WHEELS: The Macho Frontier

If you let the Marlboro Man pick any truck he wanted, chances are he'd opt for a Nissan Frontier King Cab. Who can resist the name, redolent as it is of the Old West? Of course, it's a Japanese truck, but one meant for sagebrush country. The phrase "off road" is even emblazoned on the thing, in case you didn't get the idea.I'm not the Marlboro Man, and I don't sleep out under the stars every night. I like my creature comforts, thank you, and the Frontier seemed ergonomically challenged. Here's a list of minor disharmonies: 1) the console bin pushed against my right leg; 2) the door pockets were too thin; 3) the obtrusive handbrake was sourced from a schoolbus; 4) there wasn't enough driver legroom; 5) the sunroof only opened a crack, and had an awkward clip-on cloth cover; 6) the "King Cab" part of the equation was ludicrous, since the fold-down rear seats were unsuitable even for small children, lacked a third door for decent access, and refused to properly accommodate a car seat.The Frontier is a very diverse truck line. There are Regular Cab, XE, SE and King Cab variants, in two- or four-wheel drive. Prices start at $11,490 but rise to over $20,000 when all the bells and whistles are added. Being a 4wd V6 King Cab, my truck was the top of the line, but, despite the CD player and other extras, it still didn't feel luxurious. Online reviewer Daniel Heraud praised the Frontier as "cushy," but it didn't seem overly well-appointed to me.Back in the 1950s, when Nissan was known as Datsun, it offered the first U.S. compact pickup. The financially troubled company still knows how to build a strong truck. As the only Frontier with a V6 (a 3.3-liter, 170-horsepower engine borrowed from the Pathfinder) the test Frontier was an eager performer. The power is tapped through a five-speed manual transmission with very long throws, but if you don't like it, a four-speed automatic is available on all models. The Frontier handled well in most situations and was rattle-free. With it's high center of gravity and great balance, I'd expect it to acquit itself well off-road, though most of its owners will never take it there. The whole bottom of the car is plated against rocks and wayward debris.The four-wheel-drive is not fulltime, being engaged through a stubby wand mounted alongside the shifter. If you do opt for the "Off Road" version, you also get four-wheel antilock brakes.More than half the vehicles on the road today are light trucks, a category that includes sport-utilities. Choosing one means an automatic fuel economy penalty, a problem that doesn't seem to bother many Americans these days. The entry-level Frontiers come with a 143-horsepower four-cylinder engines, and the best you're going to do with one of these (in two-wheel-drive models) is 26 miles per gallon on the highway. Equipped like our tester, the King Cab sucks up gasoline at a rate of 15 miles per gallon in town, and 19 on the highway. You can almost watch the needle drop.The paradox of a pickup truck, for me, is that I almost never carry anything that can safely ride in its huge and commodious bed. I carry papers, laptop computers, CDs and books, none of which want to bounce around on an open truck bed. The result is that I drove around with the bed perfectly empty, while the cramped cabin was packed to the gunwales. Pretty silly, huh? Now you know why the Marlboro Man and I don't have the same taste in passenger vehicles.

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