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2013 Nissan Frontier

What’s New: Lower base price; slight fuel economy increase; return of Desert Runner 4×2; available backup camera and parking sensors

It’s unlikely that the 2013 Nissan Frontier will overtake the Toyota Tacoma this year to become top dog among midsize pickups. Because of its perceived toughness, reliability, resale value or all of the three, the Toyota is typically at the top of a shopper’s list, while theNissan Frontier holds down second place. The sales numbers tell the same story, with the Toyota outselling the Nissan at a rate greater than 2 to 1.

But we think there are several compelling reasons to consider the Frontier. Nissan’s smaller pickup is built on a rugged platform, offers an overachieving V6 and, for owners that need it, can be equipped with off-road capability that exceeds expectations.

Available in two cab variants (King Cab and Crew), two bed lengths, as a 4×2 or a 4×4, with two powertrains and five trim levels, the Frontier can serve as a basic work truck, a near-luxury recreational platform or virtually anything in between. If you opt for the Crew Cab to use it as both a family hauler and weekend warrior, know that Nissan has paid appropriate attention to passive safety. Plus, the Frontier’s Utili-track loading system is unmatched for hauling your toys. It’s arguably the best thing for hauling since the invention of the pickup bed.

Comfort & Utility

The Frontier has always offered some measure of both comfort and utility, but you’d never confuse it with a Ford King Ranch or a GMC Denali pickup on either score. The Frontier’s top-of-the-line SL Crew Cab has seating surfaces covered in leather, and the instrument panel provides a reasonably contemporary design. But in the same way that you can optionHyundai‘s value-oriented Sonata to near-luxury levels, adding leather to a midsize pickup won’t materially change its mission statement. The Frontier remains, at its core, a workmanlike device for the transport of people and their things; comfort ultimately remains secondary to utility.

The base Frontier’s cloth-covered buckets provide an attractive, breathable seating surface, with enough seat shape to be supportive but not so much as to make access difficult. For the driver, the ergonomically shaped steering wheel is a plus and so is the perforated leather wrap on the off-road-centric PRO-4X. On the Frontier Crew Cab, the split back bench will fold forward or flip up, providing flexibility in the rear-seat space.

Knowing Nissan doesn’t intend to emulate the luxury of either GMC’s Denali or Ford’s King Ranch, we still wish its use of interior plastics in the Frontier had evolved since 1996; product planners should at least get the appearance and texture updated to this century.

In back, buyers have a choice of two bed lengths, plus options like the Utili-track channel system for securing loads and a factory-applied spray-on bed liner. We’re not sure why the tie-down system and bed liner aren’t available across the Frontier lineup (it’s only on the SV, PRO-4X and SL), but the availability of either is a game changer in the midsize category. Utili-track is a must for drivers that depend on their pickups for hauling. And the spray-on liner provides protection and a non-slip bed surface from day one, without the hassle of an aftermarket job.


Nissan’s technology starts with an in-cabin microfilter, found on the top three trim levels. From there, it’s onward and upward. Optional audio on those same top three models include MP3/WMA CD playback capability, a radio data system, an auxiliary audio input jack, XM satellite Radio and the Bluetooth hands-free phone system. A Rockford Fosgate audio system is featured on both the PRO-4X and the SL and 10 speakers are included in their Crew Cab variants (the SL is only available as a Crew Cab).

Performance & Fuel Economy

Thanks to a few minor improvements like optimized aerodynamics, the 2013 Frontier returns slightly better fuel economy than its predecessor. Still, the Frontier’s fuel economy range remains wide. A 4×2 4-cylinder with a manual transmission delivers 19 miles per gallon city and 23 mpg highway, while a Crew Cab SV 4×4 is rated at 15 mpg city/21 mpg hwy. Owners that plan to haul or tow should opt for the more powerful V6, despite its fuel efficiency deficit. With the bigger motor, the Frontier has a payload of up to 1,524 pounds and a tow rating of up to 6,500 pounds.

The Frontier’s base powerplant is a 2.5-liter inline-4 offering 152 horsepower and 171 lb-ft of torque. When connected to its standard 5-speed manual transmission, the engine is adequately responsive, if not inspired. We like the 261-hp V6, although you won’t confuse its on-road dynamic with that of its Infiniti stablemates. Bumping the displacement to 4.0 liters adds coarseness to the well-regarded V6 that its car-based cousins don’t exhibit, and there’s the matter of its relative inefficiency when compared to V8s in the full-size category. That comparison aside, those driving in congested areas may find the smaller footprint of the midsize Frontier to be a great blessing for day in, day out errand running.


In both active and passive safety, Nissan has checked most of the appropriate boxes, even though pickups aren’t typically paragons of either. Active safety is augmented by accurate power-assisted steering, capable 4-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS and reasonable handling coupled with a composed ride. Nissan’s airbag system includes side impact supplemental bags for front seat passengers and roof-mounted curtain air bags that provide side impact and rollover head protection for outboard occupants. An available backup camera and rear parking sensors assist in low-speed maneuvering.

