2023 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X Off-Road Review: An Awesome Adventure Accomplice

Nissan’s mid-sized pickup truck has a new design for the first time in forever. It still feels old school in all the right ways, with just enough modern refinement.

byAndrew P. Collins|
Nissan Reviews photo
Andrew P. Collins

Desert wind blowing through truck windows, chunky tires stirring sand, and a four-wheel drive system engaging with a satisfying click are three sounds that set the tone for a great day. That, plus the patter of rain and occasional skidplate scrape, made the soundtrack of our 2023 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X Mojave Road run. Driving the famous Southwestern overland route with a convoy of pickup trucks, we paid homage to a gauntlet Nissan first ran 40 years ago and got deeply familiar with the new Frontier’s off-road capabilities.

We covered a little over 300 miles in three days—150-plus off-road, around 200 highway—and I won’t string you along for the main takeaways: The Mojave Road is still spectacular in 2023 and the new Frontier is a damn decent truck. This mid-sized pickup doesn’t introduce any revolutionary tricks or technologies, but the Pro-4X variant in particular is an awesome adventure accomplice and I’d jump at the chance to do more overlanding miles in one.

2023 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X Specs

  • Base price (as tested): $40,235 ($46,614)
  • Powertrain: 3.8-liter naturally aspirated V6 | 9-speed automatic transmission | selectable rear-wheel or four-wheel drive with high and low ranges
  • Horsepower: 310 @ 6,400 rpm
  • Torque: 281 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
  • Max payload capacity: 1,610 pounds
  • Max towing capacity: 6,720 pounds
  • Off-road angles: 32.3° approach | 19.6° breakover | 23° departure
  • Ground clearance: 9.4 inches
  • EPA fuel economy: 17 city | 22 highway | 19 combined

Analog main gauges, a good spread of buttons supplemented by a screen (not the other way around), and a service-friendly engine bay aren't going to spark any viral videos. But as far as I'm concerned they're all compelling reasons to buy a Frontier—especially if you actually want to use your truck to escape the brutal blue light of modern life, not drag it into the desert with you.

The Pro-4X has a good combo of capability and coolness that make it fun to drive and reassuring to be in when weather and conditions get rough. This story’s going to get into more detail about that, and our testbed, the famous Mojave Road.

Why is the Mojave Road famous?

The Mojave Road 4-Wheel Drive Route is a truck trail near where California, Nevada, and Arizona border each other. It’s about 150 miles of slow but mostly safe loosely packed terrain, with some shallow sand sections, dirt road sections, and a couple of pucker-inducing descents. It’s significantly rougher than a fire road and much of it is too remote for the faint of heart, but the risk/reward ratio for pristine desert views is excellent and the trail’s pretty easy to access from L.A. or Las Vegas.

This “road” as we know it (roughly) has existed since about 1860 when it was the main conduit for the U.S. mail between SoCal and Arizona. Long before that, the route was used by Native Americans and eventually 1800s explorers. The area also once served as a training ground for General George S. Patton’s troops preparing to fight the Germans in Africa during WWII. Today, it’s a popular and relatively well-known destination for recreational overlanding.

The National Park Service has a nice summary of the area’s background and significance if you’re looking for more context and ancient history. More recently, the route has been important for Japanese automaker Nissan, which is how we ended up running a wagon train of Frontiers on the Mojave Road this year.

Nissan on the Mojave Road 40 Years Apart

In March of 1983, Mojave Road historian Dennis Casebier led a group of 12 Nissan pickups driven by company men and journalists across the route for the same reason automakers host similar events now—cool content of the product in action moves metal!

Fast-forward 40 years and Nissan just happens to have a pretty-new pickup on the market with a bonafide off-road version called the Pro-4X. Luckily for all of us who love living and reading about automotive adventures, the folks selling the things were convinced that a 40th-anniversary route recreation was worth bankrolling, so here we are.

Car enthusiasts tend to be a nostalgic bunch, off-road people especially so. It’s not hard to understand why—off-road adventuring is all about fighting the elements the way it was done by our forefathers, purely for the sake of exploration and challenge. After all, getting across the desert is trivial now thanks to the interstate system and commercial air travel. But where’s the fun in the easy routes?

Andrew P. Collins

The Pro-4X is for people who are nodding along with that last sentence. Just like the 1983 Nissan trucks appealed to people with adventurous self-images by featuring cool graphics kits, roll bars, and extra lights, the Pro-4X pickups are simply the modern execution of those now-classic ideas.

The 1983 trip had an inauspicious start with heavy rains—our trip got pretty well poured on too. But that turned out to yield desert smells and colors that were uniquely enchanting, so it was totally worth having to briefly wear the comically unflattering $5 rain poncho that’d been crumpled up in the bottom of my backpack for three years.

