Road Test: 2009 Nissan Frontier XE - Less Cylinders, Less Fuel, Less Capability

Intro

By: Thom Blackett

One look at our current state of affairs – volatile gas prices, a manic-depressive stock market, layoffs for everyone from the white-collared to those who steam and press those white collars – and the reasons behind the shift toward small, more efficient vehicles becomes painfully evident. For its part, the truck market has reacted with new models, including the 22 mpg Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid and the 21 mpg Ford F-150 SFE.

Those efficiency solutions, however, are often accompanied by lofty sticker prices, essentially offsetting any gains enjoyed at the pump. Which leaves one seemingly forgotten alternative: four-cylinder small/midsize pickups.

We wanted to discover for ourselves what life is like with one of these relatively diminutive rides, so we tested a 2009 Nissan Frontier 4x2 King Cab XE featuring luxuries such as air conditioning, a CD player, floormats and little else. With manual locks and windows, plain-Jane 15-inch steel wheels and a five-speed manual transmission, this Frontier was all about back to basics. In return for such sacrifices, the price on the window registered just over $20,000.

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Powertrain Performance

Fitted under the hood of our Frontier was a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine good for 152 horses at 5,200 rpm and 171 pounds-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. The EPA estimates it gets up to 19 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. Indeed, after traveling several hundred miles we recorded an average of 20.9 mpg.

Our testing included a good bit of city driving, where we were least impressed by Nissan’s most efficient pickup. Off-the-line power was seriously lacking, the engine ponied up an unrefined note when run to redline, and the manual transmission’s gates were imprecise. None of these points were terribly surprising, unlike what we discovered on the highway. That’s where the four-cylinder Frontier shined, serving as a competent cruiser at 70-90 mph. Admittedly, passing required some foresight and almost certainly a drop to 4th gear, but the response was there when it was needed.

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Reactions would surely be different if the half-ton payload or 3,500-pound towing capacity were maxed out. To evaluate a freighted Frontier, we loaded the bed with a 400-cc Honda ATV and headed up and over Southern California’s I-5 Grapevine to test our truck’s work ethic. Again, those 152 horses left us wanting, as the four-cylinder engine quickly lost steam on the steady uphill climbs and we found ourselves downshifting aplenty while being passed left and right…literally. Thankfully, clutch effort was light.

Ride & Handling

If our 2009 Frontier’s powertrain was less than stellar, the truck’s driving character was only marginally better. An engine-speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering system required little effort while slowly navigating parking lots and city streets, dialing in extra heft for a more secure feel at highway speeds. The technology worked, though communication from the General all-season tires was missing, unless you count loud squeals when rounding corners at a moderate pace. For their part, the brakes were responsive and effective; after a long downhill run during our trip over the Grapevine, the well-used discs remained free of fade and vibration.

Out on California’s rough freeways, the unladed Frontier’s independent front and multi-leaf rear suspension performed quite well. The ride was relatively smooth over expansion joints, meaning driver and passengers traveled without the constant bucking offered up by more-stiffly sprung trucks. With the ATV and associated gear packed into the bed, the drive smoothed out even more, though body roll became a noticeable issue.

Comfort & Convenience

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Most $20,000 trucks are about bare-bones utility, with comfort and convenience features little more than a pipe dream. On the surface, our Frontier XE test truck appeared to fall into that category, but it did have a few highlights. The front bucket seats, though firm, were wide and supportive during long drives. The door armrests lacked sufficient padding, as did the window sills. We would’ve enjoyed the benefits of a tilt steering wheel, but that feature wasn’t included on our basic pickup. The Frontier King Cab’s forward-facing, fold-down rear jump seats are usable in worst-case scenarios, when you’re talking about short distances with kids or transporting a shorter adult who would have otherwise died of hypothermia on the side of the road.

In the absence of those rare instances, the jump seats are best left folded up to increase the cab’s cargo space. The rear doors, like the front, open wide for easy cabin access and feature large built-in cubbies. Other storage provisions include dual glove boxes and a few slots above and below the dash.

