2004 Nissan Frontier King Cab S/CMore muscle for appearance and power
Supercharging for trucks is not new, but it certainly adds an aura of upscale performance to an otherwise proletariat pickup. Witness the success of Ford's F-150 Lightning and the new Dodge Ram SRT/10. So Nissan conjured up some of the same marketing magic for its smaller Frontier. The question is, does this waving of the performance wand truly transform the Frontier?
As with most magic acts, that depends on who's watching. To the trained eye, stomping on the go-pedal of this 210-hp 3.3-liter V-6 won't be mistaken for the strike of a Lightning. On the other hand, if you're used to driving a Frontier with the base engine, a 143-hp, 2.4-liter inline-four, the performance gains of the supercharged model are by no means an illusion. Get on the throttle when pulling onto the freeway or climbing a tough off-road trail and this puppy scampers right out. Surprisingly enough, the supercharger whine is not all that noticeable nor does it kick you in the backside. This Roots-type blower feels more like a smoother centrifugal unit. The surge is there, but it doesn't overwhelm you (despite the macho image portrayed in the ad campaign).
Comparing the supercharged engine to its naturally aspirated sibling may help to explain why. With a slight power increase on the non-supercharged engine for 2003, the difference in output between them is about 30 horses (180 versus 210 hp) and 29 lb.-ft. of torque (202 versus 231). Nissan may have been concerned with maintaining its excellent reputation for reliability, because power increases of 30 to 40 percent or even more are not uncommon with the addition of a supercharger (depending on boost level and type of unit). Yet a hopped-up engine may not survive as long with higher cylinder pressures, so we won't second-guess Nissan's judgement on this point.
We did find a couple items to question, however. We found the foot-operated parking brake a puzzling choice for a vehicle with a manual transmission. On a steep hill you may have to do a quick two-step to keep from rolling backwards. We also found the gauge layout to be a bit unusual, at least compared with those we've seen on other Nissan models. The instruments are not as easy to read or as intuitive, and take a bit more time to get used to.
On the plus side of the balance sheet, the ride of the Frontier is definitely smoother than other pickups we've driven in this size range. We put in a lot of highway miles, and also later drove a 4x4 model in rugged off-road conditions, and the chassis handled both types of terrain with equal ease. The suspension is both supple and competent in a wide variety of conditions, be it on a cross-country cruise or a backcountry excursion. At highway speeds, the engine seems to rev a bit high, even in Fifth gear, but the noise level is acceptable. Expect about 19 mpg on the freeway and 15 mpg on the street.
The Frontier is due for redesign for the 2005 model year, but the current version saw a has a number of changes for 2003. Perhaps most interesting was the addition of its large, power-operated retractable top. This "Open Sky" sunroof is optional on Crew Cab models. For safety, Nissan added standard dual-stage front airbags for Crew Cabs, standard LATCH child seat anchors on King Cabs and Crew cabs, an optional stability control system and an optional tire pressure monitoring system. Other recent changes include ten more horsepower for normally aspirated V-6 models, a driver seat-height adjuster and standard Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD). King Cabs now have standard ABS, a new storage bin and a new first aid kit (V-6 only).
The Frontier comes in two cab styles: a 2-door extended cab called King Cab and a 4-door Crew Cab. The rear seat feels a bit larger than other extended-cab models we've tested, but the seats don't fold up to create more storage, so there's a tradeoff for this extra comfort. Two models come only with two-wheel drive: the entry-level Standard model and the Desert Runner. Other Frontiers offer 4WD that must be disengaged on dry pavement but includes low-range gearing. King Cabs include a 6.2-ft. cargo box, and the Crew Cabs offer 4.6- and 6.2-ft. boxes, with the latter extending the truck's wheelbase by 15 inches. An inline 4-cylinder engine is standard for 2WD King Cabs. The 4WD models and all Crew Cabs come with a V-6. The supercharged V-6 powers SVE and S/C versions of both cab styles, and these models also get 17-inch wheels and stiffer suspension (but not uncomfortably so). The anti-skid system is bundled in an option package that also includes traction control and a tire-pressure monitor. The package is available on 4WD XE and SE Crew Cabs. A driver-seat adjustment for height and lumbar support is a new feature for selected models. Crew Cabs continue with a three-passenger rear bench seat, but King Cabs have one instead of two rear jump seats.
A final note on the styling: Nissan went to some pains to bulk up the Frontier with body cladding for a more athletic, if not muscular presence. The supercharger option backs up that look with some real power, even with a conservative approach to the boost level. So while the Frontier may not be the bully of the beach, at least nobody will try to kick sand in your face. (www.nissan.com)