Retro Review: 1998-2004 Nissan Frontier

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It’s not yet a “classic,” but the ’98-2004 Nissan Frontier (and other same-era compact trucks like the Toyota Tacoma and Ford Ranger/Mazda B series) looks pretty good in the rearview.

And in the garage, if you’re lucky enough to have one parked there.

Where it won’t take up too much space.

Because it isn’t Super Sized – as pretty much everything else is. You can park other things in the garage. You do not need the assistance of tugs to maneuver it into parking spaces. You can see what’s in the bed (and reach what’s in the bed) without needing a step ladder.

Manageable size is just one of the many virtues of this compact-sized pickup, which is a species of pickup no one makes anymore. Or at least, which no one sells in the U.S. anymore.

Not new, anyhow.

When Ford pulled the Ranger off the market after the 2011 model year, the smallest new truck you could still buy new was the almost mid-sized Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon – and the upsized (also now-mid-sized) versions of the Frontier and Tacoma.

Those are fine trucks . . . if you don’t mind the size, the height, the price to buy and the cost to keep them up.

regular cab (can’t buy that new, either) ’98 Frontier was only 196.1 inches long overall – or not much longer than a new Corolla – and that was with a work-viable six foot bed; many new – and much longer trucks – only come in four door “king” or “crew” or “quad” bodystyles… several of them only with short beds useless for work.

The ’98’s base price was $11,490; $16,990 with 4WD.

A new Frontier starts at $18,390 – and if you want 4WD, the price jumps by almost ten grand to $27,320.

4WD has become a thing for the rich… or the in debt.

My Frontier –  a 2002 model – does not have an LCD touchscreen – or a back-up camera for saaaaaafety. It has ABS, but only for the rear wheels. No traction control, Hill Descent Control or Stability Control.

It is up to you to control the truck.

The four wheel drive (if it had it; mine’s a 2WD) would be engaged manually – via a shift lever on the center console as opposed to engaged remotely – electronically – as is pretty much par for the course, with anything 4WD new. The ’02’s instrument cluster isn’t digital. There are manual rotary knobs – not wired into a “body control module” – to adjust the fan speed and temperature settings.

Manual – not climate control – AC.

These trucks have only two air bags. The new stuff usually has at least six. If someone hits your new Frontier just right – not hard enough to ruin the truck, but just hard enough to cause several of those bags to go off – your truck is doomed, economically unrepairable.

This is also part of the reason why the new truck costs so much to insure.

Unlike mine – which costs me about $250 annually.

In the regular/extended cab versions of the ’98-’04 Frontier, there is a factory cut-off switch for the air bag (put there because air bags can be lethal) which makes it easy to reduce your truck’s chances of being totaled Because Airbag by 50 percent. Worst case, just the one (driver’s) goes off. Probably, the truck’s sheetmetal will be economically fixable.

The ’98-2000 model Frontiers could be ordered with 4WD with the four cylinder engine. It is one reason why they cost so much less than the new stuff which – being larger and so heavier – requires the purchase of the V6 in order to get 4WD.

The four cylinder/4WD combo is appealing not so much because of the fuel you’ll save – which isn’t a lot – but because of the four’s simplicity and much lower maintenance costs, as well as it being much easier to maintain.

The ’98-’04 Frontier’s 2.4 liter engine only takes up about half the engine bay and the spark plugs are right on top of the DOHC cylinder head. They can be changed out in less than 10 minutes with very basic hand tools. The V6 has a timing belt that needs changing every so often – a big job that’s also an expensive job if you don’t do it yourself.

With the four, you never have to worry about that – much less pay for that.

Some additional things to know about these trucks – both good and bad: 

From ’98 through the 2000 model year, the Frontier still used sealed beam headlights – a godsend in deer country because when a hooved rat ran out in front of you and smashed them up, the cost to replace was only about $20 each. Beginning with the 2001 model year, all Frontiers got a new front clip and the plastic/composite headlight assemblies that afflict all new vehicles (cars and trucks alike). These may look snazzy, but they are not cheap to replace when you (or a hooved rat) break one. I found this out when a hooved rat ran out in front of my ’02. It cost less to replace the passenger side fender than it cost to buy a new headlight “assembly.”

Beware, also, that the ’01 and up trucks have plastic/body-colored bumper covers instead of chrome-plated steel (thank Uncle; the cost of chrome plating has zoomed through the roof due to environmental compliance costs).

