2022 Nissan Frontier first drive review: Competitive at last
After nearly two decades of offering the same ol' same ol', Nissan's midsize Frontier can hang with the segment's best once again.
Emme HallFormer editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
It's been 17 long years since Nissan last introduced a brand-new Frontier pickup. The newborns from that time are now high school seniors, and back then, Twitter wasn't even a thing. Hell, 17 years ago, Nickelback had a top 20 Billboard hit. Nickelback!
Indeed, a lot's changed since late 2004, and thank goodness, the Frontier has finally changed, too. It's still a simple and serviceable midsize pickup truck, but it now comes with more features to make it commensurate with the rest of its class.
Though the new Frontier comes online for the 2022 model year, its powertrain has actually been around since 2020. Nissan threw its new 3.8-liter V6 into the old Frontier, and I have to say, old truck or new truck, this engine is a peach. It offers a healthy 310 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque, and the nine-speed automatic transmission is perfectly smooth. Both rear- and four-wheel-drive models are available.
On paved roads, the Frontier is an easy driver. It quickly accelerates with plenty of power for highway merging and quick passing. The transmission glides easily from one gear to the next and never hunts around, although it can be a tad slow to downshift. The upgraded front sway bar and new rear stabilizer bar keep the truck from being loosey-goosey while cornering and the overall levels of noise, vibration and harshness are way better than before.
Rather than using modern electric steering, the Frontier sticks with an older hydraulic power assist setup. The benefit is that hydraulic steering gives better control with higher levels of feedback. The downside, of course, is that it doesn't allow for technologies like lane-keeping assist. Given the choice, however, I'd rather have a better feeling for exactly what my tires are doing.
That's especially true while off-roading. The top-level Frontier Pro-4X comes with Bilstein shocks, skid plates and a locking rear differential. There are no drive modes to switch through, although traction control turns off when I shift into low-range four-wheel drive. With a crawl ratio of nearly 55:1, the Frontier can scramble up steep dirt roads with embedded and loose rocks fairly easily, as long as I apply the old adage of "As slow as possible, as fast as necessary" to my driving. The rear locker helps here, but if slow-speed off-roading is your thing, the Jeep Gladiator is definitely supreme with its front and rear lockers and 77:1 crawl ratio.
Still, the Frontier is fairly capable when its tires hit the dirt. The Pro-4X Crew Cab has a healthy approach angle of 32.3 degrees, but its 23-degree departure and 19.6-degree breakover angles fall behind the Ford Ranger Tremor and Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road. The Frontier Pro-4X has 9.4 inches of ground clearance, which is high enough that I didn't ding the skid plates during a brief off-road test.
New for 2022 is a forward-facing camera that works at speeds under 6 mph when you're in low-range four-wheel drive. The Frontier's hood is pretty long so it's great to be able to use the camera to see as you crest a hill, but the resolution is downright terrible and it's tough to actually make out what's being displayed. You're better off just getting out and doing some recon yourself.
However, Nissan does get its hill-descent control tech right. I can't program it for a specific speed like I can in other trucks, but man is it quiet. The same technology in the Toyota Tacoma makes me think the entire driveshaft is going to fall out at any moment, but in the Frontier, I'm cool and confident, easily picking my way down a steep hill at a snail's pace without needing to touch the brakes.
The Frontier's fuel economy is pretty much right in line with the rest of the class, although the Ford Ranger comes out on top by a few miles per gallon. Four-wheel drive Frontiers have an EPA fuel rating of 17 mpg city, 22 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined. Two-wheel drive trucks should do a little better.
The new Frontier has a maximum payload rating of 1,610 pounds and max tow rating of 6,720 pounds. That payload number beats the Chevy Colorado and Ford Ranger, but the Frontier lags behind the two Americans in terms of towing. The Tacoma has a few configurations that can both tow and haul more than the Nissan, as does the Jeep Gladiator. However, by and large, the Frontier stacks up competitively within the class. Trailer sway control comes standard, too.
My biggest disappointment is the Frontier's technology. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot to like here, with an optional 9-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and plenty of power options like USB-A and USB-C ports, wireless charging and 120-volt outlets. All of these are much-needed upgrades, even if the multimedia interface is just so-so. What really stinks is that all the advanced driver's aids are optional, save for forward-collision warning. The Nissan Safety Shield 360 suite includes blind-spot monitoring, emergency braking, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert and adaptive cruise control but is part of a $990 package. While that still puts the Frontier midpack, Nissan could have really stood out from the crowd by offering Safety Shield 360 standard across the board.
As for the Frontier's design, Nissan did a great job. There are a lot of styling cues from the supercool 1980s Nissan Hardbody truck, with a broad set of LED headlights, split grille and skid plates on my Pro-4X tester. Inside, the Frontier is pretty basic, which is par for the course with midsize trucks, save for the car-based Honda Ridgeline. At least the Frontier has Nissan's comfy Zero Gravity seats.
Nissan will offer the Frontier in S and SV grades with two- or four-wheel drive, Crew or King Cab body styles and a 5- or 6-foot bed. The Pro-X is only available with two-wheel drive and the Pro-4X has 4WD, but both Pros are only Crew Cabs, which, despite the other being named King, is actually the more accommodating version of the two.
The 2022 Nissan Frontier starts at $29,015 while the top Pro-4X trim starts at $38,415 (both prices include $1,175 for destination). That starting price puts the Frontier right in the middle of the pack, with the Ranger starting at around $26,000 and the Gladiator at a whopping $35,000.
The 2022 Frontier might be the new kid in the midsize truck class, but it doesn't exactly put the segment on notice. The Ford Ranger and Toyota Tacoma offer better tech and more off-road goodies and the Honda Ridgeline is a much nicer daily driver. Still, with its refined powertrain and rugged good looks, the Frontier is more appealing than ever -- though considering how long it took to get here, maybe that isn't saying all that much.
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.