New Nissan Frontier vs Old Nissan Frontier: Hands-On Test Shows Big Similarities

We looked around, inside, and underneath the two to learn exactly what they share.

byChris Rosales| PUBLISHED Jun 1, 2022 2:06 PM
New Nissan Frontier vs Old Nissan Frontier: Hands-On Test Shows Big Similarities
Chris Rosales
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The 2022 Nissan Frontier replaced a truck that hadn’t been new since 2005. Seventeen years is a hell of a run for a model, even a pickup. The new version certainly looks different, but how much below the sheet metal has really changed? We took a close look inside, outside, and underneath the new and old Frontiers to learn for ourselves.

A 3.8-liter VQ38DD V6 and nine-speed automatic transmission make up the lone powertrain available. Interestingly, Nissan sold this engine with the old body style and undercarriage for just two years before completely phasing out the last generation. Handily, we were able to borrow one such truck (well, we Turo’d it) while babysitting a Tactical Green Metallic 2022 Pro-4X model on loan from Nissan. Jacking up these two trucks taught us just how different and—in a lot of cases—how similar they are underneath.

Chris Rosales

This newest model is still built “on a proven chassis and frame” by Nissan’s own admission. With that in mind, the expectations for real changes were medium to low from the jump. Reading the press release is interesting because Nissan oscillates between saying “all-new” and “all-new design,” which teased my curiosity about any alterations made beneath the skin. I hoped for some subtle geometry and damper changes at best and for updated materials at the least.

Let’s take the wheels off and take a look.

The Nissan Frontier front suspension. 2022 truck on the left and the 2020 truck on the right.

On The Front Suspension

At first glance—or at any glance, really—it’s hard to spot any differences between the two. Everything is visually the same, save for the slight modifications made to the older truck, namely the two-inch lift and sway bar delete. Everything down to the control arm, hub, upright and brakes look the same. That’s because they are.

I ran the various part numbers of the front suspension and did find some variation in the dampers throughout the years. Our 2022 loaner used Bilstein shocks with an E6110-9BU2A part number, while the 2020 truck supposedly used an E6C10-EA82PNW part number, but I couldn’t verify if it’s the one installed on this Turo rental. The springs also have different reference numbers in the Nissan parts catalog. This would lend credence to the theory of damping and spring changes.

A front view of the front suspension. The 2022 is on the left and the 2020 is on the right.

The control arm, knuckle, hub and brake system part numbers are all exactly alike. Nothing has changed, which is slightly disappointing for something that started production in 2005. Some aluminum parts would be appreciated, but I guess “don’t fix what isn’t broken” was taken to heart here. In all fairness, the stamped steel control arms could bend on a trail and still get you home, while aluminum would theoretically fracture more easily. In reality, it’s something of a toss-up.

So far, there is no getting away from the fact that this looks like the exact same truck underneath.

Detail of the lower ball joint and hubs. 2022 pictured on the left, 2020 on the right.
Wide view of the rear axle of the two Nissan Frontiers. The 2020 is pictured on the left and the 2022 is on the right.

On The Rear Axle

Both the old and new Frontier use a simple, dependable live rear axle based on the Dana 44. Off-roaders will be familiar with the Dana 44 but to those who don’t purposely crash trucks over rocks, it’s kind of like the LS engine because it’s ubiquitous and robust. Nearly everbody likes them and a truck that has them is usually considered cool, mainly thanks to its widespread use in Jeep Wranglers. It has some differences when compared to a normal 44, like the extra bolt at the top of the differential housing, but it retains the same concept.

Rear differential cover detail. 2020 on the left, 2022 on the right.

It’s the same story as the front suspension. Revised dampers and leaf springs compensate for different weight and handling characteristics, but the hardware remains unchanged. Since both trucks use the same drivetrain, gearing is the exact same, too. The previous 4.0-liter Frontier with the five-speed automatic used a 3.35 final drive while the new nine-speed uses a 3.69 final drive to shorten overall gearing for the nine-speed.

