2012 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab - FROM $23,300
The 2012 Nissan Frontier is a top pick in the compact-pickup segment thanks to its brawny nature, relatively nimble handling and innovative features.
What's New for 2012
The 2012 Nissan Frontier SV gets a new Sport Appearance option package, while four-cylinder models get standard stability control.
Back in the days of the Old West, the frontier was a rough-and-ready kind of place. It's also a pretty apt way to describe the 2012 Nissan Frontier.
In practical terms, that means this compact pickup can handle the rough conditions a truck owner is likely to throw at it. As for the ready part, the Frontier is offered in enough different variants that it's capable of filling a wide variety of roles: affordable work truck, tough off-road explorer and occasional family transporter.
Credit for this flexibility goes in part to the Frontier's rugged construction, powerful V6 engine and relatively agile handling. The long list of standard features and available options also makes it possible to tailor the basic vehicle to match your intended use. If there's a significant downside, it's that the rear seats are rather upright and consequently uncomfortable, especially in extended-cab versions.
Admittedly, a big reason the 2012 Nissan Frontier looks so good is the shortage of worthwhile alternatives. The Dodge Dakota has been discontinued and the current-generation Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon twins leave a whole lot to be desired. The Honda Ridgeline is an intriguing choice for buyers looking for a carlike ride and a comfortable cabin, but it's less rugged and far more expensive than the Frontier. That leaves the Toyota Tacoma, which is very comparable to the Frontier but places more emphasis on style and comfort over get-'er-done capability.
Put it all together and you have a small pickup that's as well-suited to life on the frontier as it is the urban jungle.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Nissan Frontier is a compact pickup truck that's offered in extended-cab (King Cab in Nissan-speak) and crew cab body styles. King Cab models come with fold-down rear seats and a 6-foot cargo bed, while crew cab versions get a 60/40-split-folding rear bench and a choice of a standard 5-foot or optional 6-foot bed. There are also four trim levels available: S, SV, PRO-4X and SL.
The entry-level S is a rather bare-bones affair, with a standard equipment list that includes 15-inch steel wheels, front bucket seats and cloth upholstery. The S Preferred package adds air-conditioning and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player.
Stepping up to the SV trim level includes the Preferred package items along with 16-inch wheels (steel on models with inline-4 engines and alloy on V6-powered versions), upgraded tires, a chrome front bumper and a sliding rear window. Inside you'll find upgraded cloth upholstery, keyless entry, cruise control, full power accessories and a tilt-only steering wheel. Options for the SV include the Sport Appearance package that bundles 18-inch alloy wheels, dark grille treatment and body-colored bumpers, foglamps, eight-way manual front seats, upgraded "sport" cloth upholstery, Bluetooth and an upgraded stereo with six-CD changer, an auxiliary audio jack and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. The Premium Utility package adds a spray-in bedliner, adjustable tie-down points, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, Bluetooth and the upgraded stereo with six speakers and satellite radio (automatic transmission only).
For those planning on taking the road less traveled, there's the PRO-4X, which features a standard V6, 16-inch alloy wheels, off-road tires, a locking rear differential, Bilstein off-road shocks and underbody skid plates, along with a body-color grille. Besides these hardware upgrades, the PRO-4X gets most of the SV's options as standard equipment, plus two-tone upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, white-faced gauges, a trip computer, a first aid kit and a Rockford Fosgate premium audio system. The PRO-4X Luxury package (crew cab models only) adds a sunroof, roof rack and cross bars, heated mirrors, leather upholstery, heated power front seats (eight-way driver, four-way passenger) and a rear-seat center armrest.
The top SL trim, which is only offered on crew cab models, loses the PRO-4X's off-road-oriented equipment but retains most of the items in the PRO-4X Luxury package except for the sunroof, which is available as an option. Additional standard features include 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights and side steps that make for easier access to the cab.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2012 Nissan Frontier is offered with a choice of two engines. Extended-cab S and SV models come standard with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder good for 152 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual and rear-wheel drive are standard, and a five-speed automatic is available as an option. EPA fuel economy estimates are 19 mpg city/23 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined with the manual transmission, and 17/22/19 with the automatic.
Optional for the SV extended cab and standard for all PRO-4X and crew cab models is a 4.0-liter V6 that produces 261 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque. The S, SV and four-wheel-drive PRO-4X can be had with either a standard six-speed manual or optional five-speed automatic, while the two-wheel-drive PRO-4X and SL are automatic only. Also available is a choice of rear- or four-wheel drive. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 15/20/17 combined for two-wheel-drive automatic-transmission-equipped models, while the ratings change to 14/19/16 for four-wheel-drive models fitted with the automatic. The manual achieves 16/20/17 with rear-wheel drive and 15/20/17 with four-wheel drive.
Properly equipped V6-powered models can tow up to 6,500 pounds. In Edmunds performance testing, a V6-powered PRO-4X Crew Cab went from zero to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds.
Every 2012 Nissan Frontier comes standard with antilock disc brakes, stability control, front-seat side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags. Also, V6 models have a brake-activated limited-slip differential. Hill descent control and hill-start assist are included with the automatic-equipped two-wheel-drive SL and PRO-4X. In Edmunds brake testing, a Frontier PRO-4X came to a stop from 60 mph in 128 feet -- impressive for a truck.
The Frontier received the top rating of "Good" in frontal-offset, side-impact and roof strength tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Interior Design and Special Features
As with virtually all pickups, the 2012 Nissan Frontier's interior is a compromise between utility and comfort. King Cab models feature reverse-opening rear doors that offer access to a pair of fold-up jump seats behind the front buckets, although their combination of vertical seatback angles and limited legroom means they're really only useful in a pinch. Open the Crew Cab's front-hinged rear doors and you'll find a backseat that's wide enough for three adults, though it's not all that comfortable due to its upright backrests and low seat bottoms. In short, if a roomy rear seat is important to you, you might want to have a look at the Honda Ridgeline or Toyota Tacoma.
Of course pickups are all about hauling stuff, and here the Frontier gets high marks. Folding the rear seats in both body styles creates a good amount of space for items you'd rather not leave unsecured in the truck bed. Speaking of which, we'd strongly recommend crew cab buyers spring for the optional 6-foot cargo bed if they plan on transporting anything bigger than assorted beach or tailgating paraphernalia. The movable Utili-Trak tie-downs also make securing items of all sizes a good bit easier.
The notably better fuel economy of the four-cylinder engine aside, we think more people will prefer the 2012 Nissan Frontier's gutsy V6 engine. In addition to more lively performance in everyday driving, this engine also ups the Frontier's towing capacity to a very healthy 6,500 pounds. While it's nice to see manual transmissions still offered here, the automatic transmission is a good match for this engine, delivering well-timed shifts whether you're negotiating a rugged backcountry trail or just driving home from work.
As mentioned earlier, the Frontier's precise steering and well-tuned suspension make for a satisfying driving experience by truck standards. The ride quality is also surprisingly good on most models, except for the relatively harsh ride of the off-road-oriented PRO-4X.