Hold up. Wait a minute. Why are we testing a 2019 Nissan Frontier? Isn’t there an all-new Nissan Frontier on the way for 2021? And if we don’t want to wait for that truck, shouldn’t we be reviewing the 2020 Nissan Frontier, which has the 310-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6 pulled ahead from the upcoming truck in place of the, ahem, historical four-liter, 261-horse chugger that can trace its ancestry all the way back to 1994?
These are all good questions, and they have a single answer: This is all we could get. And by “get,” I mean “rent.” Nissan wasn’t eager to get a 2020 Frontier to our man in California, Phillip Thomas, so I sauntered down to Enterprise and rented a 2019 for our test. That being said, there are two very good reasons to evaluate the 2019 Frontiers:
0. They’re still at dealerships, brand new. Hundreds of them, across the country;
1. They’re significantly cheaper than the 2020 models, as much as three grand cheaper before discounts. Which is real money in what we call These Challenging Times.
Case in point: Our crew-cab 4×2 tester in “SV” trim retails for a modest $28,800, thousands of dollars below the competition and its freshened replacement for 2020, which is $30,685 with similar equipment. As you’ll see, this sub-thirty-grand Frontier is a lot of truck for the money. Our 2,100-mile test consisted of a nine-day jaunt from central to Ohio to South Carolina and back, followed by a weekend roundtrip to Snowshoe, West Virginia. For the Carolina run, we loaded four bikes, a full complement of mountain-biking tools and gear, plus two people—my 11-year-son and me. For Snowshoe we had all of that stuff and my wife, which forced us to pack very carefully indeed.
The 2019 Frontier is not, say, a 1995 Porsche 911, which shared little besides a roof stamping with its 1964 predecessor. It’s more or less the same truck, and this is particularly true if you buy a four-cylinder, base-equipment variant. Nissan abandoned this vehicle for European and Asian markets five years ago, replacing it with an aero-styled blob surprisingly reminiscent of the competing Mitsubishi L200. It’s been on cruise control in North America ever since. Now take a break and ask yourself a tough question: Does that matter? Would your personal truck ownership experience be manifestly improved by the features and conveniences that have become commonplace elsewhere in the market?
After two thousand miles in the Frontier, I wasn’t so sure. This truck has the basics right. It’s quiet on the freeway, although it is susceptible to waves or breaks in the pavement in a way owners of today’s full-sized domestics won’t easily comprehend. Our recorded economy, done via fill-ups and arithmetic, was 23.9 mpg, which is more than acceptable for anything with an open bed. Frontiers of this generation are known to be durable. It can be driven and parked nearly anywhere a Camry could go. The bed is too small, but Nissan will sell you a slightly longer variant for about the same money and in any case you can use every square inch of the cargo box thanks to its waist-high sides. Tasks which resemble CrossFit exercises with a modern half-ton—in particular, placing anything in the half of the bed closest to the rear window—are easily accomplished here.
The interior is far from Instagram-worthy, and your friends won’t believe you actually bought a new truck, but there’s some intelligence at work within. A few obvious hacks aside (the USB charging port occupies a place in the lower dash molding that obviously contained an auxiliary cigarette lighter in 2004) this is a simple and easy place from which to do one’s job. Instruments are clear and legible. The center stack infotainment is acceptably modern, pairing phones with ease and offering logical access to its relatively few functions. HVAC controls work in a progressive and understandable fashion.
Naturally, the accommodations on offer are significantly tighter than what you find in a RAM or even a Ranger. The rear seatback, in particular, is almost perfectly vertical. That being said, there’s enough legroom back there for adults and the front seats are genuinely all-day comfortable. It takes about thirty seconds to find and understand all the controls on offer. Having long ago paid the costs of tooling, Nissan can spend money in ways most owners won’t immediately realize, such as the crystal-clear stereo and thick door glass.
It helps that this is a two-wheel-drive truck. Virtually no vehicle is improved in daily use from an extra set of driveshafts, and compact trucks are in no way an exception to this rule. I was a little surprised that Enterprise still rents trucks without 4WD, but presumably the deal on these Frontiers was just too good to pass up. In the winter, of course, you’d want to have some weight in the bed and a nice aggressive set of snow tires, lest you pirouette off a freeway at speed—but the dirty secret of virtually all the vehicles in this market is that their oh-so-sophisticated four-wheel-drive systems are usually a few seconds behind the reality on the road.
If you don’t believe me, try flooring the gas on an icy freeway in your “AUTO 4WD” equipped truck. The rear wheels are going to spin more than a few times before the various clutches and pumps wake up to do their duty. This is almost certainly a contributing factor to all the SUVs one sees in winter ditches. None of this is to say that you shouldn’t spec four-wheel-drive for your Frontier, because you’ll probably get all the extra money back when it’s time to sell. But two-wheel-drive trucks are just fundamentally nicer to operate.
The four-liter V-6 may be old enough to drive itself in most states and countries but it acquits itself well enough under full throttle, particularly while climbing hills. It’s paired with a five-speed automatic transmission that makes up for a lack of ratios with an uncanny ability to choose the right one at the right time. Outdated? Certainly. Does it really matter? Almost certainly not. There’s a combination of four-cylinder engine and stick-shift transmission for the real compact-truck die-hards. Expect it to be almost dangerously slow in modern traffic. The four-liter, on the other hand, never feels breathless during freeway entries. The killer combo would be a stick and a V-6 but Nissan isn’t willing to be that retro. You’ll have to settle for weird dimples in the hard plastic instead.
After a few days in a Frontier, I started asking myself the tough questions, like: If I need a more luxurious compact truck than this, don’t I really want a car? The equivalent Ford Ranger is handsomer and far more modern, if not any more powerful—but it is more than eight thousand dollars more expensive. Thirty-seven grand against twenty-nine. What do you get for that extra money? Just more fancy features to require repair in the years to come? Does anybody think that a high-pressure-turbocharged inline-four with a ten-speed transmission is going to last longer, with less service, than the Cretaceous powertrain in the 2019 Frontier?
It’s true that this Nissan is no great shakes in the desirability category—but again, that’s not something that everyone needs in a compact truck. Your humble author appreciated the Frontier’s invisibility to speed enforcement, particularly in the hills of West Virginia. This vehicle carries no social baggage, a useful trait in an era obsessed with signals of wealth and virtue. You’re not a Karen, not a one-percenter, not a bro-dozer, not a street racer. Just another working stiff in a cheap truck. Never in the past decade have I experienced the degree of on-road courtesy given to this Frontier all the way down the East Coast.
For a long time, my default recommendation to friends and family for a $25,000 vehicle has been a no-frills Honda Accord. For a limited time, I’ll be adding the Frontier as an alternative. Age cannot wither this plain-Jane crew-cab. It possesses honest virtues at an honest price. Is the 2020 Frontier even better? I can’t tell you. Were I shopping for a compact truck right now, I wouldn’t even bother to find out.
2019 Nissan Frontier SV 4×2 Crew Cab
Price: $28,800 as tested
Highs: Quiet, cheap, rides well enough, works well, durable, has a decent stereo and A/C.
Lows: Old-school handling dynamics. No curb appeal whatsoever. Nissan won’t provide the magic combo of V-6 and manual transmisison.
Summary: In the unlikely event that you are buying a compact truck to do compact truck work, rather than to serve as a fashion accessory on social media, this unassuming dinosaur deserves your attention.