque: 281 lb-ft

EPA Fuel Economy: 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway

Seats: Five, assuming everyone's of average height or less

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