As the 2020 Nissan Frontier rolls down the assembly line for one final year looking very much the same as it did 15 years ago, there’s a significant upgrade hiding underneath in the form of an all-new powertrain. Even though it may be the result of fortunate timing of events rather than some sort of farewell tribute, the Frontier’s notable improvements in power, emissions cleanliness, and fuel efficiency are certainly worth a celebratory dance.
Compared with the outgoing engine, the new “motor” is smaller in terms of total displacement (3.8-liters vs 4.0-L) yet its newly applied direct injection and variable valve lift and event timing systems help yield nearly 50 additional peak horsepower (at 310 hp) and attain the next level of emissions standards. The engine also achieves the same healthy peak torque as before (281 lb-ft) while providing greater twist throughout the lower rev-range.
The transmission is the other half of what makes the 2020 Frontier a standout model as it’s out with the old 5-speed automatic and in the 9-speed from the refreshed Titan. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph improves to 7.5 seconds as the much lower geared transmission quickly shifts its way into third gear before the old unit was even finished with its first gear. The narrow spread of ratios (as well as several overdrive gears) helps the truck achieve an EPA-estimated 17/23/19 city/highway/combined – an improvement of two mpg in each test.
Other changes for the 2020 year include more standard features such as push-button start, power door locks, and power windows which further justify its modest price bump. An apples-to-apples comparison reveals around a $900 increase which is easily justified as the Frontier will pay that back in saved fuel alone in just five years according to EPA estimates.
The all-new powertrain is undeniably better than before and meets the expectations of today, however, the rest of the truck remains a step back in time to the way things were 15 years ago, for better or for worse.
The 2020 Nissan Frontier goes on sale in June.