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Ownership: 2020 Nissan Frontier review: Past meets future

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Do you believe in time travel? If not, a quick drive of the 2020 Nissan Frontier will convince you this theoretical phenomenon is real. For better or, well, mostly worse, this midsize pickup is a blast from the early-2000s past, an improbable relic the Japanese automaker has left mostly untouched for a decade and a half. 

2020 Nissan Frontier review: Past meets future

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During this-generation Frontier's time on earth, the Dodge Dakota drove off into the sunset, Chevrolet overhauled its Colorado, two generations of the Honda Ridgeline hit the market, plus Ford's compact Ranger pickup was killed off and then subsequently resurrected. Yeah, a lot has happened since 2005.

Nissan is keenly aware of this rig's age and how uncompetitive it's become. Remedying the situation, a totally redesigned Frontier is on the way, set to arrive for the 2021 model year. That pickup should address the current truck's shortcomings, offering customers more technology, greater refinement and enhanced performance courtesy of a totally new powertrain. 

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a car parked in a parking lot © Craig Cole/Roadshow

The future is now!

Nissan is giving us an opportunity to experience that next-generation Frontier before it's even been unveiled. Curiously, Nissan launched the 2021 model's upgraded powertrain in the outgoing truck. Basically, the engine and transmission were ready to go, so why not ship them early? Usually, automakers introduce new powertrains in totally redesigned vehicles, but occasionally these sine waves are out of sync. And that's what happened here. 

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Nestled underneath my crew-cab Pro-4X test truck's unusually heavy hood is a 3.8-liter V6 bolted to a nine-speed automatic transmission. This engine pulls double duty, replacing the 4.0-liter V6 as well as the base 2.5-liter four-pot engine that's offered in the current-generation Frontier. About 93% new compared to the outgoing six-shooter, this engine delivers a more-than-respectable 310 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 281 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. These figures compare favorably to what the Chevy Colorado's V6 provides, but it's got 40 more horses than the Ranger's turbo-four, though that Ford does have 29 additional lb-ft of twist, an important advantage for a truck.

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a car engine: The Frontier's future is proudly displayed underneath its hood. Craig Cole/Roadshow © Provided by Roadshow The Frontier's future is proudly displayed underneath its hood. Craig Cole/Roadshow

The Frontier's new engine is excellent -- in fact, it may be my favorite powertrain in the midsize-pickup segment. It seems smoother and more responsive than the Colorado's V6 and it sounds way better than the Ranger's boosted four. At idle, it does feel slightly choppy, but things smooth right out once you crack the throttle. Typical of naturally aspirated V6s of this displacement, it comes alive higher in the rev range, really putting its shoulder to the load from about 4,000 rpm on up, though this is not to say the engine is peaky. It pulls quite well lower down the tachometer, aided by that prudent gearbox. 

If the Frontier's new transmission sounds familiar, it should. Basically, it's the same one used in its larger brother, the full-size, V8-powered Nissan Titan. Tuning tweaks are the only real differences: It's been tailored to a V6 engine and a lighter vehicle.

That nine-speed transmission is a dramatic improvement over the outgoing five-speed automatic. Not only does it improve drivability -- shifts are smooth and timely both up and down -- but it makes the Frontier more efficient and fleeter than before. In the 0-to-60-mph dash, it's around 7% quicker, a welcome improvement, plus, when similarly equipped, fuel economy is better than what the outgoing four-cylinder provides. Fitted with four-wheel-drive, expect 17 miles per gallon city and 23 mpg highway. Combined, the 4WD Frontier is rated at 19 mpg, though I've been averaging around 21 in mixed use, which includes a lot of two-lane driving.

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The Frontier's improved efficiency is welcome, but it's still not great. For instance, a four-wheel-drive F-150 with the available 2.7-liter twin-turbo V6 has more power and way more torque, but it still manages to average a claimed 20 mpg, at least according to the EPA. Hopefully the new 2021 Frontier is a lot more economical, but at least this one happily runs on regular-grade fuel.

a car parked on the side of a road: This is the truck's business end, and the Frontier's bed is quite versatile. Craig Cole/Roadshow © Provided by Roadshow This is the truck's business end, and the Frontier's bed is quite versatile. Craig Cole/Roadshow

The bad old days

As for the rest of this truck, it could have been ripped from the pages of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. Like the eponymous device in that short story, it can transport you through the ages -- well, really just back to the days before advanced driver-assistance technology was even a thing and smartphones  were on everyone's person, but you get my point.

The Frontier's undamped tailgate is unexpectedly weighty, but heavy by today's standards where you can get power lifting and folding tailgates that perform more tricks than a trained border collie. It drops with a thud and takes actual effort to close. This truck's interior looks and feels old, with hard plastic everywhere and plenty of features that are obvious afterthoughts, like the placement of the starter button. It's relegated to the console ahead of the shifter, a most peculiar spot. The aux jack and USB port reside in a small pod on the passenger's side of the center stack, another weird placement. And then there's the infotainment system.

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My off-road-focused Pro-4X tester comes standard with a Nissan Connect multimedia solution, one with a laughably small, 5.8-inch touchscreen. A navigation system is included but the interface so torturous you won't even want to use it. A 10-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system is ready and willing, though not necessarily able to drown out this truck's elevated interior noise at highway speeds. 

Built for serious trail-bashing, Pro-4X models are fitted with goodies like skid plates, Bilstein shock absorbers and a locking rear differential. Hankook all-terrain tires wrapped around stylish 16-inch alloy wheels provide the grip, both on-road and off. With all that hardware plus a bulky roof rack on top, this truck's somewhat noisy cabin is understandable.

a close up of a car: If you like hard plastic and a dearth of modern conveniences, you'll love the Nissan Frontier. Craig Cole/Roadshow © Provided by Roadshow If you like hard plastic and a dearth of modern conveniences, you'll love the Nissan Frontier. Craig Cole/Roadshow

The lack of express up-and-down windows all around is another reminder of the Frontier's age. So is the fact that practically no modern features are offered. Does it have adaptive cruise control? Nope. How about blind-spot monitoring? Sorry, Charlie. Lane-keeping assist? What's that?

"Whoa, this is heavy," said main character Marty McFly in Back to the Future when reacting to what Doc Brown said about his mother's amorous infatuation, though he could have just as easily been describing the Frontier's steering. It's heavy at parking-lot speeds, heavy on the highway and heavy everywhere in between, which gives the truck a ponderous feel, unusual for something in the midsize segment. Rival trucks feel much nimbler. 

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The Frontier's ride quality is something of a mystery. On road, it somehow manages to be both stiff-legged and jiggly, like it's simultaneously too firm and too soft. There's no shortage of body roll, either, when tackling corners. 

The 2020 Nissan Frontier got a heart transplant

Time will tell

The Nissan Frontier is easy to dump on. It's old, lacks commonly available features and its driving dynamics are crude at best. Still, in a weird way, I find the dearth of technology kind of refreshing. There's no learning curve here, no need to think about how stuff works. Driving it only requires muscle memory.

Strangely, pricing for the 2020 Frontier has not been released yet; it's scheduled to be announced later in the spring. But based on the 2019 model, I estimate my crew cab Pro-4X tester probably checks out for around $35,000 give or take a couple grand. If you're seriously considering a new Frontier, you probably don't care about how ancient it is. Still, if your heart is set on a Nissan, you'd be prudent holding off until the 2021 model arrives. Its new powertrain is absolutely dynamite, which bodes well for the rest of the truck, though only time will tell how good it really is.

This was originally published on Roadshow.

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