2020 Nissan Frontier Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Aug 21, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Nissan deals!

A “restomod” is an old car that is restored but uses modern mechanical components. The 2020 Nissan Frontier is kind of like that, an old design equipped with a brand-new engine and transmission.

Nissan last redesigned the Frontier midsize pickup truck for the 2005 model year. It arrived in showrooms just as Americans went to the polls to choose George W. Bush for a second term in office over John Kerry. Facebook was still just for college kids. Bratz were on every child’s holiday wish list. People were crazy for iPods.

If the current-generation Frontier were human, it would now be eligible for a driver’s license.

So, what’s the deal with the new engine and transmission? Well, a redesigned Frontier is arriving soon, but its powertrain was finished ahead of time. Rather than wait, Nissan plugged the new 3.8-liter V-6 and 9-speed automatic into the old truck, creating a weirdly desirable one-off that’s likely available for one model year only.

The mechanical heart transplant replaces both the wheezy 4-cylinder and aged V-6 that were in the 2019 Frontier. Still available in King Cab and Crew Cab styles with a short or a long cargo bed, the 2020 Nissan Frontier is offered in S, SV, Midnight Edition, and PRO-4X trim levels.

2020 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X Cayenne Red Front View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a Frontier Crew Cab PRO-4X equipped with a sliding bed extender. The price came to $38,865, including the $1,095 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Nissan deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2020 Frontier, it is helpful to understand who buys midsize pickups, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 85% of midsize pickup owners are male (vs. 60% for the overall automotive industry), and the median age of a midsize pickup owner is 56 years, matching the industry.

Owners say their favorite things about midsize pickups are (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving feel, feeling of safety, setting up and starting, and interior design. Specifically, these five things about midsize pickups rank highest in comparison to the overall automotive industry:

  • Ease of loading/unloading
  • Driver assistance systems (in a tie)
  • Sound of doors when closing (in a tie)
  • Using voice assistance
  • Making/receiving phone calls

Owners indicate their least favorite things about midsize pickups are (in descending order) the powertrain, infotainment system, driving comfort, getting in and out, and fuel economy. Specifically, these five things about midsize pickups rank lowest in comparison to the overall automotive industry:

  • Fuel economy/driving range
  • Power of engine/motor
  • Getting in/out front seats
  • Smoothness of engine/motor
  • Getting in/out rear seats

In the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Frontier did not rank due to insufficient sample size.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best Nissan deals!

In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 Nissan Frontier measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

Talk about a design that has aged well. Nissan could debut the Frontier’s styling on a new truck today and it would look good. While it’s not as iconic as the clean Hardbody pickups of the late 1980s and early 1990s, there is a rugged, timeless simplicity to it.

2020 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X Cayenne Red Rear View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

In PRO-4X trim, the truck comes with a tubular roof rack reminiscent of the second-generation Nissan Xterra that once shared this platform. It also comes only with a short cargo bed in order to preserve as much departure angle as is possible.

Interior

Just as the exterior has aged well, so has the Frontier’s interior. Getting in, you’re transported back in time to Nissan’s most recent design hey-day of the mid-Aughts, when symmetry and modularity ruled along with pebble-grained plastic panels and silver plastic trim that convincingly mimicked aluminum.

2020 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X Dashboard and Interior

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

White-faced gauges add a bit of flair, but the digital displays resemble a clock-radio from the 1990s. And the sickly orange nighttime control lighting is well past its expiration date. Due to the truck’s age, the 5.8-inch touchscreen infotainment display isn’t much bigger than a modern smartphone’s. But finding and using the controls is quite easy, a clear benefit of this yester-tech truck.

There is a bunch of wasted space on the center console, which is dominated by the transmission shifter, cupholders, and emergency brake. The single nod to modernity is an engine start button. But don’t worry, because storage is actually pretty accommodating. Dual glove compartments, a decent-sized box under the center armrest, trays at the top and bottom of the dashboard, bins in the door panels and armrests, and storage trays under the Crew Cab’s back seat see to that.

Getting In and Out

Getting into the Nissan Frontier’s front seats isn’t an issue. You basically slide in laterally. The rear seat is a different story. The Frontier Crew Cab’s back doors are quite small, and like other midsize trucks there isn’t much room to maneuver as you crawl in or out.

Loading cargo is easy, though the Frontier doesn’t come with so much as a dampened tailgate. Short cargo box sides make it easy to reach in, and the available Utili-Track channels and adjustable cleats are quite useful. Plus, Nissan offers a spray-in bedliner as well as sliding versions of a bed divider, bed extender, and toolbox. However, the standard bed measures just 27.1 cubic feet of volume up to the sills. Get a long bed for 33.5 cubic feet.

Depending on the configuration of the truck, the 2020 Frontier carries up to 1,460 pounds of payload and tows as much as 6,720 pounds.

