A 2-day trip traveling the Mojave Road — a historic trail and a bucket-list destination for off-road adventures and overlanding — served as fantastic testing grounds to experience the Frontier’s off-road capabilities while taking in exquisite, enthralling views and memories for a lifetime.
In addition to its outdoor grandeur, the Mojave Road has a rich heritage that goes back to the days when settlers and pioneers braved the dangers of the Wild West. The exploring almost never ends — with numerous side roads, offshoots, and historical sites to visit. In our estimation, it’s a delightful off-road excursion that gave the factory suspension a serious workout.
In short: The third-generation Nissan Frontier breaks away from the trend of turbocharged four-cylinder engines and delivers a midsize truck that is truly capable off-road without trading away on-road passenger comfort.
2023 Nissan Frontier
- Engine 3.8L V6
- Power 310 hp
- Torque 281 lb.-ft.
- Transmission 9-speed automatic
- Drivetrain Switchable 2WD/4WD/4WD lock
- Fuel Economy 19 mpg overall
- Tow capacity 6,720 lbs.
- Payload capacity 1,610 lbs.
- Smooth power delivery from a strong V6 engine
- Successfully balances on-road manners with proven off-road capability
- Broadly improved cabin comfort
- Hydraulic power steering
- Tight second row
- Bland styling
- Missing tilt adjustment for the driver's seat
- No telescoping steering wheel column
Nissan & the Mojave Road
Forty years ago, Nissan was instrumental in supporting the opening of the Mojave Road as a recreational trail for off-roading. The Japanese automaker organized an expedition in 1983 using its first American-built pickup truck, the new 1983.5 720.
Ten 720 pickup trucks plus invited journalists from FourWheeler, Truckin’, Motor Trend, Autoweek, and four other off-road and truck magazines set off on an adventure across the eastern Mojave Desert. Their articles brought attention to the beauty of the desert and were partly responsible for making the Mojave Road the overlanding destination it is today.
Dennis Casebier, who wrote a series of books chronicling the trail’s historical importance and author of the Mojave Road Guide, was invited to help organize and guide the original expedition. Casebier is one of the earliest supporters behind opening the trail for recreational use. His 10 years of research and dedication toward the restoration and preservation of the Mojave Road were invaluable and a vital resource.
Nissan invited GearJunkie and a handful of other automotive outlets to reenact that expedition, which happened 4 decades ago, using the redesigned Frontier to cross the Mojave Desert.
Redesigned Nissan Frontier
The 2022 Nissan Frontier represents the first redesign of the automaker’s midsize pickup since the mid-2000s. I mention 2022 because that is what we used for this trip. The trucks used on our Mojave Road 2-day journey are due for retirement from the press fleet and brought out for one last media event. Essentially, there are no significant differences between the 2022 and 2023 Frontier models.
The face of the third-generation Frontier looks pretty tough with its sculpted fascia, sharp angles, black grille, and FRONTIER stamped on the front edge of the hood. Skid plates — part of the PRO-4X package — protect the underside. A view of the rear shows off the taillights that mimic the front lights and a soft-opening tailgate that lowers at a controlled rate.
Hidden Gems of the Frontier PRO-4X
The 281-horsepower, normally aspirated V6 is a carryover from the previous generation Frontier. And for a good reason: It works and works and works. Did I mention that it works really well with the nine-speed automatic transmission? The powertrain has enough gumption to tow 6,720 pounds or carry 1,610 pounds without the help of a turbocharger or battery-powered motor.
The on-demand four-wheel drive system connects to a dual-range transfer case. With a simple turn of a switch, it is easy to transition from 2WD to 4HI or 4LO. Hill descent control is part of the package, but the switch is positioned low to the driver’s left knee and not easily visible. The same goes for the button that activates the locking rear differential.
All 4×4 Frontier PRO-4X trims get outfitted with Bilstein off-road shock absorbers and 17-inch wheels with all-terrain tires. For this run, our trucks came with 3-Peak Mountain Snowflake (3PMS) rated Hankook Dynapro AT2 tires. This grade level includes an electronic locking rear differential mentioned above; dual tow hooks up front, and additional underbody skid plates for extra protection from rocks and other nasty obstacles.
Nissan Frontier: What’s Inside
The cabin fits in with the same functional, no-frills layout of most midsize trucks. Hard, black plastic is used on the center console and door panels. Black leather and an embroidered pattern dress the front row seats. A somewhat tight second row with underseat storage is equally businesslike.
Commanding the center of the dash is a 9-inch infotainment screen that includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The PRO-grade models feature wireless charging and wireless Apple CarPlay.
