Nissan Frontier Improves MPG, Still Lagging Most Full-Size V6s

Sections: Fuel Economy

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The 2013 Nissan Frontier Parked at the Roadside

The 2013 Nissan Frontier improved its MPG a bit over the previous model year, but even in four-cylinder configuration, its fuel efficiency lags behind full-size trucks with new-generation V6 engines. (Photo courtesy Nissan North America.)

The 2013 Nissan Frontier midsize pickup improved its fuel economy by one to two MPG over the 2012 model, but even the four-cylinder still lags behind some entry-level V6 full-size trucks in efficiency.

According to Nissan, the Frontier with 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and manual transmission is now good for 23 MPG on the highway, which ties the automatic-only Ford F-150’s highway mileage when that truck is equipped with the 3.7-liter V6 engine that makes nearly twice the horsepower of the Nissan 2.5-liter mill. Opt for an automatic Frontier to make the comparison more apples-to-apples, and the four-banger Fronty is actually a mile per gallon behind the base Fiddy, at 22 MPG highway.

A Green 1990s vintage Nissan Pickup

The Nissan Pickup, known to many as the Hardbody, was so popular in some parts of the country during the ’80s and ’90s that you practically couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one. I had one. (Photo courtesy Custom Auto Classifieds.)

Here is where I give full disclosure: I’m a former owner of a Nissan pickup. Remember the Hardbody? I had one– and loved it. I’m a current owner of a Nissan cube and a base Ford Ranger pickup. I bought the Ford because at the time I was shopping (2007), it was the most fuel-efficient pickup on sale in America. I seldom haul more than a few hundred pounds in the bed, and primarily use it as a commuter. When truck-shopping after years of faithful service from my recently totaled Hardbody, I just couldn’t talk myself into a Frontier for a couple of reasons:

  1. Four-cylinder fuel economy was worse than the old Hardbody (and much worse than the Duratec-powered Ranger,) and
  2. Transaction prices were much higher for base Frontiers than base Rangers, despite less standard equipment on the Nissan (air conditioning being a biggie) and less of the rough-and-tumble truck equipment I wanted (rubber floors are nice in a truck, but Nissan doesn’t offer them.)

Now, in an age when full-size pickups like the Ram 1500 can achieve up to 25 MPG while offering more towing, hauling, and passenger volume at MSRPs that start in the low $20,000 range, my love for compact and midsize trucks has been put to the test. It didn’t help when Ford pulled the Ranger from the market at the end of 2011, as the last true compact pickup available in the U.S. and the only one I’d ever known to regularly break 30 mpg in highway commuting. Then the Colorado/Canyon twins were given the axe, though GM says new-and-improved versions are coming next year. And of course, the largest entry in the midsize segment, the Ram Dakota, was discontinued as well.

That left only Toyota’s Tacoma and Nissan’s Frontier in the less-than-a-half-ton segment, and both have fuel economy ratings and MSRPs very similar to base-model full-sizers. It is possible to snag one of these smaller trucks for thousands less than full-size American iron, but only if you manage to find a dealer who actually stocks a base model, and only if you’re okay with the lack of features mentioned above. The inventory of my local Nissan and Toyota dealers is stocked with mostly mid- and upper-level crew cab versions of either truck, with sticker prices well into the $30,000s. That can buy you a decently equipped full-size truck at most of America’s Big Three dealerships.

The changes to the 2013 Frontier to improve its fuel efficiency included lower-friction engine components and aerodynamic tweaks to the body, including a seal between the bed and cab and a small ducktail-like spoiler on the tailgate lip.

While I applaud these tweaks, I’m begging the folks at Nissan to shake things up and reintroduce a Hardbody model. Give us a lighter truck with its own dedicated platform, rather than something heavy and based on the full-size Titan, as is the Fronty. Throw in better aerodynamics, higher-efficiency engines, and lower prices than the full-sizers, and it would be a hit with a lot of guys like me who value ease of use and frugal utility over ever-larger, ever-pricier half-ton trucks.

With today’s engine and powertrain technologies, not to mention improved ability to use lightweight materials in the manufacturing process, there’s no good reason a compact or even a midsize truck shouldn’t get significantly better MPGs than full-size trucks. The newest crop of full-size trucks has proven the capability of trucks to deliver surprisingly good fuel economy given their size and relative aerodynamic inefficiency. Somebody’s got to spread these fuel-efficient technologies to smaller trucks to make the segment appealing again. That somebody might as well be Nissan.

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