Next Frontier tackles Nissan’s age issue

Industry

Nissan’s aging product portfolio is challenging the brand’s reputation and has kneecapped sales over the past year, according to some of its dealers. And no nameplate represents that situation better than Nissan’s midsize pickup, the Frontier.

The truck has not received a major update since 2005.

But now, amid a broader product rethink, Nissan is planning a reboot for the Frontier, which — despite its age — remains the brand’s second-bestselling light truck.

Its next generation is expected to arrive in stores the first half of 2021, engineered with a beefier powertrain, sportier profile and SUV-like conveniences.

Although the model is still a year away, Nissan will launch its powertrain in the 2020 Frontier, which arrives in stores this spring. Gone is the option for the truck’s trusty 4-cylinder. There will be a single 3.8-liter direct-injection V-6, a new engine that Nissan says is more powerful but just as fuel efficient as the 4-cylinder.

The new 310-hp V-6 engine delivers an additional 49 hp and is about 10 percent more efficient than the V-6 it’s replacing. The 3.8-liter engine is mated to a new nine-speed automatic transmission that delivers improved acceleration and smoother driving experience, according to the company.

Dropping the truck’s inline-four engine in an era of fuel-economy mindfulness was a strategic decision.

Naturally aspirated inline-four engines account for just 10 percent of Frontier sales, Tiago Castro, Nissan Division’s director of light commercial vehicles, told Automotive News during the Chicago Auto Show this month.

“The traditional 4-cylinder is a small piece of the pie,” Castro said. “We felt having a V-6 with good fuel economy would be better than trying to create two engines and create additional complexity.”

The new engine will increase performance while also simplifying the product lineup, said Tim Dement, general manager at Andy Mohr Avon Nissan in suburban Indianapolis.

However, by dropping the 4-cylinder engine, Nissan could price out some customers, Dement said.

Nissan helped pioneer the smaller pickup segment in the U.S. in its early days as a Japanese importer, and has sold 1 million Frontiers to date. The midsize Frontier was the brand’s second-best-performing light-truck nameplate last year, after the Rogue crossover, accounting for 72,369 deliveries.

Getting the Frontier reboot right is do-or-die for Nissan’s future in the pickup business. Despite redesigns and freshenings, Nissan has had little market success in the full-size pickup segment with its Titan model.

Castro said he knows what’s at stake. Nissan’s competitors have raised their game. Detroit exited the segment after the Great Recession, even though Nissan and rival Toyota stuck with their midsize pickups. But now Detroit is back and doing well in the segment.For Nissan designers and engineers, the challenge for the next Frontier is to retain the DNA that made the original a market success, while adapting it to current market trends, Castro said.

“We want to continue to provide something that maintains the heritage of fun-to-drive, the heritage of durability,” said. “You will see that in the new design.”

Castro declined to divulge design details of the next model, but dealers who have seen the vehicle describe it as “sporty” and “aggressive.” It takes design cues from the Titan Warrior concept, according to one retailer. The vehicle has a larger grille, sits higher and looks more off-road than the current Frontier, he said.

Unlike Nissan’s other midsize pickups around the world, the new Frontier will not use the global Navara platform, sticking instead with a heavily updated version of its current — and older — truck architecture, the U.S.-focused F-Alpha.

That decision was based on the driving patterns and priorities of U.S. pickup customers. Americans tend to put on more miles, do more towing and focus more on payload, Castro said.

“We felt a U.S.-developed vehicle was the best way to move forward,” Castro said. “The vehicle will be developed with the U.S. customer in mind.”

The next-generation Frontier arrives in a crowded market that includes new entrants from Ford and Jeep.

Dealers are eagerly anticipating the new Frontier in a segment that saw sales climb 22 percent last year, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

“This market segment is huge,” Dement said. “We are currently losing to other competitors. This is a chance for Nissan to capture that business back.”

Castro acknowledged that a Frontier reboot could have come sooner, but he said the truck’s reliability and value proposition have kept customer demand high.

The rapid evolution of technology and customer tastes will accelerate product development cycles.

“Consumers will drive OEMs to make changes,” Castro said. “Now, do we have to upgrade the whole vehicle, versus the technology piece?”

But demographics in the midsize pickup market have changed since the Frontier was introduced.

The segment is seeing an inflow of customers from the midsize SUV market, Castro said. About 20 percent of Frontier customers come out of SUVs. The new Frontier will reflect that segment’s preferences.

“We will have the opportunity to attract customers not only for the value, but people who love styling or technology — things that we are not offering so well,” Castro said.

The redesigned Frontier is said to be equipped with crossoverlike technologies and comforts, including an updated infotainment display, Nissan’s suite of safety technologies and connectivity features, such as Apple CarPlay.

Castro declined to say which competitor models the next Frontier is benchmarked against.

“We are looking everywhere, let’s just say this,” he said. “We are testing every vehicle. We are learning from every vehicle. There’s really good trucks out there.”

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