An Up Close Look at the 2020 Nissan Frontier’s New 9-Speed Automatic Transmission

2020 Nissan Frontier Side Profile in Mountains

Cars.com photos by Matt Barnes

By Matt Barnes 

Nissan is finally updating the Frontier mid-size pickup truck for the 2021 model year, but as a sendoff to the current generation, Nissan added a new 3.8-liter engine and nine-speed automatic transmission to the more-than-decade-old chassis. The 2020 Nissan Frontier’s new combination adds four gears and 49 more horsepower while putting out the same torque as the previous 4.0-liter V-6. Power is now a healthy 310 hp and torque is 281 pounds-feet. This new combination replaces the previous four- and-six-cylinder engines, and both the five-speed manual and automatic transmissions.

Related: 2020 Nissan Frontier Real-World MPG: Not What We Hoped 

2020 Nissan Frontier V-6 Engine

The basics of this new transmission are formed from the nine-speed in the updated 2020 Nissan Titan. It has four planetary gears, six clutches, a centrifugal pendulum absorber, long input shaft with ball bearings, and a high-speed and precise hydraulic actuator. There are other things like low viscosity automatic transmission fluid and an integrated electric oil pump that also helps transmission performance. The torque converter lockup zone has been expanded, which should improve efficiency and reduce heat and wear within the transmission. What all of this does is create a more economical and quicker-accelerating vehicle.

New Nissan Frontiers for Sale

Let’s take a closer look at these components:

  • The centrifugal pendulum absorber absorbs torsional vibrations from the engine to reduce shock and wear on the drivetrain. It’s similar to a mass damper but rather than getting rid of the excess energy as heat, it returns the absorbed energy back into the drivetrain. This reduces jerk for a smoother driving experience.
  • A long input shaft allows for the planetary gear sets and clutches to rotate with the input shaft. With the long shaft running through all these parts, it makes centering all the components much easier and reduces friction. This decreases power loss and increases fuel economy.
  • Having a more precise and faster hydraulic actuator produces faster shifts that are crisp and direct without being harsh. Nissan claims the hydraulic actuator is the key component to achieve ideal shift quality.
  • Electric oil pumps are more efficient than mechanical pumps; pump output can be adjusted based on the needs of the transmission instead of engine rpm. Not only does this reduce parasitic losses, it also helps the transmission to get the exact amount of oil it needs at any given moment.

2020 Nissan Frontier Off-Road Climbing Hill

Other benefits resulting from the new transmission are a low crawl ratio that improves its ability to keep the engine near its maximum power output when towing and/or hauling. The new crawl ratio is 54.4:1 which is only bested by the Jeep Gladiator in the mid-size class. This helps with ascending and descending steep grades, and when hauling heavy loads.

Nissan has delivered a top-end product with this new transmission. The shifts are smooth and crisp when, often, only one or the other is achieved. There’s enough feedback that each gear change is obvious without feeling jerky or harsh. The transmission does a great job at always being in the right gear at the right time. Downshifts are quick and timely, and it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to hold onto a gear for as long as possible before downshifting. 

What does all this mean when compared to other modern transmissions in mid-size trucks? The 10-speed automatic in the Ford Ranger is an excellent transmission, but it has so many gears and often shifts so smoothly that it can feel like a continuously variable automatic transmission, especially when unladen. While this is great for efficiency, it doesn’t provide as much driver feedback. The eight-speed transmission in the GM mid-size Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon is also an improvement over older transmissions, but much like the Toyota Tacoma’s six-speed, it tries to stay in the higher gears as much as possible to use less fuel.

The Frontier’s new nine-speed’s shifts are smooth with good feedback, and the power always seems to be there when needed. From the time I spent with the Frontier’s new engine and transmission, I’d say Nissan has created a top powertrain competitor. 

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