Specific to the PRO-4X model is an Off-Road Mode that shows what is immediately forward in front of the bumper when poking along at low speeds. This is a helpful feature only for parking or rock crawling because it automatically switches off at speeds above 5 mph.
An electronic, shift-on-the-fly system allows drivers to easily switch between 2WD, 4HI, and 4LO modes. 4×4 models also benefit from a steel front skid plate, front tow hooks, Hill Descent Control, and a four-wheel limited-slip system, which helps transfer power to the drive wheels with more grip on low-traction surfaces.
Mojave Road Starting Line
The 130-mile journey officially started on the banks of the Colorado River, a short distance south of Laughlin, Nev. Our heading was due west into California, aiming for a finish at Camp Cady on the Mojave River. After a brief driver’s meeting and airing down the tires, everyone settled into their respective trucks and was ready to recreate Nissan’s 1983 historic drive along the Mojave Road.
During the entire trip, Sean Holman enlightened us about the rich history of the Mojave Road and the diverse geography of the desert we were crossing.
Driving Impressions of the Nissan Frontier Pro4X
On our 2-day trek along the Mojave Road, we were treated to magnificent views framed by Joshua trees and spectacular geography punctuated by many mountain ranges. Our visibility to the west was almost unlimited due to the rainstorms that cleared the air.
Refreshing is the Frontier’s powertrain. Bucking the trend of turbocharged fours is the normally aspirated 3.8L V6 serving up 310 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque. The V6 offers solid acceleration, but what’s impressive is how smooth it is.
There’s no waiting for a turbocharger to develop peak power, even though the meat of the powerband sits in the upper rev range. It never sounds strained, and what you hear comes across at low volume.
The nine-speed transmission is also seamless when not working hard, though a bit of sluggishness and roughness shows up if you push it.
It’s only slightly disappointing since the Nissan Frontier PRO-4X is a satisfactory handling truck. The steering is an old-school hydraulic assist system that delivers the sort of feedback that’s mostly vanished across the modern vehicle segments. However, it’s heavier at slower speeds and can be vague when driving in a straight line.
Body roll is mild, and the Frontier feels solid. The ride is surprisingly smooth, albeit for a truck, even on bumpy dirt roads and rough asphalt patches.
Things Get Wet, but Not Too Wild
Around 2 p.m. on Day 2, dark clouds approached from the northwest, and we could see them dropping heavy doses of rain. We kept rolling to pick up the main trail and avoid getting caught in one of the many floodplains or washouts.
There was soupy mud and large puddles in our path for miles. Nevertheless, everyone turned on their windshield wipers and forged ahead — no close calls or tow-outs necessary. Everyone got through without having to double back and pick up stragglers.
The 2022 and newer Nissan Frontier PRO-4X pickup trucks have 9.4 inches of ground clearance, enough to clear almost everything on the Mojave Road. A few times that extra underbody protection came in contact with high points on the trail, but the number of occurrences was rare. It also comes in handy when doing river crossings.
In two-wheel drive and with traction control on, power is drastically reduced to prevent the rear wheels from spinning and doesn’t allow transfer of power from side to side. The switch to four-wheel drive high was necessary when conditions became more challenging. Power transfer to the wheel with better traction was seamless, and articulation was excellent when things got rough.
Switching to four-wheel drive low automatically turns off traction control and stability control. In the few instances where 4WD low was necessary, the Frontier PRO-4X ambled its way in fine fashion. Nissan’s Active Brake Limited Slip (ABLS) system minimizes hiccups and excessive slipping, which took away most of the drama getting through the difficult sections of the trail.
Thankfully, the Hankook all-terrain tires could handle everything we encountered on the Mojave Road. Dirt, gravel, slippery mud, sharp lava rocks, loose sand, desert washes, and some crazy terrain that lifted a wheel or two were all inconsequential.
Nissan Frontier Review: Refined & Underrated
The Nissan Frontier PRO-4X has impressive off-road capabilities, solid build quality, and modern tech features. It incorporates a strong V6 engine, on-the-go four-wheel drive, and a sturdy chassis, making it a reliable choice for off-road enthusiasts. The interior brings comfort, spaciousness, and added amenities, such as an infotainment system and advanced safety features, into a tidy package ready for work or play.
In a few words, the Nissan Frontier PRO-4X offers excellent value for those in search of a capable and well-rounded midsize truck that easily fits in a parking space.
Class competitors worth a look if you’re shopping for a midsize truck are the new Chevy Colorado, refreshed Ford Ranger, and Toyota Tacoma. Just don’t expect the Frontier to match the all-terrain capabilities of the Colorado ZR2 and TRD Pro Taco.