By Aaron Bragman
The full-size pickup truck market is a tough one to crack. Unless you've been there from the beginning, like Ford, GM and Dodge (now Ram), getting your foot in the door with passionately loyal buyers is tough — and keeping it there is even tougher. Having the right product certainly helps, and Nissan is convinced that the all-new 2016 Titan XD pickup is not only the right product, but is something the industry hasn't seen before — a heavy light-duty pickup. Or is it a light heavy-duty pickup? If you ask the U.S. government, it would say it's an HD — it has a gross vehicle weight above 8,500 pounds. But if you try and match it up with other crew-cab diesel three-quarter-ton trucks, you'll find it's not quite as beefy — they all have GVW ratings around 10,000 pounds, and towing capacities at or near 14,000 pounds, well above the new Titan XD's 12,314-pound maximum tow rating.
Note that there will also be a non-XD version of the Titan, an actual half-ton light-duty truck (on a completely different frame) almost 20 inches shorter, expected sometime in 2016.
So what, then, has Nissan concocted with the XD version? The company says that it's a light-duty truck for people who want to occasionally have the benefit of a heavy-duty, or if you like, a heavy-duty truck without the hefty price tag (or hefty capacities) of a heavy-duty. Regardless of how you classify it, all we know is that after driving a few examples around the outskirts of Scottsdale, Ariz., for a few days, we're seriously impressed with what Nissan has created.
The styling is perhaps the new Titan XD's weakest point, but we're told the coming half-ton looks a little different up front from the truck seen here. Almost universally, people think the XD looks like the latest Ford F-Series, and they're not wrong. Admittedly it's not easy to differentiate between brands when you've got a standard two-box design to work with across all pickups, but I miss the distinctively sleek lines of the old Titan's sweeping roofline arc and chiseled fenders. The new Titan XD looks gawky and oddly curvy, almost what you'd expect a Chinese copy of a Ford F-150 to look like. The headlights are big and the grille is big-truck prominent, but the truck doesn't stand out at all, from any angle.
Under the Hood
But the Titan XD redeems itself from behind the wheel, providing a truly refined, quiet, comfortable experience whether completely empty or loaded for bear. It starts with the new Cummins turbo-diesel 5.0-liter V-8 engine, a clean-sheet design making 310 horsepower and 555 pounds-feet of torque. It's mated to a heavy-duty Aisin six-speed automatic transmission and an American Axle rear-end, available with an electronic locking differential. It's a highly advanced diesel engine, using a two-stage turbocharger system that helps to deliver a mountain of torque much lower in the rev range (peak torque is at 1,600 rpm) than a comparable gasoline engine. It's extremely well matched to the six-speed automatic, with no clunky shifts, banging gear changes or any other form of unpleasantness. It's far more tractable, quiet and flat-out usable than any of the other heavy-duty diesel engines found in competing HD trucks, and is more comparable in its civility to the EcoDiesel 3.0-liter V-6 that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles puts in the Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Nissan Cummins engine is extremely quiet, never lacks for grunt and helps the Titan XD drive like a half-ton luxury truck instead of a heavy-duty work model.
Compared with "full" heavy-duty trucks, the XD's ride and handling are also extremely well done, with the Titan XD providing a surprisingly quiet environment thanks to judicious use of insulation and laminated glass. Wind noise is impressively absent even at highway speeds, with only a whisper of turbulence coming from the big towing mirrors. The truck's steering is solid and not the least bit floaty, with excellent rock-solid on-center feel and a natural progression to turn-in that generates plenty of confidence. The truck drives so well and so quietly that you'll easily find yourself exceeding speed limits without intentionally doing so — my co-driver on the evaluation drive asked me how fast we were going at one point in the highway drive, and much to my surprise we were traveling 15 mph faster than I thought we were going. The Titan's powerful brakes haul the truck down to a stop easily, exhibiting a firm, communicative pedal feel. Overall, the Titan XD drives like a smaller, more nimble truck, and even the midlevel SL trim I sampled felt luxurious and refined. To say that it's a considerable improvement over the current Titan pickup is an unqualified understatement.
When comparing the Titan XD against a typical half-ton pickup, be it the Ram, F-150 or Silverado, you will definitely feel the added mass and around-town driving feel in the new Nissan. The heavier frame and axles, and the fact that the turbo-diesel powertrain is several hundred pounds heavier than anything the half-ton segment offers is likely to scare off buyers looking for their pickup to drive like a car or SUV. The XD is definitely meant for payload hauling and trailer towing for those not quite ready to make the bigger trade-offs necessary when opting for the more work-duty three-quarter-ton pickup. Still, make no mistake: If you spend your time driving around town empty, transporting people and groceries for most of the week, you might want to wait for the half-ton Titan expected sometime next year.
How It Tows
We did some trailer towing with the new "tweener" just northeast of Phoenix, up and over Mount Ord. For this part of the drive event, we had a properly equipped Titan XD — which means split mirrors, integrated trailer brake controller and trailer-sway control — with a 9,500-pound enclosed double-axle trailer behind us to give an idea of how well the combination could climb and descend steep inclines. We should note our trailer had a weight-distributing hitch with close to 900 pounds of tongue weight on the rear bumper hitch, and we're guessing most of the load in the trailer was positioned just over the front trailer axle — in short, this was a perfectly balanced setup.
Regardless, the Titan XD pulled the load up the few miles of climb with confidence and strength, without a hint of hesitation. The throttle response and low-end torque, not to mention the rear stabilizer bar and sturdy leaf-spring rear suspension, combined to make the pull up the hill simple and comfortable. And with the Tow/Haul mode engaged (found at the end of the column shifter stalk), the transmission did an excellent job of keeping the proper gear in the strongest part of the rpm range. We also like the fact Nissan included a fast-acting manual thumb-shifting provision on the stalk of the column shifter that allows drivers to drop or climb another gear if they choose.
