Attention, pickup buyers: Nissan wants to sell you a brand-new, 13-year-old truck.
Well, not literally -- philosophically.
See, in the course of developing the business case for its next Titan, Nissan says it found a common thread in its market research. When surveying serious truck users, it discovered many drivers of half-ton pickups like the Ford F-150 and Toyota Tundra feel like they routinely ride up against the edge of their vehicle's capabilities. Conversely, owners of three-quarter-ton jobs like the Ram 2500 and GMC Sierra 2500 often feel like they own too much truck, leaving them stuck with comfort, cost and fuel-efficiency penalties in exchange for excess capability they don't use.
Nissan's research suggests that what these customers want -- at least in terms of sheer hauling and towing strength -- is a rig a lot like the HD trucks domestic automakers sold over a decade ago, before they went all steroidal. As Nissan sees it, the domestics' ever-escalating torque wars of the last decade or so have unwittingly created a sizable void between the industry's light- and heavy-duty models - a gap literally big enough to drive a truck through.
That truck is this 2016 Titan XD, a semi-heavy-duty hauler powered by a burly diesel Cummins V-8 that Nissan hopes will become the Goldilocks of the pickup world, capturing some of the estimated 75,000 buyers who flow between light- and heavy-duty trucks in each direction every year. Considering both categories are among the auto industry's biggest segments by profit margin and volume, the potential upside for Nissan is massive.
That makes a vehicle like the XD sound obvious, but this tweener strategy is actually among the auto industry's boldest bets this year, if only because it's a rational approach to a segment that traditionally hangs its hat on bigger-is-better numbers. Well, that and the fact that the HD truck market has long been a domestics-only preserve -- no Asian automaker has ever attempted to enter the segment. In other words, the strategy behind the 2016 Titan XD is either genuinely brave and incredibly smart... or it's completely nuts.
After a couple of days in Arizona spent towing, hauling, and generally pummeling a number of different Titan XDs, I'm beginning to think it's the former.
In part, that's because while the XD's power and capability metrics may most closely align with HD trucks from 2003, you don't have to do anything more than clap your eyes on this Titan of industry to realize it's a thoroughly modern pickup.
Project Lead Designer Randy Rodriguez took the Titan's name to heart when tasked with penning the XD's exterior, digging into Greek mythology: "Titans were these immortal giants of superhuman strength and endurance, and that's perfect for what a truck is," he said. Rodriguez went so far as to literally watch movies like "300," "Gladiator" and "Spartacus" for inspiration while simultaneously sketching new designs. Rodriguez paid particularly close attention to the movie warriors' mask graphics, and tried to impart that spirit in the Titan's massive grille. In addition, he strived to impart the bodysides with an anatomical quality -- the fenders have thus adopted what he calls a "shoulder armor" appearance.
In person, the Titan XD is imposing, yet it manages to avoid looking slab-sided and ponderous. Unfortunately, despite its novel warrior inspiration, the XD doesn't manage to come off as completely original or particularly distinctive the way the first-generation Titan did. In any case, it's handsome enough, and while this new model might not have been designed with the same cowboy and Western imagery that inspired its rivals, it's available with enough shiny badges, chrome frosting and billboard lettering to fit right in with the big-buckle crowd.
Heavy-duty trucks -- even class-straddling ones like the XD -- are all about capability and numbers, so let's put those issues to rest: At launch, the XD will be available solely with a Cummins 5.0-liter turbodiesel V-8 giving 310 horsepower and most importantly, 555 pound-feet of torque. Right out of the box, the XD will be able to tow up to 12,314 pounds and haul 2,091 pounds in its bed (those numbers are SAE J2807 compliant). That puts it shy of the 14,000 pounds or so that most HD trucks can be rated to tow, but comfortably above most light-duty trucks. Unusually, the XD is available from the factory with a removable in-bed gooseneck hitch for major-league towing capability (a gooseneck setup is key to taking larger loads and reducing trailer sway, as it puts tongue weight directly over the rear axle). A fifth-wheel adapter is optional.