Also, the cupholders suck. They are much too shallow. They are fine for coins – not so much for coffee cups.

The 2.4 liter four, though it hasn’t got a timing belt, does have individual belts for each accessory (e.g., alternator, AC compressor, power steering pump) that have to be individually removed and tensioned manually – by adjusting a bolt in or out for each.

But on the other hand… .

This truck’s turning radius (39 feet for a ’98 regular cab) is about four feet tighter than the new Frontier’s 43.4 feet).

Changing the front brake pads is an almost tool-free/10-minute per side job. It’s not necessary to remove the calipers. Just remove a single 14 mm bolt and flip up the top part of the two-piece caliper and remove/replace the pads. Easy peasy Japaneesy (literally).

These trucks also regularly live to Biblical patriarch age, even if neglected. Models with the 2.4 liter four especially. They’ll go 250,000 miles, easily – and (if not neglected) are often still mechanically tight.

Plus, you can’t buy anything like them new anymore.

This has kept prices of the older – and still compact-sized trucks – amazingly steady. I bought my ’02 (a 2WD, extended cab model with the 2.4  liter engine and five-speed manual transmission) back in ’08 for about $7,500.

It’s worth not far from that today – almost ten years (and 40,000 miles) later.

You might almost call it an investment!

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  1. There are tons of these guys on the road still. A high school coach down the street from me has two family cars (Honda pilot etc) and one of these for work to drive to school in. I have seen under the hood on the First gen Xterra’s which were turbo’d and it is a nightmare of wires going everywhere. Much simpler in the second gen, as you said, spark plugs on top fairly easy to replace. Timing chain clips wear out after 150k or so but you have the chance to change water pump and other vital parts while in there for about $2k. Car may not be worth that much but you’ll have a dependable vehicle for another 3-4 years. No jatco CVT either!

  2. I have been looking at buying a small truck, so I am familiar with the market. Like you, I am disappointed with the current selections.

    The present Frontier is not that big. In the extended cab version, it is roughly two or three inches bigger in all dimensions than the last Ford Ranger and therefore somewhat smaller than the other current mid-size trucks like the Colorado and the Ridgeline. The current Frontier is very unappealing to me because of the negatives that you mentioned: the enormous turning circle, high cost, and heavy weight and resultant inefficiency.

    I think the four in the Frontier is mostly for fleets. The lowest trim package (the S package) comes only with the four, and I see street prices under $16K, but this package does not come with air conditioning as standard or power windows/locks/mirrors at all. The SV package (the next lowest; it has power windows/locks/mirrors standard) starts around $20K, and the six in this package is available for only a couple thousand more than the four. The four cylinder engine only gets a mile or two per gallon better than the six, and the truck is a lot slower and has much lower resale value with the four, so there is no real advantage to the four other than ease of maintenance. The last U.S. Ranger, by contrast, gets about eight or ten mpg more with the four/manual combo than with the six/auto. With that difference in mileage, the four/manual makes sense.

    There is still one truck being sold overseas that is similar in size and concept to the departed Ranger. That is the Mitsubishi L200/Triton, also rebadged as the Fiat Fullback and the Ram 1200. The extended cab version is within an inch in length and width and two inches in height of the last U.S. Ranger, and it has a 38.7 foot turning circle. There are regular cab versions that come with a 2.4 liter gasoline four-cylinder and that weight about what the last Ranger did (around 3,100 lbs.). Extended cabs come mostly with diesels, and weight seems to be anywhere from under 3,300 to over 4,000 lbs. The Triton is also significantly cheaper than the other Japanese and American brand trucks when comparably equipped.

    I would love to have a 2wd extended cab Triton with a four-cylinder/manual and a curb weight around 3,300 lbs., but unless they bring it here, I will probably end up with a 2011 Ranger. Unfortunately, Americans will likely not get the Triton. Mitsubishi says they cannot import it because of the Chicken Tax, and they will not produce it domestically. Our best chance to get it would be if FCA brought it over as a new Dakota, but I do not expect that. I do expect the Triton to be discontinued at the end of the current generation’s lifecycle sometime after 2020 and be replaced by a rebadged Frontier if Mitsubishi even remains a separate brand at all. Or else, maybe Nissan could sell it as the new Frontier. We are overdue for a new Frontier since Nissan has been selling the current version for 13 model years.

