2022 Nissan Frontier First Drive Review | Return from the wilderness

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Nissan should make a new midsize truck more often. Turns out, the company is good at it. Waiting 17 years for a new Frontier is a rather unforgivable period of time — yes, the last time we had a new Frontier was in 2004. However, that doesn’t take anything away from the new 2022 Nissan Frontier, because it’s a damn good pickup.

How good, you ask? After a first go-round behind the wheel, it’s safe to say the new Frontier is officially on a level playing field with every other midsize pickup, and it’s reaching for a podium spot.

Nissan started this pickup renaissance with a full-scale redesign. The truck looks like a knockout in photos, but it looks even better up close and in-person. You can’t go wrong with either a standard model or a PRO-4X when it comes to aesthetics, either. All of them have a tall, squared-off nose with a big, but still reasonably-sized grille. It looks mean and capable, but not like it’s about to tear your head off and scare small children away. Bold and bright daytime running lights give it the modern edge that a 2022 pickup deserves, with LED headlights available starting on the SV. And the bulging fenders help complete the package in a rugged way that only the Toyota Tacoma has been able to capture. And yes, there’s no denying the Frontier’s resemblance to the Taco, but don’t mistake it for a copycat. Put the two next to each other, and the Frontier has a distinctive look and shape.

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Those modern looks deserve a modern powertrain to match. Like most in this segment, Nissan has a big, naturally aspirated V6 ready for duty. Specifically, it’s a 3.8-liter V6 that makes 310 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque. That’s technically more horsepower than anything else in the segment, but don’t get too excited — everything feels about the same when it comes to straight-line speed here. The engine was actually dropped into the previous-generation Frontier for one model year before moseying over into the new truck, and we’re glad to meet it again. Paired with this V6 is a nine-speed automatic transmission that’s pulled from the Titan.

Admittedly, to Nissan’s own disadvantage, it selected northern Utah and an elevation of more than 6,000 feet for the Frontier's first-drive press launch. It’s not possible to say how strong this engine will feel closer to sea level, but acceleration is not brisk in the mountains. As it stands, the low- and mid-range power is rather meek, and the forward thrust only starts to come on stronger toward the top end.

The nine-speed is a lovely partner when you’re just casually cruising around town, but it’s not so smooth and smart when called upon to change down multiple gears for a quick passing maneuver or steep hill. There were a few rough shifts, and the speed at which it responded to throttle prodding was a bit disappointing. There’s a one potato, two potato wait after getting on the throttle, and then you get a downshift.

One area that offers few disappointments is its new ride and handling, thanks to the upgraded frame and new suspension components. And yes, we do mean upgraded from its 17-year-old predecessor and not totally new – you can read a deep dive here on Nissan’s justifications for heavily modifying the truck’s current bones instead of building a totally new platform. It’s fitted with new urethane jounce bumpers, new hydraulic cab mounts (claimed 80% reduction in road vibration), a larger front stabilizer bar and a newly added rear stabilizer bar. The steering is still hydraulic, but is re-tuned to be 16% quicker than before. Plus, the PRO-4X and PRO-X models are fitted with new off-road-tuned Bilstein dampers. The non-PRO models get newly developed ZF dampers.

All of these additions have transformed the Frontier into a top-notch riding and handling pickup. Potholes and rough roads are handled with aplomb — yes, it rides better than a Tacoma. This applies to both the Bilstein-equipped and ZF damper-equipped pickups, as the difference in on-road ride is minimal. Plus, it doesn’t fall apart when you decide to throw it at a twisty mountain road, which you’re likely to do if you use the Frontier for its intended adventuring purposes. Steering is fairly high-effort at low speeds — no modern variable-ratio electric rack here! But it comes into its own once you get up to speed, and it’s especially good when you’re off-road.

Speaking of, Nissan let us have a go at a 45-minute off-road trail that took us up and down the side of a mountain. It was a rather rocky experience, enough so that we spent most of our time in 4LO with the PRO-4X’s electronic-locking rear differential locked. This is where we got to try out all the other PRO-4X goodies, too. Nissan’s off-road model (which is also the one that comes with the most standard features/tech) includes those Bilstein shocks, four skid plates, 17-inch wheels wrapped in all-terrain tires, the aforementioned electronic-locking rear diff and off-road trail cameras. The lower front bumper is removed. The PRO-X is a two-wheel-drive version that drops the skid plates but gives you the appearance extras, Bilstein shocks and all-terrain rubber.

