2016 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X Photo Shoot 001

REVIEW: 2016 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X — Nothing Changes But the Shoes

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I started 2015 by reviewing a 2015 model-year Nissan Frontier PRO-4X. Now, I’m ending 2015 by testing a 2016 model-year Nissan Frontier PRO-4X. What’s changed? Other than tires and paint color, not much.

2016 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X Photo Shoot 001
Photo: Lyndon Johnson

The Frontier is by far the oldest truck in its segment since Ford killed the Ranger after 2012. It’s been 12 years since the D40 Frontier/Navara truck chassis launched as a 2004 model, and in a lot of ways, that’s obvious. Newer competitors from GM (the new GMC Canyon/Chevy Colorado twins) and Toyota (the new Tacoma) are eating the Frontier’s lunch when it comes to powertrain refinement and efficiency, not to mention interior packaging.

That notwithstanding, the 2016 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X remains the most-capable version of a very good midsize truck, and for that, it deserves your consideration if you’re shopping the segment. It’s attractive, right-sized for most weekend warriors who think they need a truck, and in PRO-4X guise will gladly go off-road in places full-size trucks wouldn’t dare.

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Photo: Lyndon Johnson

As a former owner of the final-generation Ford Ranger, this is the second time this year I’ve come away from driving a Frontier to think its structure is impressively tight. Doors close precisely with a machined click feeling, and the chassis feels rigid along both unpaved fire roads and broken pavement. With bones this solid and with no newer competition in its segment until this year, it’s easy to see why Nissan didn’t feel the need to revamp the truck’s underpinnings after all these years. Compared to the Frontier, my 2006 Ranger was a rattletrap the day I bought it in 2007.

Only the new-for-2016 Forged Copper paint code and the Hankook Dynapro A/T-M tires were different from the blue 2015 Frontier PRO-4X I tested several months ago. That truck was shod in BF Goodrich Rugged Trail T/As. It was enough to bring to mind The Wildhearts’ early romping, rocking tune, “Nothing Ever Changes But the Shoes.

No matter — both the BFGs and the Hankooks were a bit noisy on the highway, which is to be expected of all-terrain tires. They also did a fine job ripping down a favorite gravel road I like to use when testing four-wheel drive trucks and SUVs. Thankfully, as in the Nissan Juke NISMO RS I tested a couple of weeks prior to this truck, clean-sounding Rockford Fosgate speakers including a subwoofer mounted under the rear bench seat would happily drown out any tire noise on the highway.

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Photo: Lyndon Johnson

The tires also played a role, I suspect, in the poor fuel economy returned by the Frontier PRO-4X. In a week of mostly easygoing commuting save for that one, three-mile gravel loop, I saw a trip computer-reported 18.7 MPG. I’ve tested a number of full-size trucks that did better than that, including 4×4 models. This is the Frontier’s weak spot in all models, 4×4 or not.

Which is to say the tires weren’t the only contributing factor to that fuel economy. While others may wish the Frontier could be totally revamped from the ground up, I’d be thrilled just to see Nissan invest some time and money into improving the Frontier’s powertrain.

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Photo: Lyndon Johnson

The 4.0-liter VQ40DE engine is a hoss, but it’s a loud, thirsty one. Its 261 horsepower doesn’t peak until a lofty 5,500 RPM, although its 281 ft-lbs of torque come on at a more reasonable 4,000 RPM. That’s certainly plenty of motive power for the 4,551-lb PRO-4X, but it’s let down by an ancient five-speed automatic transmission.

The transmission feels like it has too wide a spread between third and fourth gear or too narrow a spread between fourth and fifth gear, or some combination of those two issues. Often when climbing hills here on the Highland Rim of Tennessee, the transmission would have to drop two gears — fifth to third. The corresponding jump in revs is notable, as is the lurch from the power coming on when the shift completes. You can watch the tank-average fuel economy estimate go down a couple of tenths of a mile per gallon every time you climb a hill.

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Photo: Lyndon Johnson

If Nissan could give the U.S. Frontier the seven-speed gearbox its overseas counterpart, the Navara has, that might go a long way to improving this situation. I think there’s only so much they can do with the fuel economy of the aging 4.0-liter V6, though. What really needs to happen is an update in the engine room to go along with any updated gearbox selection. Both the base 2.5-liter QR25DE four-cylinder and the aforementioned 4.0 V6 are getting long in the tooth and return fuel economy that sits at the bottom of the segment.

Nissan probably could make the D40 Frontier chassis last a few more years if they would do what Ford did with the Ranger: launch a newer, more fuel-efficient base four-cylinder engine capable of nearly 30 MPG in 4×2 guise. That change in 2001 kept the Ranger hot with fleet buyers and compact pickup fans for years after its aging sheet metal and worst-in-class specs put it at the bottom of many truck buyers’ shopping lists.

Does Nissan have an engine capable of that? Well, there’s a direct-injected version of the 2.0-liter MR20 engine available overseas that makes about 150 horsepower. The more pedestrian version of that engine was most recently found in the U.S. in the B16 Nissan Sentra sedan from 2007 until 2012 and made about 136 horses. With smaller bore than stroke, it might make a good basis to build upon for a truck engine. As Nissan is seeking to prove with the Titan XD, the “capability race” in trucks is getting ridiculous — it’s not always about who can haul the most or be the fastest. This mentality would do good things for any future engine-room updates in the Frontier.

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Photo: Lyndon Johnson

Having said all that, if fuel economy is not a concern for you, and if you can drive a manual transmission, there is a six-speed manual transmission available in the 2016 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X. That would be my preference, no question. One extra ratio plus the ability to have full control over shifts? Win. It would make the best of a powertrain I admittedly was not loving.

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Photo: Lyndon Johnson

That I didn’t love the powertrain was a real shame, because I loved the rest of the truck — its size, its interior ergonomics, its handling, and its NissanConnect infotainment system, which performed flawlessly. Even 12 years on, the Frontier remains a handsome midsize truck design. It has a build quality that feels better than most small and midsize trucks I have known — and that’s coming from someone who grew up in a family with several compact trucks and who has owned three of them, including a 1994 Nissan Hardbody.

The 2016 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X feels positively apocalypse-ready. Let’s just hope there’s plenty of unleaded gasoline in the post-apocalyptic world.

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Photo: Lyndon Johnson

2016 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X Crew Cab

Base Price: $32,690

Price As-Tested: $35,810 (with $885 Destination Charge)

Options: Floor Mats, 3-piece set ($135); PRO-4X Luxury Package including Leather-Appointed Seats w/ PRO-4X Logo, 8-Way Power Heated Driver Seat, 4-Way Power Heated Front Passenger Seat, Dual Power Remote-Controlled Heated Outside Mirrors, Power Sliding Glass Moonroof with Tilt, and Roof Rack with Cross Bars ($2,100).

Likes:

  • Solid chassis
  • Easy-to-use four-wheel drive — just turn a dial and go
  • Right-sized in a world of too-big trucks

Dislikes:

  • Outdated five-speed automatic transmission
  • Unexpectedly wide turning radius makes tight parking lots “fun”
  • OMG fuel economy (too low) and pricing (too high)
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Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson is a husband and father of two who has now spent more of his life as a journalist than as a non-journalist. He serves as assistant editor at his hometown weekly paper in rural Tennessee and freelances in the automotive journalism world.