Nissan Frontier vs. Toyota Tacoma - Road Test - Motor Trend
Packing more power into two popular compact supercharged trucks
Supercharge a pickup truck? Old-timers who remember when pickups came with an industrial inline-six, three-on-the-tree, and hard rubber floormats will bristle at the thought. Ford's SVT performance arm started it in '99 and has since honed the blown truck idea nearly to perfection with its F-150 Lightning hot rod. Now the concept has trickled down to compact trucks, a segment that would definitely benefit from a little spice and further improved performance.
Nissan, which won't have its first true full-size truck until '04, is now using a supercharged V-6 as part of its effort to improve the image of its once dowdy Frontier. As a replacement for the Hardbody in '97, the then-new Frontier disappointed prospective buyers with its styling, performance, and driving dynamics. Nissan saved it from oblivion with a Crew Cab version in 2000 and then overnight transformed the Frontier into one of the coolest-looking trucks on the road with a macho facelift for '01.
Following a similar path, Toyota updated its compact Tacoma line for '01 with the addition of the fun-to-drive S-Runner sport truck and the utilitarian Double Cab, a worthy match for Nissan's Crew Cab. Toyota doesn't supercharge its Tacoma pickup at the factory, but a Toyota Racing Development blower is available as a dealer-added option, with full factory warranty. These supercharged versions of Nissan and Toyota's four-door cabs have a great deal of appeal to the active youth market. They deliver decent torque and horsepower, are spacious inside, and can tow up to a 5000-lb trailer. Getting a sedan/SUV-like cabin does mean you'll sacrifice bed length (Nissan will offer the Crew Cab's four-door cabin and the standard cab's bed-length for '02), but there's enough space for the driver and three or four friends and their mountain bikes and enough off-road capability within these two 4x4s to chase those bikes along the trails. The Nissan has a handsome, black, leather-trimmed interior with red stitching and S/C (for supercharged) embroidered on its headrests, while the Toyota comes only with a high-quality, durable, though somewhat plain cloth interior.
So which blown compact truck is best for hauling $15,000 worth of carbon-fiber 28-speed fully suspended mountain bikes from the city to the campsite? Matching the Tacoma Double Cab and Frontier for our comparison proved tougher than it looks. Nissan is more liberal with its options and offers both a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic on all versions of the Frontier. The Tacoma Double Cab comes only with a four-speed automatic, so we reluctantly asked Nissan for an automatic Frontier.
The Frontier's factory supercharger, a Roots-type unit co-engineered with Eaton, boosts power from 170 hp and 200 lb-ft in the normally aspirated SOHC 3.3L V-6 to 210 hp and 246 lb-ft; unfortunately, the manual trans can't handle as much torque and its engine variant is rated at just 231 lb-ft. Toyota's TRD supercharger lifts its 3.4L DOHC V-6's horsepower number from 190 normally aspirated to a pretty heady 254 blown. Torque is up from 220 lb-ft to 270 lb-ft of tire-prying twist. But that supercharged level of power comes at a hefty price for the Tacoma: $3137 for the supercharger, plus approximately $500 for installation.
Nissan says that, for '02, the 4x4 Frontier S/C will come with 265/65R17 tires-better suited for offroading than the '01 model's 265/55R17 Firestone Firehawk GTAs. The Tacoma comes with knobbier, skinnier 265/70R16 Bridgestone Dueler H/Ts better suited for trail-running. But because this test was designed as a street and strip showdown, our Frontier had the advantage with the low-profile Firehawks.
And it made good use of them: In the 600-ft slalom, the Tacoma wallowed and understeered its way to a 58.9-mph speed, unloading its inside front tire nearly the length of its suspension travel as it transitioned. It's a handful in such conditions. Yes, the Frontier handles the slalom course like a truck, but at least its 60.6-mph speed places it at the lower end of passenger-car performance territory. Its steering is better weighted, more responsive, and combines with the truck's more taut suspension and tires for quicker, crisper turn-in. The Frontier is relatively smooth and comfortable at freeway speeds, with good directional stability, while the Tacoma's suspension tackles bumps and potholes more harshly-and more in line with a 4x4 setup. At 70 mph or so, the Toyota feels a bit darty, especially in heavy winds. Lacking progressive-rate springs common in full-size pickups, the unloaded Tacoma simply rides harshly on most roads.
