For Nissan's contender in the mileage-champ competition, we rustled up a bare-bones XE 2WD King Cab. Finding this jewel was no small feat. It seems there isn't much demand among auto journalists for the parts-runner special. When we first went out to take delivery of the truck, we kept mindlessly squeezing the I.D. tag key fob waiting for the truck to unlock until we realized that we were going to have to-gasp!-actually put the key in the door and turn it. Likewise, when we looked on the door for the power lock button to let our passenger in, we realized it did not have one. We were forced to lean over and unlock the passenger door, just like the good ol' days when trucks were trucks. But, our tester did come with cruise control, a CD player, and air conditioning, so all was not lost.
The new Frontier's base engine is a longitudinal version of the new Corporate QR25DE. This engine motivates the Sentra SE-R and Altima S with plenty of zing, but saddled with 3,693 pounds of truck, plus 200-ish pounds of driver, its accelerative verve can best be described as adequate but not much more. Not helping matters was the fact that our tester was equipped with an automatic transmission. We were hoping for a five-speed manual version, which likely would have helped salvage a few more ponies from the engine, as well as a few more miles per gallon. Having said that, the engine is not unhappy in the upper rev range, an area we visited a lot with this truck. Compared to the Tacoma's loping, torquey four-banger, the Nissan's power delivery was higher up the powerband. Between 5,000 and 6,000 rpm, the engine pulled willingly but was tempered by nearly 2 tons of truck and driver, as well as the slushbox tranny. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, keeping our right foot buried in the carpet took its toll on fuel economy. The Nissan posted the worst observed mileage of the trio at 17.46 mpg.
The rest of the truck is pleasant enough, with a more comfortable upright seating position than the Toyota. Despite its bare-bones trappings, the Frontier didn't squeak or rattle one iota, giving the impression of a quality machine. If you've driven the V-6 Frontier, with its thundering herd of 265 horses, the four-cylinder XE will be disappointing. Let's face it, 111 hp and 111 lb-ft of torque is a big gap. However, there are a few areas of the stripper Frontier that make it fun to drive. The steering has a pleasantly meaty effort and quick response that would make it feel right at home in a sport sedan. Though it won't out-handle a Z or Corvette, the responsive steering at least makes it a breeze to zip through urban traffic. One staffer commented on its "go-kart-like" demeanor. Also, the Frontier was the only truck in this test to offer four-wheel disc brakes, with the Toyota and Isuzu both offering only rear drums on all trim levels.
Taken in the context of its probable duty as a low-cost fleet truck, the four-cylinder Frontier is more than adequate and will likely live up to Nissan's reputation of reliable operation for many years. The icing on the cake is its surprisingly fun-to-drive character. Its low price makes it a potentially attractive candidate for a mini-trucker looking for a canvas to customize. If you must go with the four-cylinder, though, we'd definitely recommend the manual transmission to make the most of the engine's modest but willing output, and maximize fuel efficiency.
OK, OK, we can read the hate mail already, "What are you guys, a bunch of import-lovers? How come you don't have any domestics in this comparison?" Let's get something straight. The Isuzu i280 is a virtual clone of the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, and it's as close as we could get to a four-cylinder Colorado, since there were none available in the GM press fleet. As far as Ford, we contacted both Ford and Mazda for a four-cylinder Ranger or B-series but also found none available.
The first impression driving this truck is its distinctly American feel. Both the Toyota and Nissan have an unmistakably Japanese character, although all three of these trucks are built in the USA. Likewise, the i280 rolls down the same assembly line as the Canyon and Colorado in Shreveport, Louisiana. Maybe it's the boxy, hard plastic in the interior, the familiar GM radio controls and gauges, and the marshmallowy ride. But, we're not here to bag on the beleaguered General or its affiliates-just to give you the straight-from-the-gut impressions.
First off, the positives: One staffer said the i280-350/Colorado/Canyon triplets were his favorites from a styling standpoint and look the best when customized. Indeed, the Isuzu and the other GM compacts have a macho, squared-off look that was missing from the S-10. With a few upgrades, it's definitely a head-turner. The powertrain overall works well. The clutch is firm, and the shifter is satisfyingly direct with short throws for a truck. With the largest and most powerful engine of the group, essentially two thirds of GM's excellent DOHC Vortec 4200 inline-six, the engine has ample midrange torque to scoot the Isuzu around with vigor on the flats and has a surprisingly aggressive, though not intrusive, growl.
Though not as zingy as the Nissan engine, it seems a little more willing to rev than the Toyota, staying relatively smooth all the way to redline. However, the upper gears are a little on the tall side, as evidenced by a lazy 2,500 rpm at 80 mph in Fifth gear. Consequently, any freeway passing maneuvers, especially on an uphill grade, require a shift into Fourth. Even maintaining speed on an uphill grade requires a downshift. Using the upshift light on the dash as a cue, one staffer squeezed an astounding 25 mpg out of the truck. Averaged with the more aggressive driving prior to the first fill-up, the combined average was 22.38 mpg, making it the mileage champ in this group by a hair.
Unlike the ingot-like solidity of the Nissan and the characteristic tightness of the Tacoma, any significant road irregularities sent a noticeable wobble through the Isuzu's chassis. Even passengers commented on the overall loose feel of the truck. But, if you're looking for a cushy cruiser in your commuter truck that gets good mileage to boot, this is your ride.