The Pro-4X Spec

Pro-4X is what Nissan has called its off-road trim for many years. It basically bundles all the baseline equipment you’d want to build a competent off-road rig and adds some cool decorative bits to make it extra enticing.

Specifically, the ‘23 Frontier Pro-4X gets a locking rear differential, off-roady (softer-feeling, more robust) shocks, skid plates to protect key areas of the underbody, cool wheels, and all-terrain tires. Plus, red accents all around and nice interior seat trimming.

Ford’s FX4, Chevy’s Z71, and Toyota's TRD Off-Road (not TRD Sport or TRD Pro) would be relatively close equivalents.

Is the Pro-4X Worth It?

Shortest answer: Yes. In the context of rival trucks and contemporary prices, you’re getting a solid value at the proposed list price here.

Longer answer: You could find a used truck and outfit it with all the Pro-4X’s key bullet points for a lot less money. You could even get a base Frontier, put good all-terrain tires on it, and have a lot of this truck’s capability with a lower monthly payment.

Andrew P. Collins

But Nissan did a really good job packaging quality off-road parts that, critically, have a minimal comfort and fuel economy penalty here. Plus, the aesthetic tweaks on this model are too cool to shrug off. The front seat patterning is great and the way the skidplate lines up beautifully with the front bumper should be appreciated.

Subscribe to Drive Wire. Stay up to speed with the latest news, car reviews, and culture stories sent straight to your inbox daily.

It’s unfortunate you can’t get this Pro-4X model with a six-foot bed or a manual transmission (Toyota’s got advantages there) but I think Nissan’s V6 engine is better than what you’re going to find in its Japanese rival and price out the door will likely be lower, too.

The 2023 Frontier Pro-4X’s Best Features

In this era of machines looking like monsters and every automaker trying to out-aggro each other with angry 4x4 designs, the new-for-’22 Frontier's appearance is refreshingly mature. It’s purposeful without trying too hard and the Pro-4X accents turn up the fun factor just enough to be noticeable.

If you head to the Frontier build-and-price site after reading this story, you’ll notice the Pro-4X comes in a few exceptional colors, too. Baja Storm Metallic and Tactical Green Metallic (the latter of which we had for this review) are the unique standouts but you can also get a nice blue and two different reds.

Not an exhaustive display of the 2023 Pro-4X's color options, but my faves. Nissan Nissan

The cockpit design also has great lines and layout. Storage is logical, buttons are easy to find. I absolutely loved the classic simplicity of the gauge cluster—two round dials, three-dimensional with an especially cool red frame on each, plus a clear multi-function screen in between them. 

Just in case any automotive product planners are reading this, I want to be totally candid: The gauges on this primitive Nissan look so much better than most sets displayed entirely on rectangular screens—even in some far fancier cars. But that’s probably a take for a whole other blog.

Back to our truck’s high points, the cargo cleating system in the bed looks really useful and robust. The tailgate’s trick hidden damping shock, however, was surprisingly great. The tailgate looks totally old-school with just two steel cables holding it flat when it’s open, and it soft-opens and soft-closes thanks to a damping system hidden in the fender.

The V6 engine also left me feeling good. Nissan claims the 3.8-liter non-turbo makes 310 horsepower and 281 lb-ft of torque. It had more scoot than every other stock modern mid-sized pickup I’ve driven recently; appreciable acceleration which alone is not ubiquitous in this class.

Six-foot bed trucks in this size are slightly weird looking (five-footer pictured here), but I do wish you could spec the Pro-4X model with the longer cargo bed. Andrew P. Collins

And even with the Pro-4X’s armor weight and knobby tires, I was able to squeeze 21 mpg out of it on the highway without really trying. The trip computer showed about 13 mpg over 150 miles of low-speed off-roading, which looked good to me too. I would expect single digits in a half-ton truck on the same terrain for sure. Don't give me any "an mpg or two doesn't matter, it's a truck" nonsense—a difference of one mpg is major when you're dealing with vehicles that operate in the teens.

Furthermore, the engine looks easy to service (air filter can be changed without tools; oil filter looked like an easy reach) and will likely have generally inexpensive parts. That bodes well for keeping running costs down, which is a huge part of true adventure-worthiness.

The 2023 Frontier Pro-4X’s Shortcomings

The Pro-4X is limited to four-door five-foot bed configurations of the Frontier. You can spec it with 2WD if you want to save a little money up front—it’s just called the Pro-X then—but you shouldn’t because you’ll get burned later on resale. It would be nice for childless adventurers like my wife and I to be able to opt for a short-cab long-bed version so we could build the cargo bed out into an actual proper sleeping area, though.