Setting Up and Starting

Refreshingly, the Nissan Frontier is simple rather than complex. Set the mirrors, position the seat, adjust the steering wheel, and you’re off. There’s nothing much to think about aside from looking for the engine start button on the center console rather than the dashboard. Push it, and the new V-6 engine comes to life in a quiet and refined way that anyone familiar with this truck will immediately notice.

Infotainment System

Hard to believe, but the most sophisticated piece of technology in the Frontier, aside from its new powertrain, is the NissanConnect infotainment system. It’s definitely old-school, but it provides all of the functionality you might require aside from a usefully-sized touchscreen and natural voice recognition. And while the 10-speaker Rockford Fosgate premium sound system isn’t particularly refined, it does put out significant volume.

Keeping You Safe

Stability control, a reversing camera, and rear parking sensors are the extent of the Frontier’s driving assistance technology. Some people will love this Nissan’s lack of modern driving assistance systems. And this would be just fine if not for the fact that you definitely do not want to get into an accident while driving this truck.

Back when this Frontier was engineered, safety standards simply were not as robust as they are today. And when you look at the truck’s crash-test ratings, that’s obvious.

In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) testing, the 2020 Frontier earns an overall rating of 4 stars, but it is critical to look past that overall rating to examine the frontal-impact scores. The Frontier gets 3 stars for the driver and 2 stars for the front passenger.

The story from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is the same. The truck earns Marginal ratings for small-overlap frontal-impact protection. And the headlights rate Poor.

Powertrain

If the upcoming redesigned Frontier is just as good as this new engine and transmission, Nissan will once again be a contender in the midsize pickup truck segment.

Replacing the old 2.4-liter 4-cylinder and 4.0-liter V-6, the new direct-injected 3.8-liter V-6 makes 310 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 281 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,400 rpm. Quiet, smooth, and powerful, Nissan’s new V-6 supplies a good punch of torque down low and loves to rev high. It’s a gem, to be sure.

The engine is matched to a new 9-speed automatic transmission that shifts cleanly and decisively and does a wonderful job of making best use of the new V-6’s power.

Fuel Economy

Not only is the Frontier’s new 3.8-liter V-6 more powerful and sophisticated, it’s also more fuel efficient. Previously, the PRO-4X was rated to get 15 mpg in the city, 21 mpg on the highway, and 17 mpg in combined driving. Now, those ratings are 17, 23, and 19, respectively.

Those are realistic numbers. On the testing loop, the 2020 Frontier averaged 19.3 mpg. And with the 21.1-gallon gas tank, that means you can drive more than 400 miles on a single fill-up. Leaving some margin for error, your real-world range is more like 370 miles.

Driving Comfort

Aside from a little bit of paranoia associated with the crash-test ratings, I thoroughly enjoyed driving this truck. Today’s Frontier is raw, rugged, and unrefined, driving unlike any car and most modern pickups. This lack of sophistication is a novelty, endearing to anyone new to truck ownership. But if you had to drive it every day, you might disagree.

Thanks to 8-way power driver’s seat adjustment, the test truck offered whatever driving position you prefer. I like sitting up high, and I found a comfortable way to do that. But after three hours behind the steering wheel, I was ready to get out. Clearly, Nissan is not using its Zero Gravity seat designs in this rolling antique of a truck.

Additionally, the windshield pillars are quite thick, especially where they meet the dashboard. If you’re driving on a twisty two-lane road and rounding left-hand curves, the left pillar completely blocks your view of oncoming traffic. And, on the highway, wind noise is substantial, no doubt due partly to the PRO-4X’s roof rack. 

You can’t expect much in the way of rear-seat comfort in a midsize truck, and the Frontier Crew Cab is no different. Adults are not going to want to ride back there for an extended period of time.

Driving Feel

Heavy and slow steering, a wide turning radius, and a suspension that allows road shock to reverberate throughout the structure as the truck skitters over broken pavement all reveal the Frontier’s age. Commendably, though, the test truck’s construction was rock solid. There’s wasn’t so much as a creak, squeak, or rattle no matter the road surface.

In PRO-4X specification, which includes Bilstein off-road shocks, the Frontier has no trouble romping over speed humps and is agreeable while off-roading. But on pavement, the only driving enjoyment you’ll derive from a Frontier is its singularly unique old-school ride and handling character.

Final Impressions - Find the best Nissan deals!

A lack of safety and sophistication make the 2020 Nissan Frontier a hard sell. The new powertrain is terrific, and that bodes well for the next-generation version of this truck. Otherwise, aside from its appealing design, its remarkable simplicity, and the novelty of driving a brand-new version of what is a decidedly old truck, there simply isn’t much to recommend when it comes to the 2020 Frontier.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2020 J.D. Power

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