Discovering Old Toughness in New Frontier

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a perennial question asked of automotive journalists, and it falls somewhere between the inquirer's search for divine guidance and insider trading:

"What do you drive?"

Well, I drive a truck.

"Shut up."

A 1986 Nissan truck.

"You mean a '96?"

No, an '86. Bought before there were anti-lock brakes and air bags, when power steering was an option and side mirrors didn't always come in pairs. He has chromed steel wheels, a trailer hitch covered by a tennis ball, and a Kargo King rubber bed-liner. He is fire-truck red. He is Tonka.

"Oh."

End of conversation, with questioners left groping for the social significance--or at least some genetic weirdness--in one automotive writer's choice of personal transportation.

Actually, the truth is disappointing.

When one's working life is spent driving everything but Greyhound buses and Zamboni ice machines, why own anything exotic? Especially when one's personal ride must spend its working life congealing its seals and baking its paint in manufacturers' parking lots while I'm off playing with all that's new and shiny.

Hence my choice of Tonka, born to the laborer's lifestyle, bought to last, and perfect for my purposes. A four-cylinder, five-speed, low-mileage repo, it cost $6,000 out the door at what years ago was Sage Nissan. Expenses to date have been three batteries, a set of brakes, six tires and a clutch slave. Parts from Pep Boys, and maintenance by Jiffylube. Paint by Earl Scheib.

Tonka is undinged, can still pull his weight in bags of mulch, gets off on rubbing fenders with the mighty at the Beverly Hills Hotel and, after a dozen years, has yet to turn 50,000 miles.

Which explains my unmitigated bias toward the 1998 Nissan Frontier.

Forty years after baptism as the first compact pickup to lighten our weekends at the lumber yard, the Frontier remains a vehicle of bare necessities and barely changed looks. By passenger car standards, the mechanicals are basic. It is a truck keyed to frugality, with the practicality of a wheelbarrow.

Unfortunately--certainly for sales-starved Nissan, where the management style these days seems to be by meat grinder--leaning on elementals has not traveled far with media critics. They seem to prefer vehicles that are new standouts, not old standbys. They have damned Frontier for being under-equipped, understyled and under the feet of Mazda, Toyota, Ford, Dodge and everybody else selling popular, pint-sized pickups.

The message seems to be that Nissan should have built a compact, crew cab truck with a V-8 that rides like a Lexus, and has a third door, preferably power operated. Peterbilt styling would be nice, and all this for $11,000.

Buried beneath the carping are several facts of life with Nissan. Frontier sales are up with the imported best, and rising. In the two-wheel drive, light-truck segment of the overall truck market, four-cylinder sales rule. Further, 80% of Nissan truck orders are for two-wheel drive vehicles. So why mess with those majorities by emphasizing more power than customers want and transmissions tougher than they'll use?

The Frontier holds more (1,400 pounds), tows more (3,500 pounds) and delivers more muscle (143 horsepower) than any compact in its class. It is nine horsepower brawnier and slightly larger in all departments than last year's version. And lest we forget, Frontier is task-oriented, a little big guy built for professionals and hobbyists with real and regular desires for tossing uprooted oleanders, lawn mowers and several boondocker kegs in the back.

These owners have no need for big trucks that instinctively stop at construction sites--or double as commuter cars with a Carnegie Hall sound system. Or are open-backed sport utility poseurs with more bells and whistles than a glockenspiel.

*

It's all very simple.

With the 1998 Frontier, Nissan is clinging to success by reissuing the idea it came in with.

OK, so the tailgate slams with a clank. The gearshift, hand brake and some of the switch gear are a rassle and a little crude around the edges. Gray upholstery fabric is, well, gray upholstery fabric. And vinyl is plastic is blah.

The four-speed automatic works well when coddled, but put a foot into it and great groans and shrieks are the standard response. But, again, this is a working vehicle. It is happier pulling into a ballpark that outside the Ritz-Carlton. Frontier is the truck the valet drives, because she can afford it. And it doesn't do Sunday brunch at the beach because it is working most weekends.

