2021 Nissan Frontier is 'basically all new,' should be more efficient

This redesigned model will share some components with the current version. It also gets the larger Titan's nine-speed transmission with revised ratios and tuning.

Craig Cole Former reviews editor
Craig brought 15 years of automotive journalism experience to the Cars team. A lifelong resident of Michigan, he's as happy with a wrench or welding gun in hand as he is in front of the camera or behind a keyboard. When not hosting videos or cranking out features and reviews, he's probably out in the garage working on one of his project cars. He's fully restored a 1936 Ford V8 sedan and then turned to resurrecting another flathead-powered relic, a '51 Ford Crestliner. Craig has been a proud member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).
Craig Cole
3 min read
2020 Nissan Frontier

The real news here is underneath that hood.

Steven Pham/Roadshow

A new midsize pickup is set to launch for the 2021 model year. The automaker has not formally introduced this truck to the world just yet, but Nissan divulged a few more details on Tuesday, ahead of the official debut.

Nissan  originally talked about the 2021 Frontier's development at the Chicago Auto Show earlier this year. The company even unveiled its V6 powertrain, which will be made available in the current-generation 2020 Frontier, a truck that's so old it practically dates to the Neolithic period.

As for the redesigned version, "It's a major model change. So, it's basically all new," Melaina Vasko, vehicle performance development manager at Nissan, told Roadshow on a video conference call. Still, the 2021 Frontier will share some commonality with the current model. "It's largely redesigned, the majority of it is brand-new," she said. Vasko wouldn't disclose what components the two generations of Frontiers share.

What we do know, however, is the 2020 and 2021 Frontiers will have the same powertrain. Nissan is introducing an all-new engine and transmission combo in the current truck. It consists of a 3.8-liter V6 that delivers a respectable 310 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 281 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm, all without requiring premium-grade fuel. A member of the automaker's award-winning VQ engine family, it's about 93% new compared with the outgoing 4.0-liter V6 offered in the 2019 Frontier. This new V6 will replace both the 4.0-liter engine and the smaller I4 that was also previously available.

2020 Nissan Frontier

This is a new 3.8-liter V6. It delivers 310 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque. 


Further improving performance and efficiency is a new automatic transmission. With nine speeds, four more than in the outgoing gearbox, this unit should dramatically improve drivability. Vasko said it's the same transmission used in the larger, half-ton Titan truck. "The hardware is the same," she explained, "[But] the gearing is not identical." Both the ratios and shift points have been tailored specifically to the Frontier. Sadly, the row-your-own manual is being discontinued, a transmission less than 5% of customers opted for.

In the 2020 Frontier, this new drivetrain should improve 0-to-60-mph acceleration performance by 7% compared with the old V6, while returning better fuel efficiency than the outgoing I4. Rear-wheel-drive models should achieve at 18 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined. Naturally, four-wheel-drive increases consumption slightly, degrading those scores to 17, 23 and 19 mpg, respectively, figures that are roughly in line with a four-wheel-drive 2020 Ford F-150 with a 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6. According to the EPA, this larger, more powerful truck stickers at 18 mpg city, 23 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined.

The 2020 Nissan Frontier's efficiency may be a bit disappointing, but Vasko says the 2021 model is going to be better. "The next-generation Frontier will have some further fuel-economy improvements," she noted, thanks, in part, to better aerodynamics and lighter materials.

2020 Nissan Frontier

Hopefully the 2021 Frontier's interior is nicer than this.

Steven Pham/Roadshow

But why launch a brand-new powertrain in an old truck? "There's no point in holding them [the engine and transmission] off when we can deliver some improved performance to customers today," Vasko said.

Normally, automakers introduce a brand-new powertrain in a brand-new vehicle. Launching one before the other makes it seem like Nissan's product development cycles are out of step, but this isn't the case. "They were deliberately out of sync," Vasko said. "There was no slippage that caused them to be out of sync."

The 2020 Nissan Frontier with its new powertrain is slated to go on sale this spring. Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Vasko said, "Everything is on track as of now," though, of course, things could change as the situation evolves.

2020 Nissan Frontier: Same old truck, brand-new powertrain

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Watch this: 2020 Nissan Frontier previews the new generation in a strange way

First published April 7.