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First Drive: 2009 Nissan Frontier and Xterra

Products Apparently So Good, They Needed Little Improvement.
Nissan‘s current Frontier and Xterra were introduced for the 2005MY. Four years later, they came to the showroom with minor changes. And though Nissan is planning a retreat from the full-size pickup-truck business, due to a product-sharing agreement with Chrysler that still has time to implode, executives tell us work is underway on the next iteration of Frontier, Xterra, and Pathfinder. We’ve got a couple of years before those arrive, and Nissan says they keyed 2009 changes at providing more of the attributes customers already know and love their Xterras and Frontiers for.



In a tough truck market, the goal is to ride out the panic, see where things fall, and keep as many buyers as possible to ensure the smallest sales slide you can. In this depressed market, Nissan tells us their trucks haven’t fallen as much as the other guys (though they didn’t have as far to fall). Nissan’s also adjusting options and trim-level mixes as those customers sticking with trucks are less focused on luxury and more on utility and practicality.

Under the skin, though, there are no significant changes for Xterra or Frontier. For Frontier and Xterra, this is no bad thing, excepting the clamor for better fuel efficiency and no new bragging rights there. (On the other hand, the competition has no news in this department for 2009, either.) These products are rough around the edges, but that goes well with their personalities and how their buyers use them. One missed opportunity, however, is in basic interior quality.


Frontier (above) and Xterra (below) have identical interior designs.


Both models get revisions to the front fascia, revised headlights, and lower bumper. The Frontier’s revised grille looks sharper and better defined, with the Xterra’s looking, if possible, tougher and more rugged. The Frontier’s new headlights are more jewel-like, though Xterra’s were not changed. With Xterra, grille color helps distinguish trim levels, as the SE gets Satin Chrome and X, S, and Off-Road models wear Sandblast Aluminum grilles. The Off-Road Xterra also sports new roof-mounted off-road-ready lights, while the SE gets body-color mirrors and door handles. There are no changes to side or rear for either truck.

Xterra and Frontier continue to share the same basic interior; for 2009MY, the base model Xterra and I4-equipped base Frontier have no changes. But for V6-equipped Frontiers and S, Off-Road, or SE Xterras, there is a revised center cluster design with a new shape and HVAC controls. The new radio head is built to what engineers know as 0 DIN, and to you and I means no gaps. The 2009 Xterra takes new seat cloth for X and S models, two-tone cloth seats for Off-Road models, and leather seats available for the SE. The Frontier takes the new cloth on LE models, but doesn’t offer the leather seats.
Nissan described the PRO-4X Frontier model as new, but it really carries all the same mechanical bits as last year’s Nismo Off-Road package. What has really happened is an alignment of trim level nomenclature between the Titan and the Frontier; Nissan says they want to keep the Nismo name specific to cars. As the 350Z is the only car with a Nismo package in the 2008MY lineup, the company seems to have tipped their hand that more are on the way. Still, the PRO-4X name change doesn’t diminish the package, which still includes Bilstein high-pressure performance gas shock absorbers, additional skid plates, electronic rear differential locker, and limited slip.
The Frontier continues to be offered with I4 and V6 powertrains, though the I4 is offered only in the base King Cab model. Production of that specific model is being increased in these fuel-sensitive times, but the I4 will not be offered in this generation Crew Cab. The sometimes convoluted rules the govern the EPA certification process mean that the extra weight of the Crew Cab puts it in a different EPA certification class. That small change means full recertification for the I4 powertrain in the Crew Cab, a cost that wouldn’t be made up in increased four-cylinder Crew Cab sales.


On the Road: Meet the New Frontier and Xterra, Same as the Old Frontier and Xterra
With no mechanical changes, you won’t be surprised to hear that these vehicles perform on the road just the same as they did last year. In many ways, this is a benefit; the Frontier and Xterra are good at what they do. Nissan didn’t have an I4 Frontier on hand, but as we recall, it isn’t the most flattering option. The V6 moves these trucks along well enough, though the five-speed automatic transmission can be coarse under pressure. Electronic aids like hill-descent control support solid off-road capability.
Frontier is among the best compact pickups available, as Dodge’s Dakota, Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon, and Ford’s Ranger don’t really come close. Xterra gets people going off the beaten path where they want to go, and its bare-bones, easy-clean interior takes the stress out of hauling anything from muddy moto-crossing gear to camping and fishing gear to my sister’s two large Rottweilers. Easy to get the dust out from a day off-roading near the Columbia River Gorge, and both trucks performed admirably.
As purpose-oriented as these products are, it’s also not much of a surprise that the Frontier, even more than the Xterra, has one of the loudest NVH factors available these days. The hard plastics and rough cuts of the interior, with only the center console really changed, continue. The new center stack does look better and raises quality expectations, but touching elements on either side is then even more a disappointment. The cheap hinges on the lower glovebox allow it to basically fall open with a minor thud; that isn’t so bad, except the hinges don’t look like they’ll last through much use. (Maybe looks are deceiving, though, as my sister’s a first-generation 90,000-mile Xterra has had zero interior or mechanical issues.) And as appropriate as this plastic-intense interior might seem when your truck or SUV is filled with a messy life, it is also among the cheapest interiors around. Chrysler LLC’s getting beat up pretty good these days for having cheap and unfriendly interiors, but Frontier and Xterra have them beat in most cases.

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