In true truck fashion, the Frontier’s primary controls were simple and easy to use. The radio operates via legible buttons and sizeable knobs, and the climate-control system consisted of three large dials that were easily manipulated with gloved hands. You might not find luxurious features in this truck, but navigating your way around the interior involves an extremely short learning curve.

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Summary

After a week of driving and hours of seat time in the four-cylinder 2009 Nissan Frontier, it’s clear that the small-engine approach to improved fuel economy in trucks does include its share of shortcomings; the engine felt underpowered at times, and the truck’s towing capabilities are more akin to a midsize SUV than a hard-working pickup. Still, we didn’t pull any punches and recorded more than 20 mpg. You’re not likely to write grandma about that, but it is efficiency you’d be hard-pressed to get from most any full-size truck. For buyers who need a half-ton payload and are content with this truck’s inherent shortcomings, the comfortable, affordable and fairly efficient four-cylinder Frontier is one to consider.

Specifications

Test Vehicle: 2009 Nissan Frontier 2WD King Cab XE
Price as Tested: $20,280 (including $745 destination charge, $990 XE Preferred Package, $105 Floor Mats, $430 Under Rail Bedliner, $550 Side and Curtain Airbag Package)
Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder
Horsepower: 152 at 5,200 rpm
Torque: 171 lb.-ft. at 4,400 rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual
EPA Fuel Economy: 19 mpg city/23 mpg highway
PickupTrucks.com’s Fuel Economy: 20.9 mpg
Ground Clearance: 7.6 in.
Payload Capacity: 1,002 lbs.
Towing Capacity: 3,500 lbs.
Also Consider: Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, GMC Canyon, Mazda B-Series, Toyota Tacoma

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Comments

The Toyota Tacoma would be the obvious fuel economy choice, but I like the Frontier. I would wait till they come out with the Suzuki Equator though, just for the looks (and the warranty).

The Tacoma weighs less than the Frontier but has more horsepower and torque. Why won't Nissan up the engine size a bit on the XE? 2.7 liters would be nice.

Given that I can buy a new F150 for about $8,000 less, it would take a few years to make up the difference in fuel cost, and I'd never need to feel that the truck wasn't up to what I asked of it.

Good commuter for rare instances of light hauling, OK. There's a market for that. Hard working truck, look elsewhere.

The imports need to stick to making cars, there trucks are junk.

To the contrary, Aseller, these trucks are NOT junk! I'd buy a Nissan or Toyota any day before I'd buy a compact or midsize truck from one of the big three. I had a '92 Nissan Hardbody which I put 220,000+ miles on before I got rid of it and it was STILL going strong! The only problem I had out of it was replacing the transmission at around 180K and that was my fault because I was young and stupid. Anyone who has or had a old Hardbody or Toyota SR5 can tell you these trucks are damn near indestructible.

SO, I HAVE A 1993 F150 SUPERCAB 4X4 AND IT HAS 225,000 MILES ON IT. ALL IVE DONE IS CHANGE THE OIL. SO WHATS YOUR POINT?

I'm making the point that Japanese compact and midsize trucks are not "junk" as you so eloquently stated. Good for you and your F150 which is a good truck IMO but, you're comparing apples and oranges. The 2 segments compete in no way whatsoever. Try again.

You should try compact trucks with diesel engines for low consumption and power. Here in Brazil we have the Nissan Frontier double cab LE 2.5l diesel 170hp (172cv) at 4000rpm and 297.3 lb-ft (41,1 kgfm) at 2000rpm with very low consumption 35,4mpg highway (15 km/l) - 28.4mpg city (12km/l) with six-speed manual transmission. Payload capacity: 2215,64lb (1005kg).

"You should try compact trucks with diesel engines for low consumption and power."

We don't have any in the United States. A lot of people would be contented if there were a diesel compact truck here.

I have a 2007 4 cylinder 5 speedTacoma pre-runner access cab.

It has 159 horsepower and averages 22.5 MPG's. The sticker said 23 mpg city and 28 highway. I guess they didn't factor the pre-runner's larger tires.

It has plenty of power for a 4 cylinder engine.

