It was already over 100 degrees when I pulled into our pit area at the race track outside Barstow, California. I would be off road racing in a few hours, but for the time being, I had ample opportunity to play in the dirt with the 2016 Nissan Frontier Pro-4x pickup truck.
I grabbed a pal, dropped the tire pressure on the Hankook Dynapro AT-Ms to 28 psi, and headed out to the open desert.
What I found surprised me. The Frontier scrambled up the mountain the locals call Starter Ridge, the four-wheel-drive system and 281 pound-feet of torque propelling me up the steep and rocky slope like it was a walk in the proverbial park.
We stopped at a flat spot on the hill and noticed a motorcycle rider on the highest peak, watching us with interest.
"Let's give him a show," I said to my co-driver. A single push of a button locked my rear differential and I switched the transmission into 4L. With 9 inches of ground clearance the Frontier clambered over a small sea of rocks to gain even more elevation. Alas, the trail turned to one better suited for two wheels than four, and we turned back.
To be honest, I knew the Pro-4x, the off road trim of the midsize Frontier, would be good in the dirt as soon as I sat behind the wheel. It's simple. Everything about it is simple. There are no terrain-select geegaws to get in the way. Just a simple electronic locking rear differential, Bilstein shocks and a shift-on-the-fly 4x4 system. Frankly, I don't need much more than that.
Well, on second thought, a beefier Dana 44 rear axle would help, something Nissan should make standard on each Pro-4x. Currently, it's only available in the smaller king cab Pro-4x or SV V6 trims, not the larger crew cab.
Unfortunately, the rest of the tech is simple as well. You want a 7-inch touchscreen? Too bad, you get a dinky 5.8-inch color touchscreen. Adaptive cruise control? Nope, drivers must deal with regular cruise control. Sure it has Bluetooth, satellite radio, iPod connectivity, voice control and a 10-speaker Rockford Fosgate premium audio system, but on the whole the tech is soooo 2000-late.
On the pavement the Frontier is a bit on the loud side, but sports a surprisingly comfortable ride. The 4-liter V6 engine puts out 261 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual is standard, but my test model came with the optional five-speed automatic. I found the engine delivered plenty of power for highway cruising and the eight-way adjustable seat kept me comfy for my 6-hour trek from Roadshow HQ in San Francisco to the high desert. The transmission shifted smoothly and downshifted quickly while going over Tehachapi Pass outside of Bakersfield, California.
I wish I could say the same for the brakes. The pedal feel was squishy, and more than once a panicked, "Ohcrapohcrapohcrap!" cycled through my brain while stopping for a light. Word to the wise: Leave plenty of room between cars and brake early.
I picked up a few friends for dinner in the Frontier, and the rear-seat passengers felt that there was a decent amount of legroom, but the seats were uncomfortably upright and they were thankful the ride was a short jaunt across town.
My tester didn't come with a tow hitch, but with a rating of 6,100 pounds it could have easily towed my off-road race car on its open trailer. However, the Frontier would have struggled pulling our 20-foot enclosed trailer all loaded up. Payload is just over 1,000 pounds, enough for a few spare tires and a 55-gallon drum of race fuel.
In terms of competition, the Toyota Tacoma can tow up to 6,800 pounds and has a payload rating of 1,440 pounds. The Chevrolet Colorado with an available diesel engine can tow a whopping 7,600 pounds.
My week of toddling around town and playing in the desert, as well as the 600-plus-mile round trip on the highway, netted me 16.8 miles per gallon, a bit lower than I would expect with the EPA's rating of 15 miles per gallon in the city, 21 on the highway and 17 combined. The similarly equipped Toyota Tacoma I tested a few months back turned in 17.8 miles per gallon, and I took that bad boy on a road trip as well.
Value? Not so much
The 2016 Nissan Frontier is available with a king or crew cab and either a 5- or 6-foot bed. My tester in the Pro-4x trim with a crew cab and short bed starts at $33,390; with options and destination charges the total comes to $36,525. I could do without the optional and oxymoronic Pro-4x Luxury Package, for $2,100. Luxury while off-roading? Who needs it? The sunroof baked the leather seats while out on the trail and led to glare so intense as to render the infotainment screen unreadable.
The Frontier is the old stalwart of midsize pickup trucks. It certainly lags behind the updated Toyota Tacoma and Chevrolet Colorado, and doesn't hold a candle to the downright luxurious GMC Canyon. Indeed, the competition is priced similarly and offers more features and interior technology. Instead, the Frontier is a truck for those who just want a truck. It's simple, easy, performs well off-road and offers a comfortable ride on-road. Just don't expect anything too fancy.