Toyota didn’t do Nissan any favors. Its tenuous steps into the full-size-pickup segment, first with the T100 and then with the 7/8-scale Tundra, muddied the waters for American consumers, who became thoroughly schooled in the notion that Japanese trucks simply didn’t measure up. Nissan’s full-size truck would have to make a very strong statement if it were to reeducate people whose vision of a pickup focused squarely on the Ford F-150. Nissan’s U.S. dealers, embarrassed by the utter wussiness of the last-generation Frontier truck, told Nissan’s new chief, Carlos Ghosn, not even to think about bringing another truck to our market without a V-8 engine. Nissan’s U.S.-based product planners, engineers, designers, and executives made similar pleas to Japan: If we’re going to do a truck bigger than the Frontier, it has to be a real pickup.
And so, the Titan that made its public debut at the January 2003 Detroit auto show and went on sale that fall was a pickup truck writ large. You might think that the Titan’s designers were on loan from Tonka Toys, as they almost went overboard making the Titan at least as big, bold, and butch as anything from Detroit this side of a Cummins-powered dualie. Likewise, Nissan’s engineers made sure the Titan equaled or exceeded the competition in the big five big-truck attributes: horsepower, torque, towing capacity, cab size, and bed size.
Nissan had the right idea. It didn’t even bother making a regular-cab Titan, as those account for less than twenty percent of full-size-pickup sales. We chose the extended-cab model, which Nissan calls the King Cab, but Nissan also makes a crew-cab model with four full-size doors and a bed that’s a foot shorter than the King Cab’s 6.5-foot box. We passed up the base XE model in favor of the midlevel SE, which has front captain’s chairs with a floor-mounted gearshifter rather than a Detroit-style column shift.
We put our Titan to work right away. Within days of its arrival, Tim Jennings, husband of editor-in-chief Jean Jennings, seized the Titan’s keys and headed to New Hampshire to fetch a 1972 Norton Commando 850 motorcycle. He became a big fan of the Titan’s optional utility bed package, which includes a factory-applied spray-on bedliner, a twelve-volt outlet, and a clever airline-inspired system of aluminum rails with tie-down cleats that allows you to secure all manner of cargo. “The Titan’s bed is well thought out,” Jennings said. Nissan dealers sell bed dividers, sliding cargo trays, modular storage units, and bike and kayak racks to make the most of the setup, although we simply lashed our mountain bikes to the floor rails. We also subjected the bedliner to multiple loads of big landscaping rocks and found it to be a durable alternative to a drop-in plastic unit.
The King Cab’s rear half-doors were also welcome. With two-stage hinges, they swing open first to a conventional 85 degrees and then all the way toward the bed sides, a full 168 degrees. Folding the 60/40-split rear seat bottoms up against the bulkhead, which exposes a nearly flat floor, and opening both the front and rear doors creates a huge cargo-loading aperture. We even managed to fit a dishwasher, in its shipping carton, into the passenger’s side of the cab.
That big opening had a big downside, though, as noted by contributor Matt Phenix at about 9000 miles: “The Titan is awash in squeaks and rattles. It’s those gaping, B-pillar-less side openings and loose-fit clamshell doors.” One six-foot, four-inch passenger found plenty of headroom in the rear seat but noted, “the front seatbelt is fastened to the rear door, so the front-seat passenger can’t let the person in the back out without taking off the seatbelt–or getting strangled.” Ford mounts the F-150’s front seatbelt to the front seat itself, a much more elegant solution.
Overall, though, there were few complaints about the utility of the Titan’s King Cab interior, which is so roomy, so versatile, and so full of useful storage it could serve as a studio apartment if it had a hot plate. Actually, we did install an auxiliary heating device, a Webasto gasoline-fueled heater that warms the coolant that circulates through the heater core. This allowed us to stand inside our homes on frigid Michigan mornings, press a remote, and warm the Titan’s cabin before we braved the elements, all while consuming less fuel and producing less emissions than conventional remote-start systems.
Our Titan comfortably accommodated drivers running the gamut from a petite five-foot woman to a six-foot, five-inch, 252-pound man, both of whom, coincidentally, complained that the bold instrument panel was “too much in your face.” There were also a lot of logbook complaints about the vision-obstructing A-pillars, which Phenix likened to sheetmetal bell-bottoms and senior editor Joe Lorio to “an East German gymnast’s thighs.” Tech editor Don Sherman retorted: “The heavier the vehicle, the stouter the pillars to keep the roof intact in a rollover.” And at 5260 pounds, the Titan is one heavy vehicle.
Which is why Nissan equipped it with such a powerful standard engine, one that enabled our test truck to reach 60 mph in just 7.7 seconds. The 5.6-liter DOHC V-8 sends an ample 305 hp and 379 lb-ft of torque through a silky-smooth five-speed automatic transmission, a powertrain combo that nobody–including our readers who own Titans–found fault with, other than to note the overly aggressive throttle tip-in, a common Nissan and Infiniti trait. As for towing, the Titan effortlessly hauled a ten-foot, single-axle trailer loaded with cedar shingles to northern Michigan, then proved its mettle again back in Ann Arbor by whisking home an editor’s hydraulic-dump, double-axle trailer laden with two tons of driveway pebbles.
Despite its size and its high hoodline, which, as Lorio pointed out, “causes surrounding cars to disappear,” the Titan’s eager powertrain, superb steering, stout chassis, and reasonably comfortable ride made it a surprisingly pleasant highway companion, which helps explain why we drove it to both coasts and repeatedly to northern Michigan.
For all its basic appeal, though, the Titan didn’t age particularly well. Nothing major failed, but there were lots of niggling issues that tested our patience and left lasting negative impressions. Interior quality was lacking and was nowhere near the class-leading F-150’s. The handle in the door jamb of the passenger’s-side rear door broke, and replacement parts were back-ordered. The seat upholstery didn’t seem to be in it for the long haul. The metallic finish around the steering wheel radio buttons surrendered to our thumbs and fingernails. The molded plastic surrounding the tailgate lever came off in our hands. The uninspiring thud of the front doors closing loosely over the rear doors worsened over time. Rust developed around the opening of the handy little driver’s-side lockbox behind the rear wheel. New front brake pads were installed at about 25,000 miles, which seemed a bit premature, and the front rotors had to be replaced entirely at 27,000 miles.
There’s no question, though, that the Titan is fully competitive with half-ton trucks from Detroit, and consumers are slowly getting the message. Everywhere we went in the Titan, it was noticed, and by the right people. The guy at the plumbing supply warehouse. The University of Michigan skilled tradesman who pulled up alongside us at an intersection in his work van, gave the Titan a long, hard glance, and shouted out approvingly, “That really is a full-size truck.” Not to mention random male admirers of assistant art director Nicole Lazarus, a young lady of fine bearing and carriage, who found that “boys were always shocked to see a girl fall out of the driver’s seat. I think they were both impressed and jealous.”
With the Titan, Nissan delivered on the primary truck attributes: size, powertrain, utility, and capability. Now it just needs to perfect all the details that contribute to an outstanding ownership experience. After all, Toyota’s all-new, truly full-size, next-generation Tundra is only a year away.