Camping in the 2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X: Catharsis in the High Desert
Three nights and three different biomes in the new-old truck serves as a mental deep-tissue massage.
LOS ANGELES—It's the end of the world as we know it. Well, the world is paused, at least. Whatever societal infrastructure we knew before 2020 is sitting on the driveway under a tarp with a warped head. It kind of ran when parked, but ever since it was put on jackstands, the paint has faded, the floor pans have rusted, the rubber is dry and cracked, the fuel is now varnish, and the headliner sags. After all of this pandemic unpleasantness wraps up, whenever that is, it's going to require a bit more than spit and elbow grease to bring everything back to the prior norm. Either it needs a full frame-off restoration, or it's going to limp around on flat-spotted tires and leaky oil pan until something gives. The 2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X? Like many, I've found myself afflicted with some irrepressible wanderlust for the great outdoors. In the pursuit of escaping to nature's embrace, I got my hands on one of the most fitting rigs for this quaratineventure and put together a weekend of truck-bed camping in Southern California.
2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X: A Transitional Truck
In sticking with the transitional theme, the 2020 Nissan Frontier is apropos to a fault. As we enumerated in our preliminary shakedown of the very same truck pictured here, the updated Frontier is a bit of an odd duck, folding the fresh V-6 and nine-speed automatic transmission from the near-future next-gen Frontier into the 15-year-old frame of this almost-gone version. For future automotive historians, this will be one of those really strange blips in the timeline, though Nissan has a clear head about the whole thing. Automobile senior editor Aaron Gold explained it best in his review: "Frankly, we were all a bit surprised Nissan would introduce the new powertrain a year early. Why bother?" he asked. "Nissan's answer, and I'm paraphrasing here, is that the powertrain was tested and ready to go, and with Frontier sales as strong as they are, it made good business sense to deliver a more powerful and fuel-efficient version of the truck available right now."
Makes sense to me. By the way, Gold makes my job even easier by tracking down those aforementioned sales figures—72,000 Frontiers moved in 2019, making it a decent slice of the midsize-truck pie, and enough to justify keeping the old soldier around for another year. So, with the keys to this strange zombie in my pocket, I prepped for both the weekend excursion and the arrival of a good friend serving as my camping companion.
2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X: Location Scout
Before my buddy's arrival and the advent of our camping weekend, I spent a week in the loaned 2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X gathering supplies and scouting locations. When it comes to outdoor activities, Californians really are spoiled rotten; there's at least five different biomes within an hour's drive of the greater Los Angeles area, and we settled on camping in three of them. I'm not the only one with wanderlust, as proved by full-to-capacity campgrounds and crowded hiking trails, so I made sure to visit at least the first and most crucial venue a week ahead of time.
Located some 26 miles up the famed Angeles Crest Highway (ACH), the popular Chilao Campground was our first stop. The preliminary location scouting gave me an unintentional opportunity to test the Frontier's dynamics, considering ACH is one of California's best driving roads. And, after almost 30 miles of crooked, snaking corners that stress even the most battened down of supercars, the resounding conclusion of the Frontier's handling is: not great.
Not really a surprise, is it? Honestly, the 2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X handled itself far better than anyone could expect of something wearing knobby off-road rubber, and I maintained an average speed quicker than most traffic as to not cause a jam, so kudos on those accounts. But on ACH and on regular surface streets, the Frontier feels like every bit of its 15 years of production, inside and out. It's tall, narrow, and unapologetically utilitarian in every environment aside from straight-line cruising down desert highways. The body shifts and judders over bumps, it leans around corners, and braking is best initiated a good measure before you would do so in a normal crossover SUV.
2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X: No Surprises
In other words, this is a truck! Don't mistake these dynamic downsides for anything other than pure statements of fact, and not as denigration of the Frontier's charmingly rugged and anachronistic attitude. Really, it's a fascinating time-capsule of what we've progressed beyond—or maybe lost—in the unceasing development of trucks both large and small that today drive more like crossovers than their boxy, agrarian ancestors. Presented with the Frontier's bandy-legged strut and a hard plastic-fantastic interior pulled from the early 2000s, driving the Frontier Pro-4X feels as though Nissan opened its vehicular archives, pulled out a wrapper-fresh 2005 Frontier from the museum vault, and let me have a go.
On the analysis front, this is all you're going to get. At the risk of repeating ourselves, I'm not here to give a full rundown of the strange case of the 2020 Frontier, as Gold's aforementioned write-up is more than enough. For me and my buddy, the Frontier was more adventure companion and utility tool than review fodder during our excursion. The quality of the interior didn't matter, nor did the handling, ride composure, steering weight, or braking feel. Instead of playing the role of examinee, the Frontier served as the anchor in our campsite, a conveyance from one experience to the next. In this career of approaching cars as concepts and evaluative objects, it was cathartic to instead use something purpose-built as intended.