I know automotive product planners are tired of reading car nerds whine about missing manual transmissions, but I gotta say, it would be cool if you could order this thing in a stick. The nine-speed automatic it ships with is fine but not sweet—it did more gear-hunting than I expected on the highway. It has a “+/-” manual override for greater speed control, but it doesn’t shift the truck manually per se; it would be more accurate to say it lets you dictate the highest gear it’ll shift to.

Finally, my most earnest complaint that I sincerely hope Nissan rectifies as it updates this truck: the auxiliary gauges are bafflingly unlabeled. I love when trucks have a trans temp gauge—running in four-wheel drive with upsized tires or hard-charging through sand can bring a lot of heat to the driveline and it’s nice to be able to keep an eye on the transmission.

Well the Frontier has a selectable trans temp gauge, and also a voltmeter, oil pressure, and oil temperature, which is great! But instead of providing any kind of real readout, they’re just … decorative circles with no way to understand what they indicate. Compounding my frustration is the fact that Nissan’s gauges don’t always read “dead in the middle” as nominal—the Frontier’s coolant temp gauge, an old-school analog needle, rests at operating temp about one-quarter of the way up—so you can’t assume the other gauges are reading normal if they’re pointing straight up and down. On the plus side, this seems like the kind of revision that could be done with some simple software tweaks. Nissan, please patch the gauge cluster software for new and existing '22-and-newer Frontiers! I would love numerical displays with some red/blue coloration for temperature context.

Mojave Road: What It’s Like To Drive Today

On mid-week March days with rain in the forecast, we pretty much had the Mojave Road to ourselves. I have heard anecdotes that it gets crowded on a cool weekend, which I believe considering the factor of L.A.’s proximity alone. But as of this writing, it is still possible to have a quiet experience there on off-peak dates. Such is the way with everything now, eh? I don’t really ski weekends anymore for the same reason.

As you leave Laughlin, Nevada at the route’s standard starting point, the Mojave Road meets you with shallow sand and a variety of routes around desert scrub. The washes give way to a more defined trail quickly, which rolls over and over easy but steep little hills. The Pro-4X’s 360-degree camera situation came in clutch here—when you can’t see over the hood, you can quickly pop the camera on with a dashboard hard key and get instant safety vision. The camera resolution leaves a bit to be desired and I wouldn’t get your hopes up for its nighttime performance, but it gives you enough of a sense to maneuver with added safety.

Andrew P. Collins

Most of the terrain is similar all the way to the railroad crossing you’ll hit near the old desert waystation known as Goffs. This town, population 23, is home to the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association which maintains a little ranch museum full of artifacts and a restored old schoolhouse from 1914.

If you’re planning a Mojave Road trip, hit those guys up and see when they’ll be running the ancient rock-crushing machines they preserve from the California gold rush days.

East of Goffs on the Road gets even more interesting—in vast Joshua Tree forests, plantlife closes closer and closer in on the trail, giving it an enclosed vibe that’s uncommon in the desert. Speaking of uncommon, I mentioned that it rained earlier, and wow, the natural colors of the desert looked delightfully saturated.

Pressing on further still takes you back out to more open desert environs, with fiercely jagged mountains on the horizon and some seriously bumping driving surfaces. Near the Mojave Road’s terminus in California, there’s a small campsite with fire pits, to my surprise, frogs. It really had been a wet winter out west!

If you’re thinking about doing this route, I’d recommend a weekday if you can swing it and potentially a little patience if you can’t. The desert is fragile and you’ll have to be very mindful of where you pass—don’t just blaze around people, wait for a safe spot or politely encourage whoever you’re stuck behind to pull over.

AJ Mueller

You’ll definitely want good tires and skid plates; those are probably the most critical elements for success on this route. Of course, you’ll want to carry extra water, but one upside of off-roading’s popularity is that if you get hopelessly bogged there will probably be somebody to flag down before too long.

Finally, and this might be one of its best features, the Mojave Road prohibits UTVs, aka side-by-sides. I’m sorry to impune an entire genre of off-roading, but, those things are by and large a menace and not having to hear them or worry about one screaming around a blind corner makes the experience more enjoyable for the rest of us.

Why a Frontier Pro-4X Is Such a Great Adventure Buddy

Nissan’s mid-sized off-road truck has all the equipment you need for legit wheeling without being uncomfortable or egregiously inefficient. It looks cool and easy to work on, and of course, a pickup bed gives you a lot of flexibility in cargo management if you’re willing to get creative.

Andrew P. Collins

This truck basically answers the prayer of “I wish I could buy my old truck, but new again, and this time with modern comfort and safety plus a better power to fuel economy tradeoff.” Lately, I’ve been thinking that a bit myself, and honestly since driving this Mojave Road run I’ve really been thinking about buying a Pro-4X.

Got a tip? Email tips@thedrive.com