But let's go back to the Cummins tie-up for a moment, because it's a massive instant credibility boost for Nissan's new Titan. Among hardcore truck users, this Indiana-based engine company has cultivated a large and loyal group of devotees over its nearly 100 years of existence. It's that rare sort of automotive following that borders on religious fervor. Unsurprisingly, Nissan was so excited about the possibility of putting a Cummins in their truck that they literally went back to the drawing board to figure out a way to accommodate it. The engine's blocky deck height was so tall that it forced designers to raise the Titan's hood, which in turn meant they had to heighten the bedsides out back, too, to avoid looking disproportionate.
Having a Cummins badge on the XD's flanks will be reason enough for many domestic-brand loyalists to give this new Nissan a closer look. That would well-founded logic, too, because this is one stout power plant. With maximum torque available from just 1,600 revs and a surprisingly refined power delivery that won't wake the neighbors with its clattering, this compacted graphite iron (CGI) block mill also won't struggle to start in cold temperatures (Cummins says the ceramic glowplugs help it start in just 2 seconds in temperatures as low as -30 degrees).
Even when I was hauling a 750-pound payload or towing a 9,500-pound trailer up steep Arizona grades, the Cummins and its standard six-speed heavy-duty Aisin automatic transmission were clearly up to the challenge, as were the brakes, which are the weak link of many towing setups. The 14.2-inch front and 14.4-inch rear brake discs clamped down with predictable and reassuring authority, and an integrated trailer brake and trailer sway control system helped keep the 24-foot double-axle obediently in line behind me, even in the face of some pretty decent crosswinds. The Titan also features downhill-speed control in tow/haul mode, and engaging it on ascents was as easy as momentarily tapping the brakes to coax a downshift.
One slight negative about powertrain performance I did notice was surprisingly lazy throttle tip-in off the line. It's likely a strategic engine-mapping decision (more than turbo lag) in order to avoid jackrabbit starts, especially when towing. For quicker getaways, holding the brake with my left foot and then dialing up more revs with my right shoe seemed to bring things up to speed more quickly, but there was no real problem in either scenario, and passing acceleration proved quite strong.
When it comes to heavy-duty trucks (which, with a Gross Vehicle Weight of above 8,500 pounds, the Titan legally qualifies as), the EPA inexplicably still doesn't require fuel economy estimates, so like its circa 10,000-pound GVW rivals, the Titan doesn't offer any. Nissan expects mpg figures that are about 20 percent better than a V-8 gas truck while towing, but that's awfully vague. I'd expect mid-to-upper teens in most circumstances.
One of the chief benefits of not going all-the-way HD is that Nissan has been able to imbue the Titan XD with a more compliant ride, simply because it didn't have to firm up the suspension to the point of girder-like stiffness to accommodate big payloads. The result is a more comfortable truck over broken surfaces, not to mention a more obedient rear end -- there's nothing in the way of disconcerting axle hop or "bed dance." The XD won't be confused with a modern light-duty truck in terms of ride and handling -- the slow recirculating-ball steering will see to that -- but it skews more half-ton that three-quarter ton in terms of overall feel and refinement. As a side benefit, the XD sits slightly lower than its HD rivals, making for easier ingress and egress, not to mention loading.
Passenger comfort extends to the Titan's well-organized interior, which is available in everything from basic, hard-wearing work truck trim (S) to the range-topping Platinum Reserve, which aims to take on the likes of the Chevrolet Silverado 2500 High Country and Ram 2500 Limited leather-for-leather and chrome-bit-for-chrome-bit. High-end pickups have been growing substantially in popularity, and there are huge profits to be made at this end of the market, so the Platinum Reserve will be a key model in Nissan's strategy.
I spent most of my time in the latter, and it'll make for a nice office for job site foremen, ranchers and so on. The swaths of leather are of good quality, the switchgear is within easy reach, and there's a solid-sounding 12-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system operated through a 7-inch touchscreen that also features navigation and the NissanConnect app suite. You can actually hear the stereo, too. It's quiet inside for a pickup -- much less a diesel -- thanks to acoustically laminated side glass, tighter body gaps and plenty of sound deadening.