With the bed loaded with heavier gear like the bed-mounted tent and camping chairs, I crammed the rear passenger space full of camping minutiae like the cooler, jugs of water, the duffel of snacks, and skewers for s'mores. Like all other modern trucks, the 2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X's rear seats fold upward, turning the passenger space into a relatively cavernous compartment for anything too delicate for the bed but too bulky for the footwell. Since the bed would be occupied entirely by the tent at the close of night, the once-organized supplies in the rear area melded into one misshapen lump of gear whose chaotic layout persisted through the entire weekend.
2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X: Camping at 5,300 Feet
Chilao Campground was hardly a worthy test of the Frontier Pro-4X's mettle, though frankly neither were the other two stopovers. We parked the truck on the asphalt pad adjacent to our little campsite clearing, and set about erecting the sizable bed-tent for the night. Here's some rare practical advice—if you're considering the Frontier as an adventure vehicle, and you're concerned about bed space for the aforementioned bed-mounted tent, 380-pounds-worth of two 5-foot, 11-inch dudes spread shoulder-to-shoulder had no problem getting comfortable.
Shelter found, we turned to building a fire. We roasted kebabs, broke out the s'mores, and since the truck wouldn't budge until morning, cracked some beers. We needed this—both of us. My camping companion, name-mate, and close friend Connor is going through some career struggles and a minor identity crisis back in the Midwest, so this California escape was deeply therapeutic. We swapped stories, discussed our lives, our grand hopes for the future, and passed out in the 2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X's bed sometime past 2 a.m.
The next morning, it was off to the Mojave. Connor's a bit of a desert rat at heart, so a night spent in the U.S.' driest desert was in order. After packing up the truck with all the detritus scattered around the campsite, we turned three hours north to the Mojave National Preserve, where primitive camping awaited us. As opposed to a campground, primitive camping is pitching a tent and setting up camp on raw land where a pre-existing fire circle sits, usually a scorpion's toss from one of the many rough desert roads that crisscross through the land.
During the three-hour drive north, the Frontier drove and cruised like any other off-road truck would. Fuel economy was average, with Nissan claiming 17-mpg city and 23 highway, a modest improvement over the thirsty old 4.0-liter V-6's 15 and 21, but the 49-hp boost over the old mill feels significant. Passing power is more than adequate for the segment, though I wish the torque came in a little lower than it's 4,400-rpm peak.
2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X: High Desert Fun
Around 15 miles deep into the Mojave National Preserve, we turned off on a random desert path in search of a fire ring. The sandy, hard-pack road became almost unbearably washboard the farther we ventured, causing the bed's contents to hop around more than once. Eventually, we engaged 4x4 and turned around, finding a fire ring a few minutes from the main road.
Again, we immediately established camp before darkness fell, despite temperatures hovering just above the 100-degree mark. Night arrived, and we drank deep from the desert's unobstructed, uncorrupted view of the sky. After the brief foray into the Pro-4X's natural rough-and-tumble environment, we once again didn't think much about the Frontier as we sipped canned soup and ate s'mores under the Milky Way.
Subconsciously, the Cayenne Red Metallic truck was a safety net of sorts for us: Aside from safely holding all of our life-giving water and trundle of snacks, with the Frontier Pro-4X's myriad off-road upgrades like suspension, skid plates, locking rear-differential, and Hankook all-terrain tires, we'd have to work fairly hard to get it stuck. It was tough, dependable, and genuinely a nice touchstone to keep us from a freakout in the High Desert.
2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X: Camping in Malibougie
The final night was a significant departure from the prior nights. Through the seriously cool Hipcamp—think AirBnb for private land, campgrounds, and RV hookups—I reserved a plot of land in the Santa Monica mountains overlooking a coastal valley. No fires allowed here, so the 2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X resumed service as a point-to-point commuter as we picked up some Korean food. Even in congested Santa Monica, we had no problem parking or navigating tight areas, thanks to the Frontier's relatively compact dimensions.
After winding through the Malibu hills, we nosed the truck through some narrow cliffside roads to the patch of land, hopping up a steep incline to a landing pad where we pitched the tent for the night. Not many stars shone through L.A. 's interminable light pollution, but we were treated to the fantastic sight of a Lamborghini charging up the opposing cliff-face to its hilltop mansion. We'll take what we can get.
Suddenly, it was over. The Frontier Pro-4X went back to Nissan the next morning, and the rest of our nights were spent in the safe confines of my beachside apartment. Even after two weeks with the truck, there isn't much to say about the 2020 Nissan Frontier that hasn't been said during the past 15 years of its existence. However, with the new generation arriving sometime next year, the Frontier truck family becomes a little less simple and loses a thread tying it to its utilitarian, no-nonsense roots. Regardless, though, of what the next Frontier looks like, we'll be ready for another night in the Mojave.
2020 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X Highlights
- Fifteen years old, with a fresh heart
- New 3.8-liter V-6 packs 49 extra ponies
- New nine-speed automatic adds four more gears
- A reliable, rugged workhorse of a truck
- A good Toyota Tacoma alternative for adventure