Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Alien Expectations

Nissan hopes to set "sale" with new Frontier Crew Cab

By Marc Stengel

APRIL 19, 1999:  I love the good news that you least expect. For anyone who's even semi-conscious of automotive matters lately, another drone story about Nissan's fiscal straits or its arranged marriage to Renault now comes as no surprise whatsoever. And as for the company's recent promise to recreate the image if not the impact of the fabled "Z-Car," well, the greater marvel is that the sports coupe had to die to be reborn in the first place. Nissan's real eye-opener this spring hails from a most unlikely quarter: a startlingly new four-door Nissan Frontier pickup, designated Crew Cab, goes on sale May 13 as a 2000 model and promises to--dare we say it?--establish new paradigms for convenience and civility among compact trucks.

Let me be the first to admit that Nissan's Crew Cab truck is not what I'd have predicted. It is, in fact, almost completely alien to all of my expectations. For one thing, it's inscrutably weird looking, a sort of Mars lander with a stubby little cargo box perched high over rear wheels that nearly scuff the rear of the cab. Side-mounted step rails made of large-diameter tubing complement a trendy optional roof rack to evince a crazy blend of contradictory images I can only describe as "militantly recreational." In Monterey, Calif., where Nissan revealed the Crew Cab to the nation's auto writers, the truck turned heads on the highway with stunning regularity. The expression was always the same--a smile, superimposed by a wrinkled wince. "Whassat just went by? Didja see that?" This from drivers in the nation's most jaded automotive state.

Truth be told, I had to wince myself when I heard the Nissan folks position their new baby as the world's first compact truck with four front-hinged doors. Since Ford's compact Ranger is already sprouting four doors in the nation's showrooms, and a Dodge Dakota Quad Cab is imminently due, Nissan's resort to such hair-splitting sounded at first like an attempt to save face. Then I lived with the truck for a day. Four doors with front hinges means four independent modes of entry and exit. In the Ford and Dodge models, the rear-hinged portals mean that rear-seat denizens have to wait for the front passenger or driver to open up first, since these rear doors are interleaved under a trailing edge of the front doors. There are arguable advantages to either scheme, but for a compact truck boasting room for five adults in its cab, the accommodation of independent action is much the good thing.

With more room indoors than archrival Toyota's Tundra extended-cab truck, the Frontier Crew Cab accomplishes an unfamiliar trump in this hotly contested category of trucks costing from mid-teens to low 20s. Nissan's next unexpected surprise, however, is to parry the inevitable "Gotcha!" from cynics: To pay for all this interior room, Nissan had to settle for a puny 55-inch-by-60-inch cargo box. With a self-satisfied flourish, Nissan's product strategy manager Randy Rubin replied to a journalist's challenge by simply dropping the tailgate. Then he flipped out a wondrous confection of tubing and braces. Voilą! The Crew Cab bed extender, which does more than merely accommodate the obligatory 4-foot-by-8-foot sheet of plywood or drywall. When folded back behind the closed tailgate, this device solves the perennial bane of pickup-owners: projectile cargo. Instead of permitting a random carom of bottles, boxes, and cans skidding free in the bed, Nissan's great little grate contraption corrals these items into their own compact, bungee-friendly home-sweet-home.

It should come as no surprise that the Frontier Crew Cab exploits the tried-and-true basic design of Nissan's basic Frontier pickup. Amidst the recent welter of dire publicity about the company's future, Nissan's pickups--and the Smyrna, Tenn., plant that makes them--continue to set industry benchmarks for quality and efficiency that even the company's peers begrudge. The new Crew Cab models, specifically, ride atop the Frontier 4x4 platform. That means both the two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive powertrains available with the Crew Cab will share the same ultra-stiff chassis and the same high-clearance ride height.

Two transmissions are available: a 4-speed auto and a 5-speed manual. And two trim levels, XE and SE, designate the basic and up-level price ranges, respectively. The most conspicuous differences between them are the SE's color-keyed wheel flares, standard side rails, and available roof rack. So far, the innovative bed extender is planned as a dealer-installed option for either trim level. Its cost is predicted to be approximately $200.

The Crew Cab's one and only powerplant is Nissan's workhorse V6, a 3.3-liter single-cam design making a moderate 170 horsepower. It's torquey and responsive, if a bit uninspiring in high-performance terms. The chief virtue of the Frontier powertrain, particularly with the 5-speed manual, is drivability. As I've declared before in this space (last Dec. 3), there are few engine-transmission packages better suited to one another than the Frontier's manual V6. If towing is a must, your hands are tied: The automatic transmission is necessary for pulls up to 5,000 lbs. But for sheer driving pleasure (and a tow rating of 3,500 lbs.), stick with the manual by all means.

Nissan's biggest risk, of course, is that with a possible winner on their hands in the form of the 2000-model Frontier Crew Cab, the company may not know quite how to react. Indeed, spokes-quipster Jason Vines was delighted to announce that Nissan is a new corporate sponsor for the Los Angeles County Lifeguards. "So if you drown out here," he mused aloud among the Crew Cab models on display, "you might end up in the back of one of these."

For an automaker whose own ability to tread water has been severely tested of late, Crew Cab may pave the way to a long-awaited resuscitation of fortunes. This summer's planned roll-out of an affordable new Xterra SUV and a redesigned, higher-performance Maxima sedan should improve lung capacity all the more. That's good news indeed, considering that just 10 months ago at Nissan, the prospect of a deep sigh of eventual relief was the most alien expectation of all.


Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com. Or by fax at (615) 385-2930.


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