The substitution of a column-mounted shifter instead of the last Titan's center-console-based unit has freed up a lot of valuable real estate for cupholders, bins and the like. That's good news, because workers need to stay hydrated out in the field, so they often carry a lot of beverages. So many, in fact, that Nissan spokespeople were eager to point out that there are no fewer than 16 cupholders present, including a bin specifically sized to swallow a pair of 32-ounce Gatorade bottles. (At this point, it seems prudent to mention that the Titan also has a bladder-perforating 26-gallon fuel tank, though rivals offer more.)
One of the many reasons the first-generation Nissan Titan failed to make a substantial dent in the pickup market was its lack of configurability -- there simply wasn't a wide enough range of powertrains, bed lengths, trim packages and options to satisfy pickup buyers, who are used to being catered to with startling specificity by Detroit automakers. By Nissan's measure, the old Titan only covered 55 percent of the market's possible combinations. The new Titan will grow to cover 85 percent as its lineup swells throughout 2016.
That means that while the Titan XD will launch with the Cummins diesel in a four-door crew cab configuration, the order list will expand to include a lower-cost gasoline engine and three different cab configurations (single, King Cab and crew cab), three wheelbases and three bed lengths. A non-XD Titan with a different fully boxed frame will also join the model lineup to take on half-ton trucks like the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and Ford F-150 .
Missteps? The Titan's infotainment system doesn't feel as sophisticated or feature-packed as the units from Ford and Ram, and it's disappointing to not see Apple CarPlay and Android Auto available on all-new products. And while the XD will be sold with blind-spot warning, it's a late-availability option. Advanced safety features like adaptive cruise control and forward-collision warning (let alone auto-brake) are also conspicuously absent from the options list.
At least Nissan's ever-amazing Around View Monitor multi-camera system is optional -- it makes particularly good sense on large pickup trucks and is a stress-saver in close quarters. The XD also features a standard backup camera, and there's a unique tow-hookup-assist feature makes lining up behind a boat simple. Once you're snugged up, Nissan's novel Trailer Light Function Check makes easy work of verifying that all of your trailer lights are functioning. Normally this is a two-person job (or one person and a brick for the brake pedal), but in the XD, all you have to do is push on the key fob to cycle through all of the lights back there. It's a brilliantly simple bit of "Why didn't someone think of this before?" engineering.
Exact pricing for the XD has not yet been announced, but Nissan says a base S 4x2 crew cab will start around $40,000, while the off-road-minded Pro-4X 4x4 crew cab featuring uprated Bilstein shocks, skid plates and knobbier tires will ring up around $50,000. A top-shelf crew cab Platinum Reserve 4x4 like the one seen here will start at roughly $60,000, with all models subject to a $1,200 delivery charge. (Pricing and availability have not been announced for Australia or the UK, but don't hold your breath for the XD to show up in either market.)
Those prices may sound expensive, but they're actually right in the middle of today's half- and three-quarter-ton trucks. Take Ram, for example. A Cummins-powered 2500 Tradesman Crew Cab 4x2 rings up at over $45,000 and comes with less equipment in exchange for its higher payload and tow ratings. Go for a 2500 4x4 Limited model with the same cab and engine and you're staring at nearly $69,000. On the lighter-duty side of the equation, a quad-cab Ram 1500 HFE Tradesman 4x2 with the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel is slightly cheaper at $38,600 delivered, but its 240 horsepower and 420 pound-feet can only tow 9,290 pounds. (In fairness, it also figures to get much better fuel economy, too.)
More time testing is definitely in order, but upon first exposure, Nissan definitely appears to have the goods to shake up the full-size truck market with its class-straddling Titan XD. Whether heavy-duty truck owners shopping for their next rig are interested in being honest about the capabilities they truly need (or whether light-duty truck owners will be willing to splurge to step up) is something of an open question, but having an intriguing new Cummins-powered option like the Titan should make those kinds of decisions a bit easier.
Editor's note: CNET accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgements and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.