2012 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab 4x4

Nissan's midsize Frontier truck sports a credible mix of agility, power and economy

Let's hear it for modesty. This long-lost virtue has made a comeback during the last five years of our Great Recession, owing to the simple fact that almost no one can afford the more exciting, flaunt-it-if-you've-got-it alternative. However the midsize Nissan Frontier pickup, born in 1998 and replaced with a second-generation version in 2005, needn't have ever worried.

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Styling, Performance, and Price

Available today with either a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine or a 4.0-liter V6, it's always been the sensible alternative to the grand opulence that overtook the truck market in the 1990s. And it still works today, as we discovered after driving the 2012 Frontier Crew Cab 4x4 SV edition.

Priced at $26,970 and topping out at $29,085 once floor mats, an SV Sport Appearance Package, and destination charges were added, the Frontier represents all the pickup most people will ever need, and for significantly less dough than a full-size truck would cost. It's also easier to drive, thanks to a reasonable 205.5-inch overall length and 72.8-inch overall width (about a foot longer and similar in width to a Nissan Maxima).

While in terms of operating efficiency, with its 261-horsepower V6, the 2012 Nissan Frontier arrived showing an average fuel consumption of 15.9 mpg on its dashboard readout, just a tick below the 16 mpg combined estimate shown on the window sticker. But that number climbed as high as 22.5 mpg on the freeway once we reset the trip computer and headed toward Los Angeles on a run to collect some classic motorcycle parts. That exceeded the window sticker's 19-mpg claim significantly.

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On-the-Fly Four-Wheel Drive

Whereas occupants of the first-generation Frontier seemed locked into a mechanical noise bath, the current-generation Frontier is actually pretty quiet inside. The engine and transmission noises are well masked, and most impressively, so is road noise, vibration and harshness. That really says something for the body-on-frame design that most pickups use, as well as for the tall sidewalls of the BFG Radial Long Trail T/A P265/60R18 tires.

Our particular truck had four-wheel-drive that's selectable on the fly by turning a dash-mounted switch. Engaging 4WD was easy, although there was a slightly increased vibration evident in the drivetrain. Low-range 4WD is also included for off-roading, but it can't be engaged while in motion.

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Suspension, Transmission, and Towing

Nissan Frontier ride quality provided by the short/long-arm (AKA double-wishbone) front suspension and leaf-spring rear suspension is only average around town, but ramp up to highway speed or load cargo and passenger weight into the truck and the ride comes into its own. We found the power steering to be the worst dynamic feature of the Frontier. While the weight and linearity of the system is fine, it provides little feel on center, meaning we had to pay attention to keep from wandering in our freeway lane.

Thanks to variable valve timing and a variable intake system, the V6 engine and transmission's combined performance are crisp and bright, with satisfying shifts, quick engine response, and ample power and torque for accelerating and passing. And Nissan says the Frontier V6 models can tow up to 6,500 lbs.-plenty for a variety of good times such as towing boats, camping trailers and the like. And the robust 281 lb.-ft. of torque helps response in daily driving too.

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Interior Comfort, Sport Appearance Package

The cabin presents as an economy truck done to an acceptable standard, with comfortable cloth seats, a reasonable appearance of the many plastic parts, and generally acceptable ergonomics. The driver's seat on the SV V6 features excellent seat foam comfort and the Sport Appearance Package adds eight-way manual adjustments including lumbar. Our main gripe here was the door and center-console armrests, neither of which seemed to be suitably shaped or positioned for comfort. As a result, on long freeway stints we found ourselves adjusting our seating position to accommodate the armrests-not exactly ideal.

No big surprises in the electronic features, but value-added Sport Appearance Package items include an Aux-in audio jack, a simple trip computer with features such as distance-to-empty and average fuel economy, Bluetooth hands-free phone operation, and steering-wheel-mounted controls. (The top-level Nissan Frontier PRO-4X and SL models also include a Rockford Fosgate audio system with 10 speakers.)

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Storage Bins, Truck Beds, and Bottom Line

Storage is flexible, with various door- and center-console bins, a 60/40 flip-up rear seat, and under-seat storage bins with stretchy nets designed to hold loose items in place. However the Nissan Frontier Crew Cab's standard "short bed" was a disappointment. With an opening not even five feet long, it's hard to imagine hauling anything of substance here, except perhaps a barbeque, ice chest and lawn chairs. A better bet is the optional six-foot plus bed finished with Nissan's available spray-on bedliner.

Now in its eighth year of production, the second-generation Nissan Frontier is still an honest and practical truck overall. It may not have the size and features of a big V8, but then it never intended to match full-size trucks anyway. Instead, its bailiwick is daily driving, relatively easy maneuvering and parking, and the occasional hauling adventure. For these exploits—with just a couple of personal reservations—we found it works quite well enough. Carry on, Frontier. www.nissanusa.com

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