We tested the latest Frontier Pro-4X off road in the mountains of Utah — and yes, we dented it. Rain fell, trucks slid, and rocks flew.
The Nissan Frontier Pro-4X isn’t an all-conquering off-roader. Instead, Nissan pitches it as a truck that’ll get you there on the weekend but be as good to live with when you’re on a suburban adventure.
About a quarter of the way into our Nissan Frontier off-road trek, it started to rain. That’s when things got interesting. Instead of the water soaking into the ground, it instantly turned into mud with about the same friction levels as a mix of snow and ice. Looking out the driver’s window at a narrow path and some steep drops, I’ve never been happier to have a low-range transfer case in a truck.
Useful Capability, Not Extreme All-Terrain
Nissan wanted to make a truck that offered a useful amount of extra capability when you wanted to head away from the pavement but that wasn’t compromised for the Monday-to-Friday grind.
That’s the danger of a lifted truck with 33-inch tires, rock rails, and all the rest. Sure, it can traverse the Rubicon trail or drive up the side of a building. But it can also make migraine-inducing levels of noise on the highway and suck down fuel in a way that even NASCAR teams might find excessive.
Working from the first all-new Frontier in 17 years, the product team tried to figure out what would help you on those weekend adventures. Then Nissan sent us to Park City, Utah, to test it out. On the interstate, in town, and then on an impressively challenging trail ride — one that quickly turned into a serious challenge thanks to some unexpected rain.
The Basics of Off-Road Upgrades
The Nissan Frontier Pro-4X package’s mechanical upgrades start with Bilstein shocks tuned for rough-road comfort. The truck has three steel skid plates to protect the soft bits underneath and an aluminum one up front that looks cool. Lastly, it has an electronic locking rear differential that can be switched on when you’re in low range.
Most of the rest of the changes are cosmetic, like badges and the red tow hooks. Inside there are Lava Red accents and Nissan has taken a note from buyers here. For 2022, the Premium Package dropped the red accents. For 2023, it’s all Lava Red all the time, because that’s what customers asked for.
Last up, the Frontier Pro-4X has an off-road mode for the surround view cameras, and all 4×4 Frontiers have hill descent control.
Park City is best known as a ski destination. Home to Olympic events in 2002 and boasting the largest ski area in the country, it has lifts running right into town.
When it comes to off-roading, it’s the altitude of Park City that matters. We’re at well over 7,000 feet, and that makes a difference to the truck and the driver. The Frontier’s 3.8L V6 that makes 310 horsepower at sea level is probably off by around 20% up here.
I’m probably off by at least that much power, too, which becomes immediately obvious the first time I hop out of the truck for a photo. Sure, if you live here you get used to it, but I live near the ocean. Phew. Pass the oxygen.
Buyers Want Their Trucks to Be Trucks
Frontier has a smooth ride by truck standards and is impressively quiet, but it still feels like an old-school pickup. Every control you touch, every movement of the steering wheel, every reaction of the chassis and body. It’s all vintage truck. Because old-school is what buyers want from their Nissan.
Of course, that’s what the company’s communications team would say, but look at the sales charts. The previous Frontier’s best sales year was 2018, with 2017 and 2019 not far off. When that version of the Frontier was already 14 years old, it still was an old-school truck against much newer competitors.
There’s something to that notion. A more mechanical-feeling pickup gives you a sense of reliability — of durability and timelessness. Look at the resurgence of vintage clothing and vintage furniture, and the return to handmade goods and DIY. Those are direct responses to the disposable feel of modern consumer goods.
That little shimmy when you hit a pothole and feel it moving through the bushings and bones of the truck? That’s you, connected to the road. Doing real work, through a real hydraulic power steering system, not some fancy disconnected electronic pump.
Trail Views Good Idea, Lack Execution
Not all modern features are bad, of course. Like the surround-view cameras that let you pick the right path on a particularly narrow stretch of trail. Unfortunately, Nissan hasn’t quite gone modern enough with this one.
Low-resolution cameras make the trail view a blur if you’re moving. A sore spot between the product people and the lawyers, the cameras won’t work above 6 mph, either. It’s fine for crawling around trees in the daylight, but the cameras weren’t there for me to see the rock that flipped up and put a head-sized dent in the passenger door.
At least that’s my excuse. I’m not sure how else I could have ended up punching such a ding into a spot that high up on the truck. Even a lift or rock rails wouldn’t have helped me out on this one.
It’s a reminder of two things. First, if you’re going to go off road, then you’re going to end up banging up your truck. It’s inevitable, no matter how careful you are. The second is that you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Does it cut into resale? A bit. Does it add loads of character? Absolutely. A truck like this loves a little extra character.