Leaf springs and Bilstein dampers suspend both trucks in the exact same fashion, save for the aftermarket lift on our 2020 model here. While poking around I noted similar driveshaft joints, a seemingly identical fuel tank and what looks to be the same charcoal canister. The general routing of all the lines even appeared unaltered. Considering both trucks use the same engine, this isn’t a surprise. 

I did note that the 2022 uses a different style of body-to-frame mount than the 2020. The previous 4.0-liter truck was quite different to this according to photos I’ve seen, so it seems nearly all of the mechanical updates were brought forward with the 3.8-liter engine and nine-speed gearbox. This further enforces the idea that there was just as much change in 2020 as there has been for 2022. 

An overview of the two engine bays. 2022 on the left and 2020 on the right.

On The Drivetrain

There are no reported physical changes for the 3.8-liter V6 and automatic gearbox from the 2020 model to the ‘22a quick review confirmed this. All the parts look like they were copied and pasted over, with the same hose and wiring routing as well as the same locations for everything. The engine bays were identical but the new truck’s nose extends an extra foot or so, which could be for crash safety or styling. Both Frontiers even use the same hydraulically boosted brake master cylinder, which was a new addition for the 3.8L engine. Instead of using engine vacuum, this style of booster uses a fluid pump to power it—usually the power steering pump. The previous 4.0L Frontier used a more common vacuum booster.

A closer look at the hydraulic brake booster of the two Frontiers. 2020 on the left, 2022 on the right. Notice the high-pressure canister on the left of the brake master cylinder.

Bizarrely, the biggest differences were in calibration. Driving both trucks back-to-back made it evident that Nissan’s engineers did a reasonably good job at refining the nine-speed in just two years. The 2020 Frontier felt duck-footed from a stop and shifted with a heavy-duty sort of harshness, while the 2022 was substantially smoothed out, especially when on the throttle. The new truck has an intuitive and easy accelerator that smooths out inputs without damping throttle response while the old truck takes a smoother initial input to avoid harshness.

Bell housing and gearbox detail. 2020 on the left, 2022 on the right.

The gearbox also felt much better in the new truck. Shifts were executed precisely with obvious throttle modulation from the ECU while the old truck shifted kinda like a ‘90s Toyota and rolled onto the next gear. The transfer case and great crawl ratio remain the same across the two trucks, and with the exceptionally low first gear and the transfer case in 4LO, they crest any reasonable obstacle with ease.

On The Trail

This was a highlight for both trucks as their relative simplicity is less of a worry on the trail. In short, the change-averse engineering attitude makes them excellent candidates for dependable off-road rigs. In a way, less can certainly be more when you’re in the desert and might need to make a repair.

Our Tactical Green tester was stock but the Turo truck was slightly modified with a two-inch block lift kit and sway bar deletes on both axles. The mods informed what I would do to the new truck on day one of ownership; the improvements were noticeable over the 350 miles I put on the Turo truck.

Chris Rosales

I was impressed with the rugged and simple 2022 Frontier on some decent black diamond off-roading trails. It managed its traction well and rarely snagged on obstacles, though the $750 optional step rails caused some breakover issues on taller berms. While it inspired confidence with its old school rough-and-tumble feel, it also fatigued me on rocky trails. It’s mostly the large sway bars that Nissan specced the truck with for on-road handling that causes jostling over uneven obstacles.

Deleting the sway bars altogether and lifting the old truck solved every gripe I had. Since the two are more or less mechanically identical, the way forward is clear for any prospective owner looking to spend time on the dirt. The 2022 truck also had off-road cameras that mostly worked but they had poor contrast and overall quality. At high noon, things in shadow melted into black.

I’d argue that these trucks are at their very best off-road. On-road is a much different story.

Chris Rosales

On Driving and Comfort

This is where there the otherwise straightforward comparison gets a little complicated. Empirically, the new truck is better. It has a more complete set of features, it’s actually competitive with the admittedly lukewarm midsize truck segment, and finally, it has learned a lesson or two in refinement over 17 years. But there are some things that the old truck genuinely does better.

