The company that first introduced America to the wiles of the compact pickup some 45 years ago is finally giving its truck buyers a move-up property--its first-ever full-size pickup truck. Currently, two out of every 10 new vehicles sold in the U.S. are pickups, and domestic-brand full-size versions outsell smaller versions by at least three to one. It's a big country. And Nissan wants a piece of it.

Though the Titan won't arrive until the end of 2003, Nissan still afforded us an early look at two development mules. While their interiors and exteriors were cobbled together in typical prototype fashion, they still contained close-to-production drivetrain and chassis bits, which are what most interested us at this early stage. We poked around underneath a 4WD Crew Cab, examining the stout-looking fully boxed frame, hefty Dana axles, outboard rear leaf springs, and other purpose-built hardware. As Titan Chief Product Specialist Larry Dominique puts it, "Nissan needs to earn full-size truck credibility." From the bottom up, the Titan certainly looks substantial.

In every major dimension, the Titan measures within an inch or two of the half-ton rigs offered by Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet, and GMC. There's plenty of spread-out room inside for five or six well-fed Americans and their gear. True in scale to the Alpha T concept shown at the 2001 Detroit auto show, the Titan feels big, but not clumsy. There's a finer edge to the Titan, evident even in the early prototype mules, than is normally found in this segment.

We took a RWD Titan King Cab out for a shakedown run on a handling course and a high-bank oval. This rig has beans. Though a final horsepower figure hadn't been released at press time, Nissan's standard 5.6-liter DOHC V-8 feels at least as potent as the 5.7-liter/345-horse OHV in the Dodge Ram Hemi. Throttle response is crisp, no doubt aided by the Titan's Variable Intake System. Transmission upshifts and downshifts in the standard five-speed automatic are handled quickly, with no fumbling around for the right ratio. Midlevel and top-line models with bucket front seats get a gated floor shifter.

The Titan's engine-speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering is notably more communicative than the full-size truck norm. You can pick a line and hold it, without sawing back and forth in search of an elusive on-center feel. When negotiating a series of curves, this Nissan takes inputs to the helm without fuss. And the truck is more agile in tight maneuvers than you might think; its 41-foot curb-to-curb turning diameter is considerably tighter than those of the Tundra or Dodge Ram.

Nissan's new full-sizer is more than half a foot longer and at least three inches taller and wider than the Toyota Tundra. The Titan will hit the ground running with half-ton models available in four levels of trim and in two cab configurations: extended four-door King Cab and four-door Crew Cab. Because all Titans share the same 139.8-inch wheelbase and 224.2-inch overall length, the longer Crew Cab with its four full-size front-hinged doors comes with the shorter 5-foot 7-inch bed, and the comparably shorter King Cab features the longest available 6-foot 7-inch bed.

On the Crew Cab, big rear doors open to a generous rear seat that offers roughly eight inches more rear legroom and about an inch and a half more rear headroom than the already spacious King Cab. Aiding ingress/ egress in the King Cab are rear-hinged rear doors that even a contortionist could love; the doors pivot nearly 180 degrees to allow unfettered access from the rear, ever handy in tight parking spaces. They're an industry first.

The Titan's bed may not be the largest in truckdom, but it does do tricks. Rails built into the bed floor and sides can be fitted with an optional divider, tray, or toolbox (or any combination of the three) that slide fore and aft to make work and play easier. Other accessories include a flip-out bed extender and overhead ladder racks. Nissan will also build Titans to order with a factory-applied spray-in bedliner.

Say what you will about the Alpha T-inspired blistered fenders, snaggletooth grille, and domed hood, the Titan goes its own way in the styling department. It also packs such features as an optional Rockford Fosgate 10-speaker sound system, DVD-based navigation system with a Leno-like pop-up screen, bi-plane side mirrors, and lockable bedside storage compartment. Other neat touches include an available switch-on-demand, electronically locking rear differential, optional Rancho Performance shocks, and Vehicle Dynamic Control with traction control. A tire-pressure warning system is standard, as are large four-wheel discs with ABS, electronic brake distribution, and Brake Assist. The Titan will tow up to 9400 pounds, 2200 more than a Tundra.

Nissan knows it's taking on the lions--in this case, the Dodge Ram, the GM twins, and the new-for-'04 F-150--in the lions' den: America. Pickup buyers are a fiercely brand-loyal lot; they go with what they know and what they like. But today's consumer will acknowledge innovative, well-executed products with his purchase dollars. Based on this poke, prod, and drive, we suspect the Titan will score significant market share and keep the segment leaders on their toes.

2004 Nissan Titan
Price range$22,000-$33,000 (est)
Vehicle layoutFront engine, rwd or 4wd, 4-door ext cab or crew cab, 5- or 6-pass
Engine90* V-8, alum blk/hds, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Displacement, ci/cc345.7/5665
Horsepower, rpm350 (est)
Torque, rpm380 lb-ft (est)
Transmission5-speed auto
Curb weight, lb4600 base (est)
0-60 mph, sec8.0 (est)
On sale in U.S.Winter 2003/2004
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