Driving Impressions

With a choice of two engines combined with either 4×2 or 4×4 platforms, the Nissan Frontier can be most things to most people. It’s no compact pickup, though; its platform more closely resembles Nissan’s full-size Titan than Ford’s now discontinued compact Ranger. The Frontier’s base 4-cylinder is lighter on its feet, but you can’t disguise the sturdy, fully boxed ladder frame or the hefty curb weight. Opt for the V6 and, with 261 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque, you’ll have a truck that is certainly recreational in a straight line while reasonably composed when the road throws you a curve.

We’re most impressed by Nissan’s Frontier PRO-4X, the dedicated off-road variant with an electronic locking rear differential and Bilstein off-road shocks. Although we might take issue with Nissan’s description of it as the ultimate off-roader, those waiting for Jeep to build a pickup needn’t wait; Nissan has already built it.

Cardinale Nissan

1661 Del Monte Blvd

Seaside, California 93955

Phone: 888-928-4118


2012 Nissan GT-R

Can it do 2.9 to 60 mph? Answering that question consumed a significant part of the 2012 Nissan GT-R’s press launch in California in January. Nissan claims this latest version can, but it wasn’t able to prove it, despite several attempts. The best the car could manage was 3.0 seconds. So, in entomological terms, it was about three beats of a bee’s wing slow, a glaring gap between claim and reality. Nissan’s man said it was because the track surface was cold that day. The assembled press snorted skepticism.

Well, we can now confirm that Nissan isn’t full of it. Our 3859-pound test car did an honest 2.9 seconds to 60 mph on our secret high-desert test track running California 91-octane pump gas with the ambient temperature at a slightly chilly 51 degrees. In fact, it did it twice before the clutch got hot and 10ths of a second started to pile on. The fourth launch saw it running about 3.3 to 60. After four launches, the computer requires a 1.5-mile cool-down cruise before it would allow the execution of any more launch-control starts. We did the cool-down but couldn’t get better times. The first two runs were the fastballs.

At 2.9 to 60, the new GT-R is 0.7 second quicker than an example we tested for a July 2008 comparison test, and it shaves 0.3 second from the quickest time we’ve ever recorded for the model. (The slowest GT-R time in our logs: 4.1 seconds.) The 2012 barrels through the quarter-mile in 11.2 seconds at 126 mph, almost a full second and 11 mph faster than that July 2008 comparo car. Tokyo, beware: Godzilla is more powerful than ever.

Nissan: Good at Engineering, Not So Good at Names

In Nissan’s bone-dry techno-speak, the 2012 Nissan GT-R is called the R35 GT-R (12MY M/C). Catchy, isn’t it? The R35 is the current model designation; you may recall the previous Japan-only R32–R34. The “12MY” refers to the 2012 model year, of course, and the “M/C” stands for “minor change,” according to chief engineer and resident GT-R god Kazutoshi Mizuno.

That “minor change” bit is perhaps a touch of Japanese modesty, but it’s apt. This GT-R’s biggest news is that horsepower from the twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-6 jumps from an already ridiculous 485 to a totally absurd, USDA-guarantee-of-certain-arrest 530, and torque swells from 434 lb-ft to 448.

There are some nitty-gritty suspension tweaks to enliven the steering and improve the big rocket’s straight-ahead tracking, some structural bracing to reduce body flex, a few styling alterations to clean up the aerodynamics, some changes to the stability and electronic suspension controls—you’d need to turn to page 274, subparagraph G, of the owner’s manual to read about them—and some new packages on which to spend more money.

Speaking of money, the price increase is not insignificant: $5890 more from the base 2011 to the base 2012 model, which is dubbed Premium and starts at $90,950. There’s also a new Black Edition that runs $96,100 and features a red and black interior, leather Recaro seats, and lighter six-spoke wheels with, of course, a black finish. For the body color, buyers of the Black Edition can choose any GT-R hue.

Feel the Rush

Beyond the track sheet, you can definitely feel the R35 GT-R (12MY M/C)’s extra power, much like you’d feel being whacked from behind by a six iron. Besides the engine, the other changes are far subtler. It’s a good thing Nissan brought along a couple examples of the 2011 model to compare against the new car during our single day of driving and track lapping.

Every production car on the market represents a snapshot, the final spot where the engineers decided to call it a day after exhausting their development time and budget. Improvements can always be eked out with more time and budget. That’s what the 2012 GT-R represents: the old GT-R plus three years of time and a little—very little, because the sports-car market has been sucking wind lately—extra development money.

That time and money bought those few exterior changes and structural enhancements. Tying the cast-aluminum front shock towers together is a new carbon-fiber brace with a honeycomb core that reduces flexing in the outermost part of the double-wall fire wall directly behind the engine. The bulkhead behind the dash gets additional bracing to tamp down vibrations and side-to-side racking, and the dashboard itself gets fancier stitching and a carbon-fiber appliqué for the switch plate, which was a peasantlike black plastic before.

