What I'm Driving At: Going Boldly

"We oughta know what we're doing," says Nissan's Jerry Benefield upon unveiling the company's new Frontier pickup to an assembled media throng in Smyrna, Tenn. "Since '83, we've built 1.6 million copies of our previous pickup, so we pretty much discovered everything that was wrong with it." Step Number One in the manufacturing makeover of Nissan's pickup contender has been to endow it with a new name -- Frontier. No Nissan truck has ever merited a moniker before. But now, in a strained homage to the spirit of Davy Crockett -- that patron frontiersman of the Volunteer State where Nissan builds its trucks -- Frontier is Nissan's new standard-bearer in the competitive and profitable light-truck category. Passive observers of the automotive scene will hardly experience an epiphany in sheet metal upon first encountering the new Frontier. The truck simply doesn't look "way" different, as its younger prospective customers are likely to observe. A new grille-and-snoot suite lend a softer, gentler ambiance to the truck formerly known as "hard body." But that's about it. Inside, a new dash presents a contemporary, integrated setting for instruments and controls; but the standard cab is still mighty compact, while the larger optional King Cab still offers only paratroop-quality jump seats for tag-along passengers. Nissan's Frontier, however, is indeed bold and new in important, if perhaps inconspicuous, respects. It is noteworthy, for example, that the primary use of compact trucks in the U.S. is for commuting, according to research cited by Nissan spokesman Tom Eastwood. Small-business and utility uses rank surprisingly much farther down the list. Accordingly, the Frontier spec sheet fairly blooms with refinements like double-wishbone front suspension and ergonomic "low-fatigue" seating that are intended to amplify driving comfort. And, in fact, getting behind the wheel does mean a notably improved car-like ride that is better at road handling and quieter while cruising. The truck's cargo bed, too, is cleverly modernized. Gone are the twin side clasps for the tailgate, replaced by a one-hand central latch -- a small but significant leap forward. The cargo box is now made from double-wall sheet metal. This is chiefly important so that dings inside the bed don't dong the exterior finish, but it also lends more structural rigidity to the box. One great little feature appears almost as a gift: Special bumps and indentations in the bed allow you to stack and store cargo in clever ways. Lay in a piece of plywood as a flat, horizontal partition, and you've created upper and lower storage areas. Span some 2-by-4s across the width of the bed, and you've divided the floor into front, middle, and rear sections that help contain sliding cargo. Inner tie-down hooks are likewise standard. Nissan is deservedly proud of the new twin-cam powerplant that comes standard in the Frontier. It's a 16-valve, 2.4-liter inline-4, and it's good for 143 horsepower. That's one horse ahead of Toyota's four-cylinder Tacoma truck, and it's a team of horses ahead of the four-bangers in Ford's Ranger (118 HP) and Chevy's S10 (120 HP). The big footnote, of course, is the availability of V6 power in all of the above except the Nissan Frontier. Some consumers and most dealers are just short of livid that the Frontier's performance and toting potential have been harnessed to just four cylinders. The anemic excuse has something to do with a last-minute rewrite of EPA regulations that eliminated an already snug fit for Nissan's existing V6 catalytic converters. By spring '98, it will all be a moot point with the belated appearance of a 3.3-liter, 168 HP V6 borrowed from the Pathfinder sport/utility. But for now, Frontier must boldly go behind its V6 betters from Ford, Chevy, and Toyota (which boast maximum ratings of 160, 180, and 190 HP, respectively). The horsepower issue cleans up considerably when processed through the public-relations spin-cycle: A smaller motor naturally means a smaller price -- most of the time. And truly, it is the price frontier that Nissan's newest truck challenges most effectively. Not only are '98 prices an average of $241 lower than for the company's comparably equipped '97 pickups, but Nissan has also assembled nicely priced option packages that deliver a lot of bang for the buck. For example, the up-market SE trim level includes standard air-conditioning, sunroof, sport bucket seats, and a 100-watt stereo/CD. Even the less lavish XE models include air-conditioning as standard. Comparing truck model pricing is a generally frustrating exercise, due to each manufacturer's myriad body styles and option packages; but for Nissan's new Frontier, the upshot is competitive pricing that ranges from $12,480 (including destination charge) for the base 4x2 Standard model to $21,480 for a bedecked and bedizened SE King Cab 4x4. In these gadget-prone, acquisition-obsessed times, it seems only natural for Nissan's Tom Eastwood to describe the Frontier as "more truck with more stuff" at a given price. In a truck market notable for its generous profit margins (and where retail prices often exceed $25,000 for fully equipped full-size trucks), the compact Frontier may become an important "value" alternative for conscientious truck shoppers. Indeed, it's an eerie and ominous coincidence that the Frontier's formal public introduction took place simultaneously with the worldwide money market meltdown of Monday, Oct. 27. At a time of financial uncertainty, its arrival may yet prove auspicious. Although the Frontier hasn't especially broken new ground with its design, Nissan's pricing strategy may well help this new truck wind up where other trucks won't go -- into customers' garages.

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