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Behind the Wheel

Discovering Old Toughness in New Frontier

March 27, 1998|PAUL DEAN | 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.

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