If you had three wishes, they'd be "small, diesel, pickup truck" right? I had a chance to get those granted for a taste of what the future Nissan Frontier might feel like. So far it feels like a little puppy with a big personality, in the very best of ways.
(Disclosure: Nissan flew me down to Nashville, Tennessee, gave me a room in a decent hotel, got me good'n liquored up at some karaoke bar and then woke me up at the crack of dawn the next day to sit through a PowerPoint presentation on how the Altima is going to pass Accord in sales any day now. After my penance I was allowed to have at pretty much anything in their lineup. This was the same event I drove the GT-R Nismo at.)
Small diesel trucks are often the subject of adoration in our comment threads, but sadly many Americans have never experienced driving one. I'd only done short trips in small diesels myself, none of which were in the USA.
Ignoring the clunkiness of this Frontier, excusable because of its status as a test mule, the main impression I walked away with was that the Cummins engine made the small truck feel a lot "bigger." And yeah, it was more fun for it.
Even modern diesel engines have a very deliberate nature to them; the feeling of great strength is apparent but nothing happens in much of a hurry. Packaging that up with a truck as small as a Frontier gives the driver a sensation of highly manageable yet abundant power... and I can't think of a better way to describe "The Perfect Truck."
Of course, we haven't tried to carry or tow anything with it yet.
Nissan teased us with the diesel Frontier prospect that the Chicago Auto Show, where they pulled the sheet off their "Diesel Runner" showpiece graphic'ed up like a tuner car.
That vehicle can't actually be driven, but a scratched and stained working-mule with the same 2.8 Cummins four-cylinder common-rail turbo diesel engine can be. And was, by me.
With a Cummins rep riding shotgun and a Nissan truck specialist in the back, I climbed into a cabin that smelled like that old air conditioner at the gym and slammed the door behind me.
An odometer reading over 1,400 miles sure made it look like Nissan was actuallygiving this thing an earnest test. That, or making some intern go through an arduous hazing ritual running the thing all over the place.
The engine belched to life and continued to make its presence known as we eased out of the parking lot onto the road.
"Keep in mind, this is just a mule. Not a finished product," the Nissan rep mentioned for the second time already.
"Actually I sort of like the sound," I replied. "Y'all just kinda... grab a rain gutter from Home Depot for an exhaust pipe or what?"
The truck wasn't really that loudbut it certainly sounded "unpolished." And the answer to the exhaust question was a piece was fabricated up to fit the vehicle's shape, sound muffling and flow hadn't been studied yet.
Aesthetically, the only hint that this pickup is anything special is the Chrysler shifter in the center console. Which you have to "jiggle a bit, nope that's reverse, neutral, there you go," to get into gear. It's running a proper ZF eight-speed, but I guess they had to move some things out of normal operation alignment to squeeze it in the Frontier.
On The Road
On asphalt the truck puffs up its chest and struts as you stoke the throttle. Pour on the juice and the diesel Frontier motors ahead like Zack Snyder's Spartan warriors– slow motion, but with a stomping rage that says "here I am, rock you like a hurricane."
Nissan and Cummins declined from claiming official output numbers, but it looks like the engine has been cited elsewhere at 210 horsepower and 385 lb-ft of torque. The latter of which supposedly comes on at just 1,800 RPM.
Both pedals mashed, the little truck joyfully annihilated one rear tire while the other twiddled its thumbs and looked around nervously. So, open differential on this then.
In A Big Empty Field
In the dirt, those same tires break loose with a boot in the throttle and the steering wheel locked to the side. But, it doesn't rip itself out of the grass and into a dust-cloud raising fury like I thought it would given where peak torque is meant to come on.
It felt more like the truck just wanted to turn around normally, then realized I had the throttle pinned, waited for me to realize what I was doing and stop, then after the truck had almost finished a normal U-turn finally indulged my immaturity and let the rear tires off the leash and around. And around.
Once the truck figured out how much fun it was to paint its rear bumper with grass, it wanted to do it all day. But I had places to be, you know? I let off the tall pedal and the truck calmed down. Dust settled, my passengers shook their heads, we returned to the road and pondered what this prototype truck really means.
"Are you guys actually going to build this thing?"
The official line is "no comment" [snore]. But Cummins reps promise there are "at least two" high-mileage test mules in existence. I have a feeling Nissan will be closely watching how well GM's own 2.8 Duramax diesel sells in their upcoming Canyon and Colorado pickups in 2016 and make a decision from there.
If Nissan wanted to be really cool they'd drop a diesel Frontier right as the little GM trucks hit the market, but I won't hold my breath for that kind of swagger.
Then again, now that it looks like we're going to be waiting on the "next Frontier" for another four years they might have to throw us a bone just to have something interesting to talk about.
"Will there be a manual?"
The Cummins guy basically said "the other mule may or may not be a manual" [wink/nudge]. So either they are indeed trying out a diesel, manual, Nissan Frontier, or they're giving us blueballs just to be jerks. Whether that's going to be a 2WD-only option, I guess we'll have to wait indefinitely and see.
If It Does Go To Production
Nissan will bring it onboard for its frugality, not its might. That's part of the reason they're using an already-proven engine made by someone else. Diesel engines are generally very expensive options on any truck, but putting an existing engine in a truck that must have paid for its R&D costs a few times over by now should hypothetically let Nissan offer this diesel Frontier at a pretty aggressive price.
I think America is ready. Give us the D!
Images: Andrew P. Collins