On our steep downhill section of Mount Ord, when the weight of our trailer wanted to do more pushing from behind, we thought we were going to miss not having a dedicated exhaust brake to keep things controlled, but Nissan engineers have tuned the Aisin six-speed well for these situations, making it smart enough to know when it needs to smoothly downshift as speeds start climbing. And like other grade-braking software programs, a simple tap on the brakes allows the transmission to quickly drop a gear to maintain a more controlled speed. Oddly, Nissan continues to use the smallish split-level carryover towing mirrors on the Titan XD, but we're guessing that will be upgraded down the road as well.
Likewise, we're a little disappointed Nissan didn't tie the grade-braking into the cruise control (as with most systems, anytime you touch the brakes it disengages cruise control), but we were told that could be something it would modify later if a dedicated exhaust brake is included. Our only other quibble with the Titan XD is that it will be offered with only a 26-gallon fuel tank, which means a shorter tank range and more fuel stops when towing a heavy load over long distances.
How It Goes Off-Road
We also took a Titan XD PRO-4X (the most capable off-road version) to a local off-road area where the trails were rutted, steep and full of nasty rocks. All PRO-4X packages come with a sturdy front skid plate, 275/65R18 all-terrain tires, a heavy-duty transfer case (with a 2.72:1 low range) and a push-button electronic locking rear differential.
Engaging the Titan XD's low range is a simple procedure, turning the switch from 4x4 High to 4x4 Low with the transmission in Neutral. Once you hear the "clunk" and the drivetrain icon appears in the information cluster with all four wheels lit up, you're ready to go. Although we didn't air down our tires, all that low-end torque from the Cummins and gearing advantage allowed us to climb up and over some horribly rutted, off-camber ravines and walk up several sections of trail we would have needed climbing gear to get up. Although the nose of the pickup is a bit long (not a great approach angle), it is good that the PRO-4X trim does not include the lower air dam (standard on all other models).
We especially liked the fact that the PRO-4X offers a 360-degree camera that allows the driver to scroll between several views to scout out dangerous debris that might be out of the line of sight. Make no mistake, the hood and overall size of this truck are large, and nowhere is that more obvious than on a remote trail, but with the 360-degree camera — which we found shuts off around 5 mph — crawling a tricky 4x4 trail is a much safer exercise. In fact, we found the right-front-tire view screen (normally invisible to the driver) saved our butts from trouble several times.
We made it through some of the nastiest sections of the dry and rocky trails (typically navigated, we're told, by smaller and shorter-wheelbase off-roaders) without much trouble but did hear some front scraping and rear-end dragging due to our truck's physical size (and weight). Still, with more than 8 inches of ground clearance at the front differential (and much more than that at many other points) and the inclusion of a locking rear differential, it's hard to imagine there are going to be many places a truck this capable is going to get stuck.
If the Titan XD's exterior styling reminds you of a Ford F-150, the interior will almost certainly appear as a Ram 1500, and again, you'd be right. Climb up into the Titan XD's cabin and you've got decent visibility to the sides and rear, but the view forward is similar to GM's pickups — a short windshield and low roof makes for a bunkerlike view over the hood. Seating position also feels limited in its variation — the power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel in my SL test model couldn't be raised as far as one would expect, and the power driver's seat didn't extend back as far as I'd have liked. Longer-legged drivers or those of more ample girth may not find the Titan XD's cabin to be as comfortable as others. Backseat room is plentiful but again doesn't feel as big as competitors like the Ram 1500 Quad Cab or the Toyota Tundra CrewMax.
Materials in the Titan XD's interior are fully competitive with the best in the business; they are easily as nice as the Ram or Ford offerings in terms of assembly and tactile quality. Buttons and knobs seem lifted directly from Nissan's parts bin, which is fine given that they all felt solid and expensive, if not terribly big — something that might be an issue for anyone wearing work gloves on a job site. The multimedia and navigation systems in higher level trims are still a generation or two behind what other automakers are offering — it may be primitive, but I have to admit that it worked well for most uses. Its only true oddity: It lacks a play/pause button when playing music from a plugged-in smartphone. When it comes to multimedia systems in big pickups, Ram still has the advantage with its dead-simple Uconnect system, but Ford's next-generation Sync3 is a close second.
Titan XD Versus the Competition
Nissan had a few competitor vehicles on hand to compare with the Titan XD: a GMC Sierra 2500HD, a Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD and a Ford F-250 Super Duty. Putting all of them back-to-back on a mild off-road course that consisted of dirt, rocks, ruts, some mild bumps, ditches and culverts was an excellent way to see how the Titan XD stacked up against some of the three-quarter-ton trucks (the Ram 2500 was notably absent) in terms of refinement, noise and comfort. Those competitors are rated to tow and haul more than the Titan XD, but each of them also had a distinctly more primitive, industrial feel to them as well. None of them were as well damped or quiet as the Titan, although the Chevy comes close in terms of its chassis dynamics over the rough stuff.
In the end, we're left with an exceptionally good partial-HD pickup that surprised everyone with its refinement, quietness, comfort and capabilities. We're still not sold on the idea that there are 100,000 potential unsatisfied customers out there who want a truck that fits in between the F-150 and F-250, but if there are, Nissan has crafted an intriguing idea for them. It gives us hope for the new light-duty Titan, which is going to be shorter by nearly 20 inches, according to Nissan, and should be considerably lighter. A gasoline V-8 engine will be coming for the XD that will be shared with the light-duty Titan, which will also get a V-6 engine. Given how well the Titan XD performs, we're excited to see the half-ton coming sometime in 2016.
Cars.com photos by Aaron Bragman, Mark Williams