The standard cab, blue-collar model with two-wheel drive, five-speed manual and bare essentials (suggesting an eight-track tape deck should still be an option) starts at $11,990. At that price, shades of my Tonka, you do not get power steering, outside mirrors, carpeting, or a clock. But air bags are standard, air-conditioning is available and is strong enough to turn your cab into a meat locker.

Top of the two-wheelers is the $17,900 SE with a crew cab, fender flares, a pretty useless flip-up sunroof, bucket seats, cruise control, shiny grille, very nice chrome alloy wheels and trick paint that looks like the front wheels threw up mud slicks. Or you scraped a wall getting into the garage.

The SE also has four cup holders for two people. Nissan claims two passengers can ride in the rear of its extended cab. But there aren't real seats back there, just a brace of fold-down, padded perches. They'll have little use until the folk who brought you cloning are able to come up with fold-down, padded persons.

See this area as a storage locker and catchall ripe for littering with Diet Pepsi recyclables, some Wellies, umbrellas and a change of unmentionables should El Whatsisname return. A four-wheel-drive version of the SE costs $20,990.

Frontier comes with just one engine, the 143-horsepower four-banger, although a V-6 will be available just before Thanksgiving. Which should have grumblers giving thanks. Next year, that broadly suggested extra door will be added to the line.

Our tester was a little toughie, a white SE with mud smears and the bloated cab, which we liked. Also an automatic transmission, which we detested. But only because any automatic attached to a four-cylinder engine bleeds off about as much energy as running a 10K in leg weights. In fact, with an automatic, the Frontier's towing ability is reduced by a third. Also, a five-speed is much more in keeping with the denim-shirted, hands-on, manual soul of the vehicle's concept.

New bucket seats are particularly comfortable, with well-positioned headrests and enough lumbar support to prevent lower back miseries. Steering is soft but precise and does a good job of holding everything in balance and heading in the intended direction.

Front suspension is a combination of double wishbones and coil springs with good ol' boy leaf springs at the rear. They keep the back end still and flat under most circumstances. But rumble onto decaying urban asphalt and the rear starts replicating an Amish buckboard on washboard.

Insides haven't changed drastically since Tonka's era. The dashboard is square and functional. Heater, air-conditioning and radio are elementary, with rudimentary rotary controls.

About the only modern touch is a key switch beneath the SE's Munchkin ashtray. It deactivates the passenger side air bag so baby won't get broken if the bag goes poof.

All in all, the Frontier is a most likable recruit to a line of little trucks that definitely can.

I'd buy one in a Detroit minute.

Is that a tear I see in Tonka's right headlight?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

1998 Nissan Frontier SE

The Good: It's the largest, most powerful, best-performing, spunkiest compact pickup on the market. Priced right, good mileage, and should be easy to maintain. Head, leg and shoulder roomy cabin.

The Bad: Transmission and switchgear a little rustic. No four-seater this, but king cab with rear room for one small prince.

The Ugly: Bad media rap this little hustler is receiving.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

1998 Nissan Frontier SE

Cost

* Base, and as tested: $17,999. Includes dual front air bags (with front-passenger air bag shut-off); air-conditioning; chrome alloy wheels; automatic transmission; fender flares; power windows, mirrors and doors; smoked-glass rear window with sliding panel; full carpeting; auxiliary power outlet; tilt sun roof; keyless entry; cruise control; tilt steering; four-speaker sound system with CD; bucket seats.

Engine

* 2.4-liter, 16-valve, inline-four developing 143 horsepower.

Type

* Front-engine, front-drive, compact pickup with king cab.

Performance

* 0-60 mph, as tested, 10.2 seconds, with automatic.

* Top speed, estimated, 112 mph.

* Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, with automatic, 20 and 24 mpg.

Curb Weight

* 3,106 pounds.

FONo caption / 1998 Nissan Frontier SE

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