Mountain Wheels: Old-school Nissan Frontier Pro-4X is an unbeatable off-road machine
Though respect is hard to get in the awfully macho world of off-roading, I did get some positive bro vibes as I rolled along on two of the absolute gnarliest stretches I’ve driven in Colorado, in one very old-fashioned but remarkably capable vehicle, the off-road-optimized Nissan Frontier Pro-4X.
This included an Idaho Springs-to-Georgetown transit on the totally scary Saxon Mountain Road, a switchback-laden shelf road that offered some truly dangerous obstacles in uncleared slide sections, as well as a scoot part of the way up Pole Hill Road outside of Estes Park — a trail that is basically a rock staircase in spots.
In both instances, drivers of heavily modified Jeep Wrangler rock-crawlers caught up to me and the small but spunky Frontier and seemed genuinely nonplussed that a stock truck — hardened considerably with a set of life-saving Hankook Dynapro offroad tires — could possibly be doing as well as their purpose-built 4WDs.
Mad props, then, to a small truck that is, at its core, almost 12 years old. Not unlike the new Ford Ranger which graces non-U.S. markets, the two-year-old Nissan Navara truck is a totally updated and stylistic heir to the new, sculpted design work you’ve seen on Nissan’s SUV family. And for reasons unclear to fans of smaller trucks, you can’t get it here.
So an updated but still G.W. Bush-era Frontier is still your only option, since the mechanically similar Xterra has also gone the way of the dodo. But given the joyously rudimentary time I had in the truck this week — and the number of roof-rack-equipped Pro-4Xes I saw out on the road — I see there’s still a place for something as basic, reliable and, in practical terms, fabulously rugged as the $33,390 crew cab version I drove.
Nearly all the SUVs I’ve profiled in recent years talk about the hill-descent control switches, four-wheel-drive knobs and “off-road capability” built into their charming but dainty lines; when your route calls for actual articulation over actual boulders, or the ability to scramble up slopes so steep you can’t even see the horizon, a little goat like the Frontier more than amply proved its value.
Much of the car’s off-road chops are directly attributable to a 261-horsepower 4.0-liter V6 pushing 281 lb.-ft. of torque, a 17 MPG combo that doesn’t set any mileage records on the highway (the truck’s actually more comfortable at about 60 mph max on the highway, with those chunky tires), but, by God, can it tug you up a hill like nobody’s business. Even the five-speed automatic seems like a blast from the past, but in practice, it seemed bulletproof.
Several times I had to dial in all of the systems at once, including the differential lock and 4WD low, and the jaunty Frontier happily bounced its way over some truly nasty stuff. Billstein high-pressure shocks and a very healthy amount of articulation also made the ride a jarring but survivable experience, with hill-descent control automatically working the truck’s brakes while dodging some impossibly large obstacles on very steep downward slopes.
For campers or mountain bikers, the truck’s small but not insignificant bed was pre-equipped with a spray-on bedliner and a system for securing cargo, and the oversized roof rails are set up for even more gear.
Outside, a facelift a few years back helped modernize the Frontier to relatively recent standards, but like the insides, it’s a bit of a time machine, with old-fashioned instruments and switchgear. Sure, the iPhone-sized navigation screen now has web search functionality, and the 11-speaker Rockford Fosgate stereo system produces epic sounds, but buyers are going to be more interested in the Frontier Pro-4X’s capabilities and solidity, not its fancy bits.
And unlike those Rubicon folks smacking their heads into tube frame components as they battled up the slopes, Frontier’s cabin is still spacious and fully enclosed.
A luxury package option added some basic but comfortable, power-adjustable leather seating with Pro-4X emblems; in the back, the seatbacks tip forward for some semi-flat storage (and easier visibility out the small rear glass) or seat bottoms can also flip up, providing push-through cargo space or access to a mesh-covered utility tray.
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