Keep on truckin' with this freewheeling trio

I'm not a pickup truck guy, but I really liked these anyway

I’m not really a pickup truck enthusiast. I don’t need one for work. I don’t live on a farm or a ranch. I drive – and park – around town most of the time. 

Having said that, however, I really enjoyed the three weeks I spent driving these three great pickup trucks, if for no other reason that I could experience how the other half lives – and I do mean half. When I drive a particular vehicle, or type of vehicle, it heightens my awareness of that model or type on the road, and there are a ton of pickup trucks on the streets and highways of Denver.

Interestingly, one of the “conventional wisdom” points that became almost axiomatic over the last 40 years is that while the Japanese car makers were kicking the tar out of American car makers (a gap that is narrowing), the Americans were still considered the leaders in pickup trucks. And this has been especially true for the guys using pickup trucks for work: when you visited construction job sites over the years, for example, the vast majority of the pickups were Fords, GMCs, Chevys and Dodge Ram, with, of course, the Ford F-150 – for many, many years the No.1-selling vehicle in America car or truck — leading the way.

It has taken Toyota and Nissan (and Honda) a long time to crack the pickup code in the workplace, the dominant end of the market, but it has happened. Just for research I visited a few construction sites while I had these three trucks, and while they are not yet in the majority, the representation of Toyota and Nissan is impressive. Plus, a lot of truck guys just gave me the Thumb’s Up when I was driving them.

But I should be clear. If you look at the marketing material for these three trucks there is a BIG difference. The ¾-ton Nissan Titan is touted as a work truck, and there are lots of discussions of torque and hauling capacity. I don’t do torque. If you look at construction job sites, about the smallest trucks there are ½-ton Ford F-150s.

The Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier – very, very similar vehicles – are “mid-sized” or compact pickups, meaning smaller than an F-150, and they are marketed as “weekend warriors.” Not to cast aspersions, but these are heavily marketed to guys – mostly men, but some women too – who see themselves as truck people, and they are backcountry enthusiasts (hunting, fishing, off-roading), but they don’t really have an occupational need for a truck.

So let’s first look at the Nissan Titan XD Cummins V8 Turbo Diesel. This is a TRUCK! I put that in all caps because this Titan Crew Cab is a BEAST. It is HUGE. You kind of have to plan ahead of where you’re going to park it, because the combination of the bold, big front end, the side mirrors stick out some distance and can be adjusted further out to accommodate hauling something behind and keeping the view.

You can get the Titan in a gasoline version, a big 5.8-liter V8 with 390 horsepower, but I heard from many truck guys during the week that the XD diesel is the one that everyone is talking about. It features a 5-liter V8 turbo-charged Cummins diesel engine, rated at 310 horsepower, and it will move out if you want the speed. There is no EPA rating for gas mileage, because it is “not required for this vehicle,” according to the sticker, but my experience was that I didn’t really put all that many miles on it in city driving, and it sucked fuel. 

As I said, I am not a construction job-site guy, so my impressions have nothing to do with work ability. But it’s easy to see why it would be a good choice. The Titan is tough, rugged, obviously well-made, and very work-styled, meaning that it is a mean looking truck that will garner envy. When you’re driving, however, the Titan is smooth and very comfortable, with all of the modern creature comforts – leather seating, an excellent Rockford Fosgate premium audio system, navigation, a whole App suite through NissanConnect services, Bluetooth, voice commands, a plethora of power outlets all around, tow mirrors, fog lamps, All Wheel Drive – just about everything you can think of. The Titan isn’t nimble, by any means, and you have to plan ahead for parking, but it is surprisingly spry on the streets and highways for such a big vehicle, so getting to and from work, and carrying the crew, would be a pleasant experience.

This all doesn’t come cheap. This top-of-the-line Titan XD caries a base price of $55,030, and with a couple of minor add-ons (splash guards, floor mats, an electronic tailgate lock) and $1,195 in destination charges, the bottom line is $56,505. That’s a lot of money, but this is a lot of TRUCK. Oh – and it’s made in the USA – the truck from Mississippi and the engine from Indiana.