And it looks better than the Nissan too.

I have a 1995 nissan hardbody 4x4 V6 that ive bagged like no tomorrow for the last 2 years. It has 250 000kms, rust, and still runs like a top. Try buying an s-10, ranger, or dakota like that. You will have a very hard time finding one and you will pay through the nose for it. The domestic light trucks are junk and everybody knows it. Buy an import and you wont regret it.

Hello there!

http://www.pickuptrucks.com/html/news/mahindra/dieselhybridandmore.html

Merry Christmas!

i have a 97 nissan kingcab 4cyl in the hardbody . style....and let me tell you there is no other truck like it. i am currently standing at 580 000km and still going strong and if your wondering its still all original:)
for all you domestic owners....you get what you pay for

I want to buy truck, but I want to know what is but efficient as far as the consumption of fuel, related to the weight/power, between 4 frontier XE cyl 2,5 and to the 4 Tacoma extracab 2,7 cyl. mpg?

"Try buying an s-10, ranger, or dakota like that." and
"The domestic light trucks are junk and everybody knows it."

I have a 1993 Ford Ranger. It has been put through its paces and yet is still going strong as both a work truck and being driven everyday. If the Ford made the current Ranger with the 4-door in a 4-cyl, I would have one but I am probably going with a Nissan because of the better seating position compared to a Tacoma.

I own a 01 Nissan frontier, just turned 66000 miles, (own 2 imports and a goldwing) This is my 2nd nissan, I am in sales and would never buy a truck from the big 3, My little nissan is a great truck and it got 23 mpg right off the showroom floor, I live in Texas, once I installed an aluminum Leer camper top my MPG increased to near 27 mpg hiway, I seldom drive over the speed limit and I dont tailgate<< this will also increase your mpg...I am looking to buy yet another Nissan Frontier but the one with the 7 Foot bed, think they call it a long bed, Instead of renting a hotel when out of town, I stay at State parks and sleep in my truck, 14 bucks a night vs 100..that 1 extra foot will give me some move around room as I am six foot 2. Oh and I have owned both Ford and Chevy, they suck. Would like Nissan to build a diesel I would buy one.

I own both a manual shift 2 liter 2001 Sentra, and a 2009 4x4 6 cylinder Frontier. Both SE models. The Sentra has had no work done on it, not even new brakes yet, and it's at 133,000 miles. The truck is a long bed and I too sleep in it very comfortably. The reliability in these cars cannot be matched by any other auto maker in my opinion. I think you are better off paying for a model other than the base one offered. It will make driving more enjoyable and more economical in only a year or two. This truck is my 4th Nissan. The other two would still be with me if they hadn't been hit by other cars. Cheaper to insure too.

I've put 165K on my '94 Ranger XLT and it has proven to be a very reliable truck. Still has the original water pump, alternator and starter in it and going strong! I've been driving it for 15 years and would buy another Ranger without heitation if ONLY they upsize the truck a little. My desire for a larger cab led me to explore the alternatives and I seem to be zeroing in on a Frontier.

This is my 2nd Nissan Frontier....bought both new...last one ran to 180k...head went; this one is an 06 the 4 cyc....its ok...23mpg...but the electronic are poor..fuel gauge, engine light, tire pressure...there is always warning lights...the dealer is a shithead....so there will not be a 3rd for me.

Have 90k on it...and have over heating problems...put in new radiator, belts, thermostate, and now waterpump...only available from dealer...who had to order it, no gasket, another 3 days to get that..so its been sitting in the driveway for over a week waiting for parts....THIS IS NOT A POPULAR ENGINE, STAY AWAY FROM IT!

I retired to SC...next truck will be a Ford 150! I have an 87 Surburban..90k miles...5l...runs perfect...easy to get parts and repair!

Best, Tom

I have had several nissna frontiers 4 cylinders. They have always proved to be good work trucks. Unfortunately, always seemed to average around 20 mpg.
I just bought a new 2012 automatic and gets terrible milage at 900 miles. Around 16-17 city, 18-19 hwy.

Any ideas on better milage? I try to drive to get good milage.



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