First, let’s look at the quantifiable. The old truck has light steering, and I mean light steering. It’s so light that it’s indistinguishable from one of those Cruisin’ USA arcade games. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, the new truck has heavy steering. Weirdly heavy. At parking lot speeds, it takes some decent effort to manuever it. Both trucks are still hydraulically assisted, and Nissan says it retuned the steering for better “on-center feel” on the 2022 model, but the new truck’s heavy wheel doesn’t translate into a better experience. I could drive five degrees off-center and the truck would basically track straight. Instead of being pinkie-finger light, it’s more like mixing concrete. 

Technology-wise, the 2022 is decently equipped. It has Apple CarPlay on a nine-inch LCD screen with surround cameras that have the resolution of a CRT TV, as well as a seven-inch screen in the gauge cluster. The Fender stereo is passable but my unit had an issue with playing music while displaying Google Maps on CarPlay; it would distort and pop. Overall, it’s decent but not exactly exceptional. Compared to the old truck, it at least felt contemporary. I found the layout of the steering wheel controls to be somewhat puzzling but still usable.

I can’t believe Nissan sold the old Frontier in 2020 with a head unit lifted directly from 2005; the navigation screen could have been from a Palm PDA. Otherwise, I actually don’t have many critiques. In fact, I think the old interior has much better vibes. Frankly, the old truck had less rattles, felt much better built, and had great material choices while the new truck felt like gimmicky bullshit attached to something old. The nice saddle brown leather of the old truck was replaced with some ugly carbon-fiber-looking material that I don’t care for in the slightest, nor do I like the red accents.

Chris Rosales

The virtue of honesty in a truck is strong and the old one has it in spades over the new one. Everything feels higher quality. Perhaps this is a remnant of its original engineering as one of the last bubble-era Japanese trucks, while the new one is a product from a company still in a recovery cycle. The most obvious sign is how the door card in the 2022 Frontier moves a quarter of an inch when the window opens or closes while the 2020’s doesn’t move at all. Somehow, the new truck has a door close that feels like it never quite shuts. Instead of a positive close, it has what could be a negative close. Perception of quality and quality itself still matters.

Also, the old truck had noticeably less wind noise at highway speeds. The new truck has a distinct tone around 80 mph that is fatiguing on long treks while the old truck has nothing of the sort. Very strange.

Conclusions

Truthfully, I expected the new truck to decisively defeat the old one in the driving experience and draw even in engineering. What I got was two mechanically identical trucks that provided strangely different experiences. After talking with a few colleagues that have driven both, I don’t think I’m alone there.

The old truck was endearing in its honesty and quality. It did The Thing and it did it well. On a subjective level, I walked away liking the old truck a lot more than the new one. The light steering, old-school amber-backlit gauges and general sense of being fastened tightly together offered exactly what I want from an off-roader.

Chris Rosales

The new Frontier was fine but not great. Where I could excuse the struggles of the old Frontier, I cannot excuse the fact that some of those issues remain in a product that is called “all-new.” Some details seem to have simply been forgotten, like the fact that neither truck has a telescoping steering wheel and how that reduced my comfort substantially on long highway drives. The new truck really should have added that.

With its newness and technology, the 2022 Frontier could be considered better by most. But it doesn’t further the room-temperature midsize truck segment, which I feel is ready for a properly new challenger. Both trucks are good in their own way and will serve new owners faithfully with proven technology and engineering, but you’ve got to decide which is worth the price.

Chris Rosales

Thanks to the seller’s market we’re in now, the 2020 Frontier and a base 2022 Pro-4X both approach $40,000. Our new one was $46,965 as tested, which was just way too much for the truck I drove. A 2022 Pro-4X starts around $39,345 which is still pretty steep. Since so many of the parts are carried over, there may be more value in finding a lightly used one in the mid-$30,000 range. But if you can get a new one at MSRP, you get a more modern truck for not a lot more money and have the ability to mod it on day one.

Still, if it were my cash, I’d really consider the old truck. It feels ridiculous to say, but it has unplaceable good vibes that left me feeling better about it. But if you need a dependable, simple truck, you won't go wrong with either—just don't expect anything revolutionary.