The Nissan Frontier has a longstanding reputation for being a sturdy but slightly outmoded pickup. Its midsize rivals, the Ford Ranger, the Chevrolet Colorado, and the Toyota Tacoma boast far more modern features. Does that mean that you should bypass the Frontier completely when shopping for a new truck? Not necessarily. If you need an offroader that offers good value and has stood the test of time, the 2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X is a great choice. Here’s why.
How the 2020 Nissan Frontier compares to the competition
Aaron Bragman of Cars.com writes that the Nissan Frontier Pro-4X still lags behind its competitors in infotainment and safety tech. The third-generation Frontier hasn’t been updated since 2014 and looks it in many ways. But what the Frontier lacks in contemporary features it makes up for in enduring quality, solid value, and good hauling and towing capability.
But Nissan did add one important update for this model year: the 2021 model year’s engine and transmission. This addition seems like putting new wine in old bottles. And it’s only one update. So, does it add new life to the aging Nissan Frontier?
A new powertrain in an old model?
Nissan swapped out the Frontier’s old standard 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine for the 2021 model year’s much livelier 3.8-liter V6. The new engine produces 310 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque. The new engine tops the old optional 4.0-liter V6 by 49 hp and the four-cylinder by 158 hp.
The 2020 Frontier also benefits from a new nine-speed transmission borrowed from the Nissan Titan. It’s a big step up from the 2019 Frontier’s standard five-speed transmission and available six-speed manual. Of course, the new transmission is tuned and geared for the Frontier and not the Titan’s massive standard 390-hp 5.6-liter V8. Nissan also swapped out the Frontier’s ignition switch and key for a more modern push-button start.
Bragman praises the new engine for being quieter, lighter, and more polished than the old 4.0-liter. Its acceleration is more spirited, too. All the qualities of the 2021 model year’s engine seemed to have rejuvenated this old-school truck.
Unlike the Titan’s V8, however, the Frontier’s new V6 doesn’t pair well with the new transmission. It hunts in low gears and downshifts prematurely. Transitions from lower gears to higher ones are rough. The transmission does redeem itself above third gear, though, and cruises comfortably at highway speeds.
According to Nissan’s estimates, the new engine will offer an improved fuel economy at 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway/20 mpg combined and 17/23/19 mpg for four-wheel-drive models. By comparison, the old four-cylinder engine with an automatic transmission yielded 17/22/19 mpg. The 4.0-liter V6 with an automatic transmission rated 16/23/19 mpg and 15/21/17 mpg for the 4X4 version.
When tested by Bragman and the Cars.com team, the 2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X came in at a disappointing 17.5 mpg. And this truck’s competition performed much better in fuel economy ratings. For example, the Ford Ranger’s 4WD version has an efficient four-cylinder turbocharged engine with a 10-speed automatic transmission that rates 20/24/22 mpg.
Rival truck Chevy Colorado scored a 17/24/19 mpg with its 3.6-liter V6 and eight-speed automatic. Even the Toyota Tacoma’s outdated 3.5-liter V6 paired with its six-speed automatic cranked out 18/22/20 mpg.
Even though Bragman’s test drive proved to be a reality check on the Frontier’s fuel economy, we have to keep in mind that Nissan stuffed a new engine into an old truck body. The automaker’s engineers expect to improve fuel economy even more for the 2021 model year. They plan to enhance the Frontier’s aerodynamics and to incorporate lighter materials.
Offering excellent value despite having no tech to speak of
Like the Frontiers of the past 15 years, the interior is simple but comfortable enough. It has early 2000s-style white dials on the instrument cluster and a synthetic touch to the cabin materials.
Adding to its old-fashioned feeling is that it’s nearly devoid of tech. At 5.8 inches, the Frontier’s infotainment screen is puny by today’s standards. No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto is available, although the truck does have a navigation system. Advanced safety features such as forward collision warning, lane keep assist, and adaptive cruise control are also absent from the Frontier.
Even with these shortcomings, the 2020 Nissan Frontier emerges as an excellent deal for a buyer who wants an energetic new V6 engine with somewhat improved fuel economy in a sturdy but slightly oldish truck body.
Because Nissan has paused production due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prices for this year’s model aren’t yet available. But Cars.com’s Bragman believes that pricing won’t differ greatly from the 2019 V6 models which started at $27,015. If you want an old-style, tech-free Japanese truck with competitive acceleration and horsepower, the 2020 Nissan Frontier is an appealing bargain that offers substantial value.