Nissan Frontier King Cab XE
EPA Ratings: 19 city/24 highway
Observed Mileage: 17.46 mpg
Engine Size/type: 2.5L DOHC 16-valve inline-four
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Horsepower/torque: 154 hp at 5,200 rpm / 173 lb-ft at 4,400 rpm
Base MSRP/As Tested: $16,850/$18,600

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.