But it's better in a straight line. The TRD blower kicks in with a nice high-pitched whistle, not unlike the sound of those buzzy World Rally Championship cars you see on Speedvision, and the truck launches with a hearty squeal of its rear tires. It keeps on going until it hits fuel cutoff just shy of 100 mph (both trucks are speed-governed because of tire and driveshaft limitations). Make no mistake: The Tacoma TRD is not SVT Lightning-quick, but it is impressive.
The Frontier is more leisurely in getting to its governed limit. With a 10.3-sec 0-60-mph time, the supercharger brings the big four-door 4x4 Nissan up to speed the way the V-6 should on its own. Did we hamstring the Frontier by insisting on an automatic-versus-automatic comparison? No. A Frontier SE we tested in October 2000, with supercharged V-6, lighter rear drive, and five-speed, managed only a 9.3-sec 0-60, 1.3 sec slower than the Tacoma TRD.
While that TRD supercharger makes the Tacoma the hot rod of the two in a straight line, it surprisingly doesn't transform the truck's personality. Blower or no, the Tacoma is the more practical and utilitarian of the two. It has an upright stance and a toothy grille befitting a vintage '50s pickup. Also, our test truck's gray interior was so anonymous, it looked beige in certain lighting. On the plus side, all controls and switches are ergonomically arranged, and all the panels have Toyota-quality fit and finish. But the interior door handles are in an odd place: With the seat pushed back the right amount for a 5-ft-11 driver, the left elbow rests uncomfortably in the hole created where the armrest ends and the door handle begins. Both trucks suffer from awkward-to-operate pop-up sunroofs, mostly due to the sunshade panels you must remove before opening. Weird science: Our Frontier had an optional Xterra-style roof rack that obscures the sun after you finally get the sunroof open.
Still, the restyled Frontier scores as one of the best comebacks in recent memory. It's a hit with its young target market, who respond to the bold, massive- looking color-keyed nose, plastic overfenders, color-keyed mirrors, and big lettering on the tailgate. The style-Nissan calls it "industrial"-successfully repeats inside, with large, LED-lighted heating/ventilation/air-conditioning rotary knobs, black-and-silver dash panels, and those leather seats. The manly Tacoma sits more than an inch taller than the Frontier and has 5.8 in. more wheelbase, which pays dividends in passenger legroom. Rear leg- and headroom is adequate in both trucks, but the Frontier suffers from a too-low rear-seat cushion, so adults sitting in back will have their knees pointing up toward their chins. Neither truck proved very comfortable in back for 100-mile trips, although the Toyota is a bit more palatable for hour-long drives to that favorite off-roading spot.
Once you're off the pavement, the Toyota performs markedly better than the Nissan. Both trucks slog through axle-deep mud and articulate reasonably well through twisty dirt paths. But the Frontier had the most trouble making it up steep, soft sand dunes. It spins its tires a bit on thick-sand surfaces, while the Tacoma feels well planted. Yes, it's the tires, but unless you plan to do lots of offroading, you'll prefer the ride and handling of the Frontier 4x4 with its car-style tires on city streets and highways.
So which is best for you? The Tacoma SR5 with the TRD supercharger is a fine little performance truck in the traditional sense of the genre. However, the TRD supercharger's hefty price is not to be taken lightly. On the other side, despite its power deficit, the Nissan Frontier S/C appeals better to our mostly urban driving lifestyle. It's way more comfortable on pothole-ridden city streets, gets around corners more quickly and confidently, and certainly goes well enough. What's more, it looks the part of a muscular street truck, inside and out. In our modern, image-is-everything world, one in which you get your pickup's interior professionally detailed instead of cleaning it out with a garden hose, that may be the most important feature of all.