Then Came the Rain
This brings me back to the trail. Nissan’s chosen trail was meant to represent the kind of trail average Pro-4X buyers would actually take. Not overly technical, not just a dirt road — it was littered with downed branches, rocks that wouldn’t destroy a truck but would make you glad for the skid plates, some narrow turns, and some steep up and downhill sections.
It was the sudden rain that made it a real test. But hey, rain happens. We won’t try and pretend it doesn’t.
Every component of a vehicle is a compromise of some sort. It’s usually cost versus durability, but sometimes durability versus appearance. The compromise front and center when the rain fell was the rubber.
No tire can do everything. It’s not fair to expect it to. The Hankook Dynapro AT2 tires Nissan picked are a good balance for pavement and dirt and gravel roads. The tires even wear a three-peak mountain snowflake badge that proves they’re excellent in the snow.
You can learn everything you need to know about the difference between all-terrain and mud-terrain tires, but for now, the important bit is this: Mud tires throw out the mud, letting the tread bite into the ground. All-terrain and snow tires trap snow, because snow sticks to snow amazingly well.
Trapping snow means all-terrain tires trap mud, and mud does not stick to mud. Quite the opposite.
Frontier Handled Off-Road Surprises
This is why, as I started to head down a 20% grade in this shiny new Frontier, I was glad to have hill descent control and low-range gearing.
The moment I tapped the brakes, the rear end of the truck started to slide like I was on a sheet of ice. I have more than enough experience on snow and ice to know that the truck wasn’t sliding as much as my butt was trying to tell me, but I did know that I couldn’t ignore it.
In 4Lo and locked into first gear, the 2.717:1 transfer case gives you a very high crawl ratio. We normally talk about low range for its torque multiplication — a big help at these heights — and how that can get you up hills and over boulders. The same gearing that means more torque at the tires means the engine braking effect is multiplied when you’re going downhill.
You go very slowly without touching the brakes, and the back end of the truck stays in line. In theory, that gives you more time to spend watching the trail and steering instead of braking. If, you know, you’re remembering to watch the trail and not staring over into the abyss until you hit a boulder.
Climbing back up the other side of the old river valley, I left the rear differential unlocked. Yes, guaranteeing power at both rear tires is good, but the trail had sharp bends, and I didn’t want the larger turning circle that comes with staying locked up.
The Frontier bounced and danced up the hill, but thanks to its rugged old-truck feel, nothing was binding up. Nothing felt like it was about to say no to the goings-on underneath and fail to proceed.
It’s the Little Cabin Details That Make a Truck
After all the mud, I’d like to give my compliments to part of Nissan’s interior design team. Specifically, the people who gave the go-ahead to a hard plastic carpet protector where the side of your boot or shoe touches the transmission tunnel and who put a floor vent directly above it. Thanks to these heroes, my carpet was unmuddied and my wet toes well warmed. It’s the details that matter.
Once the rain dried, I went looking for some more roads that would test out the truck. What did I find? Filling-loosening, heavily washboarded dirt on steep hills. Perfect for finding out just how solid the Frontier’s frame was and how well the suspension was sorted.
The answer was very well. No twerking truck bed in my rearview mirror here. The stiffness of the fully boxed frame is a big help on all surfaces, letting the suspension do its job instead of fighting movement on both sides.
The verdict: As Nissan said, it’s no ZR2 or TRD Pro, but it handled the surfaces just fine while being much more pleasant to drive home.
Bigger Cargo Space, but Mostly on Paper
If you’re headed outdoors, you’re bringing more than just you and your truck. To help, Nissan says it made the bed 7% larger. The increase comes from a 1.4-inch taller height, though, so it’s not exactly a useful boost.
Put all of your cargo under a hard tonneau in perfectly selected boxes, and you might notice the extra. Load it like a pickup, where the sky (or local DOT regs) are the limit, and you won’t.
The slider tracks and four movable cargo cleats are very handy to keep everything in place on the trail. So is the under-rail LED bed lighting.
Nissan Frontier’s max towing and payload are both about average for the segment at 6,720 pounds and 1,610 pounds, respectively. Move to the Pro-4X, offered in Crew Cab short-box-only, and the capacities suffer from the extra weight of the truck’s own equipment.
Towing drops to 6,270 pounds and max payload to 1,230. For comparison, the Colorado Z71 and Toyota Tacoma TRD Sport offer payload and towing of 1,474/7,000 pounds and 1,155/6,400 pounds, respectively. So, the Nissan fares reasonably well if you’re not buying the flyweight base-spec trucks.
2023 Frontier Pro-4X Review
Nissan doesn’t do a new truck often. And when it does, at first glance, it might not seem all that new. But Nissan has listened to its customers, delivering a truck that feels worthy of its Hardbody ancestors.
Perfectly capable of handling most of what you’ll throw at it on the weekends while being a solid way to get around during the week. The 2023 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X starts from $38,270 plus destination.