RATING: FOUR WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

Now, these other two pickup trucks – the Nissan Frontier PRO 4X Crew Cab (above) and the Toyota Tacoma TRD Offroad 4X4 Double Cab – are, as I mentioned, really targeted toward the weekend outdoor enthusiast rather than the work-site type of buyer. They are both mid-size pickups (although referred to as small or compact pickups by the EPA), both with All Wheel Drive systems, and they are both outfitted quite nicely.

I just have to say: I drove them each for a week, back to back, and it really just seemed like a two-week test drive. They are so similar – the same size, the same equipment, the same full-size back seat, nearly the same engine and horsepower, and within $1,000 in price – that, honestly, about the only thing that distinguishes one from the other is that the automatic gear shift (both on the middle console) is a bit different, and a bit rougher on the Nissan. If you took the badging off, I would bet that even owners would be hard pressed to tell the difference.

For 2016, US News and World Report, in its annual rankings of vehicles in various classes, placed the Toyota Tacoma #4 and the Nissan Frontier #5 on the Best Compact Pickup Trucks list, trailing the Honda Ridgeline, Chevrolet Colorado and the GMC Canyon, respectively. You’d have to think that Toyota-Nissan are really 3-4, in that the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon are essentially the same vehicle. In any case, the ratings were very similar, so the magazine’s report quite clearly points out how the Japanese have come up in esteem vis a vis American truck makers.

As I said, these two vehicles are so similar. Suffice to say that each has all of the requisite equipment – all the latest technology, like communication apps, blind-spot monitoring and cross-traffic alerts, really nice audio packages – and they are both very easy to drive. There is a ruggedness to each of these vehicles – the Frontier is the Pro-4x and the Tacoma the TRD model, both in crew/double cab configuration, so they both have that sporty end of offering that appeals to the weekend warrior.

I really enjoyed driving the both, both are very quiet rides, both have excellent handling, and, given the smallish size, they both maneuver city streets, and city parking places, with ease, and both are comfortable rides on the highway. I didn’t off-road in either vehicle, but you can see in these PRO and TRD trims (with off-road shocks, tires, suspensions, etc.) with AWD, they are made to be handled and driven roughly.

So for the (slight) differences: The Toyota Tacoma (above) features a 3.5-liter V6 engine, rated at 278 horsepower, and carrying a mileage rating of 18 mpg city/23 mpg highway (20 mpg combined). The Nissan Frontier carries a 4.0-liter V6, with some 261 horsepower, with an EPA mileage rating of 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway (17 mpg combined). They felt virtually the same to me.  

How about pricing? The base price on this Nissan Frontier $33,390, and after some optional upgrades – leather seats, power heated front seats, heated outside mirrors, glass sunroof, a roof rack with cross bars — and $900 in destination charges, the bottom line is $36,525.

The Toyota Tacoma here carries a base price of $33,730, and after its own optional upgrades – a premium technology package (blind spot, rear cross traffic, etc.), moonroof and a towing package – and with $900 in destination charges, the bottom line is $37,610.

All in all, I don’t think you could go wrong with either of these vehicles. I have a (young) friend who bought in this category and after scouting them all, chose the Chevy Colorado, so I guess it pays to shop around. Both the Tacoma and the Frontier are solid, handsome, rugged-with-style vehicles, and both would easily fit the purpose of an everyday, around town, family vehicle, with the added benefit of the weekend warrior utility.

However, given the mileage rating difference, and just a bit smoother operation in the interior of the Tacoma, I’d have to give the edge here to the Toyota.

 RATINGS:

TOYOTA TACOMA – THREE-AND-THREE-QUARTER WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

NISSAN FRONTIER – THREE-AND-A-HALF WHEELS

Categories: Industry Trends, Transportation