Time was, not all that long ago, nearly every auto manufacturer had a compact pickup.
Japanese manufacturers launched the rush in the U.S. with little trucks originally designed for Third World markets. From Mazda and Mitsubishi to Toyota and Nissan, these trucklets struck a chord with Americans during a couple of gas crises last century. Even Volkswagen had one, based on the U.S.-built Rabbit. And early in the going, American firms rebadged Japanese offerings until they could bring their own to market.
So where’d they all go? Ford finally put its antediluvian Ranger to sleep in 2011, while GM’s Chevrolet Colorado and twin GMC Canyon are on hiatus, with all-new designs due to debut in 2014. As for the other players, they mostly fell by the wayside due to import taxes and currency fluctuations, as well as changing consumer tastes.
Right now, if you are interested in a real body-on-frame truck (Honda’s odd Ridgeline doesn’t count) smaller than a Ford F-150 or Chrysler Ram or GM Silverado/Sierra, you have two choices: Toyota’s ever-popular Tacoma or Nissan’s tough Frontier. (Both those companies also field full-size offerings.)
The Tacoma is far and away the best seller, thanks in large part to its bulletproof reputation. But a week in a fully loaded Frontier suggests the Nissan is highly competitive.
Our Frontier PRO-4x surprised on several fronts, starting with its torque-y 4.0-liter V-6. Paired with a solid-shifting, five-speed automatic, the four-door truck easily contended with urban stop-and-go demands as well as interstate cruises.
As for actual work, the drivetrain is rated at 6,100 pounds maximum towing capacity. The bed and tailgate, fashioned from heavy-weight steel, are protected inside with a tough spray-on liner.
Headed for some off-roadin’, four-wheel-drivin’ fun? Not to worry: Ground clearance is a generous 10.2 inches.
On the road, the PRO-4x takes on turns with surprisingly sporty, responsive handling. The spacious cabin relies on plenty of hard plastics, but the seats — at least in front — are very comfortable and the controls well-designed and complete.
With its solid construction and maneuverable size, Nissan’s Frontier makes a convincing argument for a revival of smaller pickups.