Minor—Very Minor—Exterior Changes

The most obvious differences on the GT-R’s exterior are two glowing eyebrows of LEDs in the corners of the front bumpers. Extra dimples at those same bumper corners and a reshaped chin spoiler channel more air to the sides of the car, increasing the low-pressure zone underneath the nose and helping to reduce aerodynamic lift. The upper and lower grille openings are mildly reshaped, mainly for styling but also partly to improve underhood airflow, which in turn aids in brake cooling. In the rear, a new extended diffuser enhances underfloor cooling and reduces air resistance. Taken collectively, the aero improvements help the drag coefficient drop from 0.27 to 0.26 and increase downforce by about 10 percent. Fuel economy goes up, from 15 mpg city and 21 highway to 16/23.

What’s the Actual Power Bump?

The increase in economy is a feat, considering the substantial 45-hp bump to the VR38DETT V-6, due mainly to higher boost pressure made possible by better engine cooling. Peak boost rises from 10.9 psi to 13.0, and timing and fuel mixture are remapped accordingly. Mizuno says a 1-mm increase in the stroke of the thermostat allows greater coolant flow, which helps compensate for the higher cylinder temperatures. The two air-inlet pipes that feed the gorgeous intake manifold have larger diameters, and exhaust backpressure was reduced.

We asked Mizuno how much of the horsepower bump was already in the engine, considering that the media and the blogosphere have long speculated that some GT-R engines already made more than 500 hp. It was a rare topic on which the normally chatty Mizuno was mute. However, he did allow that absolute bottom-line quarter-mile performance will depend on where you buy gas. In states that sell 94 pump octane, it’ll be no problem. In California, which offers only 91, you’ll have to be choosy about where you tank up, Mizuno says, as some brands are better than others. (We apparently chose wisely, given our blistering times.) However, the company stands behind its 530-hp claim for all 50 states.

Staying in the driveline, engineers finessed the software controlling the dual-clutch six-speed transmission to make for smoother engagements during normal driving and jackrabbit launches. The car’s warranty now covers use of the launch control; stories of exploding transmissions and denials of warranty claims have dogged the GT-R since its debut. However, the software now requires a 1.5-mile easy drive after every four launches. Mizuno says this is to protect the driver’s neck from injury, although we suspect a desire to stem escalating transmission temperatures also factors into that change.

In the suspension, another degree of front caster firms up the car’s straight-ahead feel and adds more edge to its off-center response. Suspension flex must have been a problem in the earlier GT-R, as the front shock attachment points were moved outward on the lower control arms to change the lever point for additional stiffness and impact absorption, and the shocks now have aluminum pistons instead of plastic ones for—you got it—extra stiffness. The rear suspension geometry was changed to lower the rear roll center. Like we said, small details.

What Do Godzilla and Smoking Have in Common?

The front brake rotors are 15.4 inches in diameter, up from 15.0, and the GT-R now has one spec tire for the world. Before, most U.S.-market cars received Bridgestone tires while the rest of the world got Dunlops. But now Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT 600 DSST CTT run-flat hams come on all GT-Rs.

If there’s a performance improvement from the Dunlops, it’s pretty subtle. Our braking distance from 70 mph dropped only three feet, to 153, and the skidpad performance was unchanged at 0.96 g.

The tires have a revised compound and construction changes targeted at better ride comfort and durability. Along those lines, the GT-R’s “comfort” suspension setting was altered to be more relaxed, and Mizuno says he can now circle a track in comfort mode without dropping ash off his cigarette, apparently a major test criterion.

We didn’t try the cigarette test, but we did pound over some of central California’s squiggliest roads in the 2011 and 2012 models. As we said, the power difference is the most noticeable change. It yanks the GT-R out of corners with considerably more urgency, provoking more oversteer—yee-ha!—as the tires fight for grip.

The suspension changes are harder to detect. On the road, the 2012 feels a little less nervous and vulnerable to pavement pitching and ruts. But the ride is still pretty stiff and active, even in comfort mode. It wasn’t until we reached the track, where we could switch back and forth between the old and new GT-Rs, that the suspension revisions revealed themselves in full.

The slightly greater effort it takes to turn into corners feels a little more organic, a little less robotic than before, and the ’12 car tracks truer down the straights with an overall better stability and sense of control. The brake pedal has less flex and more immediacy to it when the brakes are fresh, but during lapping, the 3800-plus-pound mass starts to eat into the performance of the stock street pads pretty quickly.

Chin Up, Current Owners

The R35 GT-R (12MY M/C) represents improvement by half-degrees—and several 10ths. But we have a message to owners of older GT-Rs: You have nothing to be ashamed of. Your vehicle is still a stunning, ballistic Corvette killer, even next to the new machine. And Nissan says it will offer a kit to help upgrade GT-R 1.0 to GT-R 2.0. No pricing or timing on the kit has been announced, and U.S. availability has yet to be decided.

If you were hoping for bigger changes, blame the market. GT-R sales in the U.S. dropped from 1730 cars in 2008 to 1534 cars in 2009 and plummeted to 877 last year. Officially, the company isn’t complaining, but you can’t fault Nissan for not upending the piggy bank to fight over 877 cash-register rings. Be grateful that Godzilla still lives and is getting better—and quicker—with age.

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