Over a short route through some of Nashville's toniest Belle Meade rural properties, we had a first look at what could be the latest version of Nissan's midsize pickup -- a diesel-powered Frontier -- during a one-day program featuring Nissan's entire current lineup.
What is the Nissan Frontier Diesel?
Known as the Navara in Asia, the original Frontier debuted in North America in 1986. Up until 2004, it was considered a compact truck. The current generation, which was introduced in 2004 is now classified as a midsize pickup.
Although Nissan confirmed that the next full-size Nissan Titan will offer a 5.0L diesel powertrain, the idea of an oil-burner Frontier is still in the draft stages.
Nissan Frontier Diesel Price & Specs
If Nissan does decide to go ahead and produce a diesel-powered Frontier, it won't be the one we drove, which was a test mule based on the current generation.
Rumour has it that the next Frontier could be based on the early D22 platform from 1997.
Our tester was powered by a 2.8L 4-cylinder turbodiesel Cummins engine mated to an 8-speed ZF transmission. While its 200 horsepower doesn't quite match the 4.0L V6's 261 horsepower, its 350 lb-ft of torque, compared to the gasoline engine's 281 lb-ft, more than makes up for it.
Inside and Out of the Nissan Frontier Diesel
Unlike the concept truck debuted at the 2014 Chicago Auto Show -- the Frontier Diesel Runner that boasted eye-catching graphics, a colourful interior, and a transparent hood -- our test mule was a plain, grey pickup, hardly distinguishable from any conventional Frontier.
Riding shotgun was Steve Sanders, an engineer with Cummins Inc., and one member of the team responsible for the truck's development.
The plain interior featured a few of the parts-bin oddities you sometimes see in a project test mule -- Sanders pointed out the wonky automatic shift lever sourced from Chrysler and the steering wheel borrowed from an Altima.
"That airbag light?" he said, "That's because there isn't one. Your passenger will be OK if you crash, but you won't."
Good to know.
Driving the Nissan Frontier Diesel
It took a bit of effort to actually get rolling, as finding reverse with the cobbled-together shifter was a bit of a guessing game.
The engine is a reworked version of the existing 2.8L and is a prototype developed specifically for this project. There's been no effort put into tuning it for noise and vibration, as was rather evident from the clattering at start-up.
A great deal of the diesel engine's torque is concentrated down low in its powerband, giving the Frontier a lot of thrust off the line. However, there's a dead spot while the turbo spools up before the power comes on strong again. Presumably there will be extensive tuning to broaden the powerband before it's production ready. Nissan claims this powertrain will offer a 35% improvement in fuel economy, in no small part thanks to the ZF-sourced 8-speed transmission. Smoothing out the power delivery will go a long way towards reaching that goal.
Comparing the Nissan Frontier Diesel
The small-truck market is an increasingly small one with the departure of the Dodge Dakota and more recently, Ford's venerable Ranger.
However, General Motors is stepping up to the plate with soon-to-arrive diesel powertrains in their midsize GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado -- and in the same 2.8L 4-cylinder configuration as the Frontier's.
Despite being a work-in-progress, the diesel-powered Frontier impressed us as an idea that makes good sense in the quest to lower overall fuel consumption numbers.
Nissan isn't ready to confirm that it will see production any time soon, but we're willing to bet that it will.