Mountain Wheels: A voyage through time in two of the industry’s oldies
As cutting edge and forward-looking as the auto industry tries to be, there are also plenty of examples of vehicles which, aside from minor facelifts and USB plug updates, remain virtually unchanged.
I recently spent time in two of them, the Toyota Sequoia TRD Sport and the 2019 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X, both off-road-ready vehicles with their own particular values — though Sequoia’s underpinnings have not changed for a decade, and the Frontier dates back to 2004. I’m off to the last mid-winter North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week, and will see if new stuff is finally on the horizon for either model.
I first got to drive the Sequoia while it was quite new and was stuck for several hours in a whiteout blizzard between Jefferson and Como on U.S. 285, though I remember it as being quite impressive.
Nowadays, it’s a three-row SUV of elder status that’s probably best described as a more accommodating and affordable version of the equally long-in-the-tooth Land Cruiser.
It’s very much a Tundra truck that’s been stretched, probably more like Dodge Durango than evolutions such as the Ford Expedition or the GMC Yukon — though it sports a strange mix of attributes for a vehicle which still stickered at $59,745, complete with the TRD premium package.
How about a tough-to-raise, manual rear liftgate? A selection of cabin switchgear dating back to the first Obama administration? Or a seemingly high-output, 381-horsepower 5.7-liter V-8 that had difficulty handling steep highway grades, due to the vehicle’s bulk? It’s a vehicle that makes the 4Runner’s TRD version seem sprightly, by comparison.
The box-on-frame experience is especially evident here, though I am also sure the TRD’s off-road chops are its stated duty. The suspension is rigid as hell, producing real bursts of fear as the Sequoia whomped terrifyingly over frost heaves and bridge gaps. Subtle it is not.
Scale is certainly respectable, though not quite as overwhelming as an extended-wheelbase GM product, and dropping the second and third row of seats turns it into an admirably sized cargo hauler.
Access to those tall-backed third-row seats is relatively simple, especially with a pair of second-row captain’s chairs, but there are absolutely zero passenger amenities back there, besides some open cupholders and ceiling-mounted air vents. Second-row passengers also get pretty austere offerings, besides the upgraded leather seats and a lot of very black nothingness, compared to more modern vehicles.
Looks are certainly boss, though, with shiny black 20-inch alloy wheels, usefully grippy running boards and an armored tailplate all ready for end-of-the-world activity. At 14 overall MPG, you may need to make other plans when the gas runs out.
Older still, but possessing its own purpose-driven charm, is the 2019 version of the Frontier pickup, which came to me as a 4×4 crew cab with the Pro-4X off-road package.
Between my last, absolutely inadvisable trip down Saxon Mountain Pass in a Frontier — great as it was for demonstrating the little pickup’s real 4×4 capabilities — virtually nothing has changed inside or out in the $37,440 (with premium package) Frontier, besides a new USB and audio input plug, and some new dual-zone AC controls with digital readouts.
And maybe that’s OK, if you seek a small but super-capable off-roader that actually handles much, much better on pavement, having recently been subjected to the freeway nausea caused by full-sized, dedicated off-roaders from Titan to Tundra, Ram to Raptor. This is a much more civilized city traveler, and the 4.0-liter V-6’s 261-horsepower great for easy 75-mph freeway cruising. Best of all, the bed only comes up to mid-chest height, so you don’t need a ladder to access your goods, or even get to the gear rack on the cab roof.
Frontier is still not large, however, and its high-mounted seats and non-telescoping wheel put you in a relatively squat and small space, with limited rear-seat legroom, as well.
The truck has also survived by being as basic as possible, with a vintage-look shift lever, a minor smattering of switchgear (plus a 4WD control knob), plus a hard plastic console and a manual parking brake. The truck remains noisy, so crank up the Rockford Fosgate audio and play your favorite ’90s hits.
As mentioned, off-road Frontier is still a thriller, solid and grounded and able to skate over gravel and literally crawl over rocks. Wheels are only 16-inchers but the oversized, off-road rubber and impressive Fox shocks and suspension articulation means the truck can do custom-Wrangler-styled stuff, whenever it wants.
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