All of the above is great stuff, but it’s the Frontier’s compact size that makes it so fun and capable on narrow trails like this. At 210.2 inches in overall length, the Frontier continues to be the smallest midsize pickup. That means it’s easier to place on trails and ultimately more fun and less stressful to take off-road. Even visibility over the muscular hood is great. A new steering damper is able to reduce impact harshness when bouncing over big rocks. A slightly tighter turning radius would be nice, but it isn’t bad enough that any tight trail turns required backing out and re-trying. Those Bilsteins offer great damping and rebound through harsh impacts and keep the truck’s movements controlled. Our biggest complaint is with the trail cameras — Nissan automatically turns them off if you go any faster than a slow creep, and even when they’re on, they’re essentially potato camera quality.

While the dimensions and underpinnings are familiar from the old familiar, the new cabin is on a completely different plane. You'd hope so after 17 years. Nissan fits its Zero Gravity seats as standard across the board, and they’re supremely comfortable and supportive. The new cabin has all the luxuries and amenities you’d expect in a 2022 pickup. You get a modern dash design with an 8-inch (or optional 9-inch) infotainment touchscreen that runs Nissan’s latest software and even includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard. There’s a 7-inch display in the cluster, and you can get as many as four USB ports, a wireless phone charger and heated seats/steering wheel. A host of driver assistance features come standard.

None of the other midsize trucks offer an especially premium or even visually interesting interior except for the pricey Jeep Gladiator, so it's not like the new Frontier has a lofty bar to clear. Still, it does just that. The PRO-4X is especially nice with its leather seats, leather steering wheel, bevy of red-orange accents and contrast stitching, but what takes the Frontier’s interior above and beyond the competition is just how refined it is. Nissan installed acoustic laminated glass, added boatloads of sound insulation and uses a more noise-resistant carpeting than before. It’s all instantly noticeable in the quiet and serene in-cabin experience it delivers. Even when revs are up from long uphill climbs, the engine noise isn’t overly intrusive. Add the available and quality-sounding 10-speaker Fender audio system to the mix, and the Frontier is a lovely road-tripper.

You may be less obliged to road trip the Frontier if maximum towing is the priority, though. For body-on-frame midsize pickups, the Frontier is dead last for max towing at 6,720 pounds. The Tacoma isn’t far ahead, but most of the competition maxes out around 7,500 pounds. That’s not to say the Frontier won’t work for your purposes, but other trucks could still be the difference maker if you tow some extra-heavy items. On the bright side, maximum payload is competitively mid-pack at 1,610 pounds. It’s also super easy to reach into the bed from the side to grab items, even if you’re short.

One important note on beds: Like the Ford Ranger, the Frontier's bed lengths are tied to cab style. The 6-foot bed is exclusive to the extended King Cab and its laughable micro back seat, while the Crew Cab, with its sufficient rear leg- and headroom, can only be paired with a 5-foot bed. The Tacoma and Chevy/GMC pickups offer long-bed/crew-cab combos.

Nissan has kept the new Frontier’s price under wraps until now, likely because it wanted to show us how good the truck was before hitting us with numbers we’re not used to seeing next to “Frontier." The cheapest version is now the S King Cab with rear-wheel drive, and it starts at $29,015. We haven’t seen any photos of this base truck yet, but the Frontier’s head of design, Hiran Patel, tells us that it looks similar to the SV, only with a black grille and flat black trim. Nissan’s volume leader is going to be the SV trim in Crew Cab form, fitted with four-wheel drive. This pickup will run you $36,315.

The truck we spent the most time in (and used for the video review) was a top-of-the-line PRO-4X. It starts at $38,415, but ours totaled $44,185 after the three available option packages were tacked on. Does that seem ludicrous for a Frontier? Yes, but it’s time for a Frontier expectation reset. That’s how much midsize pickups cost these days, and if you want something cheaper, the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz will soon be available. This Frontier goes toe-to-toe with all the others in the segment on every single front, and it even leads the way in some areas. Don’t sell it short, because the Nissan Frontier is back, and it’s a force to be reckoned with once again.

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