I’d been looking forward to testing Nissan’s 2020 Frontier compact pickup since hearing about its upgrades at the Chicago Auto Show in February, just before the COVID lockdown.
A Zoom update this spring further stoked my curiosity. I much prefer compact pickups to the big boys and Frontier has always been a strong competitor in what now is really a mid-size market. Yet due to COVID shutting assembly plants and some timing issues Nissan’s 2020 model just arrived and is going on sale, about when you’d expect a 2021.
No problem. It was worth the wait. How so?
In a nutshell Nissan boosted power, but improved fuel efficiency and upped towing capacity. Then there are a load of other smaller improvements that bring Frontier back to the fore of off-road capable pickups.
The new 3.8-liter V6 engine is the big news as it replaces a 4.0-liter V6 yet boosts horsepower to 310 from 261. Torque remains 281 lb.-ft. and towing capability is up 400 lbs. to 6,720 lbs.
The new engine runs smoothly and works well with a new 9-speed automatic transmission. Getting onto the highway was seamless and powerful. Yet I managed 18.7 mpg in this roughly 4,700-lb. Frontier PRO-4X Crew Cab. That’s the top of the line with full-sized rear doors so four folks can easily ride inside.
The EPA rates the new Frontier at 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. That’s up from 16/21 in the previous model. Regular unleaded will do the trick too.
Otherwise Frontier remains the same size as its predecessor and handling remains fairly responsive and easy to control, not a heavy wheel that requires major manly man muscles. The truck also tracks well on the freeway, not a lot of side to side wander and thankfully no lane assist feature here so you aren’t ping-ponging down the road between lane markers.
While the base truck is 2-wheel-drive, this one has 4WD, which is available on all trim levels. Nissan makes it easy to engage and disengage via a knob on the dash’s center stack. If you want you can go to 4WD Lo and go mudding too. There’s an impressive 10.1 inches of ground clearance and the PRO-4X comes with steel skid plates underneath to protect the truck’s vital parts that otherwise might be low-hanging fruit for nasty rocks to attack.
The PRO-4X also adds Bilstein shocks to accommodate off-roading while the Frontier is the usual body-on-frame build you’d expect in a truck, with a fully boxed ladder frame for strength and stability.
Front suspension is independent double wishbone with a stabilizer bar and there’s an over slung multi-leaf rear suspension with solid axle.
Good news, all that soaks up rough off-road rocks and crevices, which is its aim. On city streets the Frontier rides like most trucks with a little more bounce and bump than even a mid-size SUV. Still, I was never uncomfortable.
In fact, I found the Frontier interior quite comfy, although that rear seat is like most compact pickups with a fairly straight back cushion. Kids will fit well and car seats especially well. The rear is a 60/40 split and can be folded up to create more indoor cargo space.
But the front gunmetal gray leather seats with embroidered PRO-4X logos on their backs were easy to slide into and out of, and yes, there’s a decent step-up into this 4-wheeler. Those seats were comfortable even on a longer ride and the driver’s is an 8-way power seat with manual lumbar while the passenger’s seat is manual.
Dash here is dark gray plastic with matte silver trim by the screen, climate controls on the stack and by the shifter and steering wheel’s hub. The main instrument cluster has white-faced gauges to spiff its look, while the door releases are chrome and the headliner is a light gray.
I’d like to see a little larger infotainment screen, but this one worked well and sounded good. It’s just at 7 inches so the on-screen buttons are tiny and sometimes hard to press while driving. Tuning and volume knobs also are small. Yet this trim level comes with a 10-speaker Rockford-Fosgate audio system with a subwoofer, so sound quality is good.
There are a few other perks with the PRO-4X, including heated seats, navigation system and a power sunroof overhead.
All Frontiers now come with audio controls on the steering wheel hub, Bluetooth connectivity, keyless entry and push-button start. Quick note here, the push-button is on the console, which is fine. But the emergency flasher button is right on the dash where a key used to go, and where many push-button starts are now located. I hit it several times by mistake during the week. Frontier owners will likely figure it out after a week or two.
Standard too is cruise control and a rear backup camera, but not a lot of other electronic safety add-ons, which was refreshing from a driving standpoint.
However, the steering wheel is only tilt it does not telescope and there is no wireless charging system for a cell phone. That should be standard now in all newly designed or freshened vehicles. IMHO!
The PRO-4X adds a bunch of goodies too. In addition to the skid plates, white-faced gauges and Bilstein shocks there’s Hankook all-terrain mud and snow ties, 6-spoke aluminum alloy wheels, an electronically locking rear differential for 4-wheeling and a little more attitude heaped on top with a muscular roof rack and a small tailgate lip spoiler to add a bit of downforce for stability at highway speeds.
Visually the PRO-4X model features a satin chrome grille and body-color bumpers to distinguish it, plus a big PRO-4X decal on each side of the bed.
In back is a factory-applied spray-on lined bed, two overhead bed lights, and a super Utili-Track Channel System with four adjustable tie-down cleats. That’s great for hauling and securing a load. The heavy tailgate is not, though, an easy or soft-lowering model. Unlatch it and boom, if falls right down.
For the record there are 13 versions of Frontier from King Cab S 4x2 models starting at $27,885 with delivery to this PRO-4X that lists at $38,585 and the test truck added only floor mats for $160 to finish at $38,745. King Cab models have just an extended cab behind the front seat, not a full rear seat. If you want to carry more than two folks, the Crew Cab will be your choice.
An entry-level Crew Cab S starts at $28,995, so not much more than the King (extended cab) model. Bet most folks will go with the Crew Cab.
Frontier is a dandy compact pickup, really the size pickups should be unless you plan to carry a family of five across country and need to tow 10,000 lbs. of trailer behind. For city-bound drivers who imagine themselves farmers, construction workers or carpenters, this is a good size to be useful and comfortable for family transport, plus much more economical than a full-size urban cowboy Cadillac.
Hits: Increased power, better gas mileage than previous model, plus good handling, 4WD easy to engage, sun roof, heated seats, push button start and keyless entry, comfy flat seats, muscular roof rack, room for four, lined bed, good hook system in bed, easy to drive with no lane assist.
Misses: Truck ride, no wireless charger, small radio buttons and knobs and just a tilt wheel.
Made In: Canton, Miss.
Engine: 3.8-liter V6, 310 hp
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Weight: 4,696 lbs.
Wheelbase: 125.9 in.
Length: 205.5 in.
Tow: 6,720 lbs.
MPG: 17/23, 18.7 (tested)
Base Price: $38,585 (includes delivery)
Major Options: Floor mats, $160
Test Vehicle: $38,745
Editor's note: Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.