    The current Ford Ranger and most of the other pickups being sold overseas are similar in size to our Colorado, and they are expensive, so they do not fill any hole in the market, although they would offer us more choice. There are some truly small pickups from Chinese and Indian manufacturers, but I would not trust them in either reliability or safety.

    The dimensions of the trucks are below. The last Ford Ranger is actually quite a bit larger than your Frontier.

    2016 Chevrolet Colorado extended Cab: 212.7” L x 74.3” W x 70.4” H
    2016 Mitsubishi Triton extended cab: 204.5” L x 70.3” W x 69.9” H
    2011 Ranger extended cab: 203.6” L x 69.4” W x 67.7” H
    2016 Nissan Frontier extended cab: 205.5” L x 72.8” W x 69.7” H
    2002 Nissan Frontier extended cab: 196.8” L x 66.5” W x 66.7” H

  3. You’re right on about “hooved rats.” I see dozens in my backyard almost every day. What in blazes caused them to multiply so much? I see more deer in the suburbs than I did as a kid living in the sticks.

    • Hi Bryce,

      I’ve read that the deep population today is higher than in colonial times; I believe it. They have few natural predators (Cougars all but extinct) and abundant food.

      Too bad they’re not tastier…

      • It’s most certainly true that there are more deer now. In most suburban areas the only way they get killed is if someone hits them with a vehicle. God forbid you allow people to hunt them in a populated area. A nearby community (that is heavily forested) recently did a cull, due to the many problems deer were causing (like crashing through glass doors). The animal rights people were up in arms and made it nearly impossible for the hunters to do their jobs (after losing in court, suing the town over it). You would have thought they were hunting Bambi.

      • Too bad they’re not tastier. My wife and I and a lot of people we know prefer venison to beef. We much prefer wild hogs to domestic and lack of salt cure. Hog, it’s the new white meat and it’s delicious. If you have never eaten a wild turkey you can only wonder how domestic turkeys got so screwed up in the taste dept. Wanta see people go crazy over turkey just shoot a wild one, stuff it and cook it, esp. over a hardwood coal like mesquite. They’ll be pickin the bones. Same for wild hogs too, one of mildest, scrumptious meats going.

          • eric, remove the loin and tenderloin in whole pieces(I never saw anything), cut across them into “medallions” 3/8″ thick, mix butter(not the stuff that comes off the top of the wellhead)and X virgin olive oil or any quality oil although diss the vegetable oils or use lard(yum). You can dredge the medallions in egg….or not, roll them in bread crumbs with a bit of salt and garlic powder, then lightly sautee them in that butter/oil/lard mix, whichever you prefer. Butter gives a bit more flavor mixed with olive oil. It’s hard to find a stopping point. They melt in your mouth.

            But if you never tried hanging one and heavy aging, give it a whirl. Just like heavy=aged beef the bacteria break down the meat and make it very tender and bring out the mild taste you’re looking for.

            I had a friend whose uncle lived in Tennessee and raised lots of hogs. He aged whole hams, sometimes 40+ lbs. They’d be wrapped when you got them and it wasn’t a bad idea to remove the rancid fat outside. When you got down to that meat though, it was a culinary delight. You could do whatever but simply cutting it in slices and frying it in a pan was to die for. We laughed and called it rotten ham but my god was it ever good. He literally couldn’t do enough of them due to demand and you were lucky to get one even though he probably did dozens or hundreds each year. Cook that stuff, make some red-eye gravy and fresh biscuits of your preference(I like drop biscuits) and you were walking in high cotton. When you throw a bunch of that on the table you only hear knives and forks and the occasional muffled “good” or “damn this is good”. Everybody finally pushes back and wishes they could eat one more piece. It don’t get any better than that.

            If you like wild turkey….and I don’t see how anyone couldn’t/wouldn’t, try fixing quail like a turkey. It doesn’t take much time to pluck a quail and relieve it of its innards and lower legs and head and wings. We’ve even made stuffing and stuffed their little butts and laid them in the pan of stuffing and that’s a meal to die for in itself.

            BTW, we had a whole ham last night with black-eye peas and cornbread. It would be easy to over-eat.

            I hear possum is good but can’t bring myself to eat one, same for coon and I probably should have et one when I’ve done in multiple coons killing our cats.

            Robbie says his family won’t eat deer. I hear that a lot from died in the wool city slickers but once you get them to eat some they’ll change their mind and like he said, when you get hungry enough……and that goes for possum and coon too I’m sure. Our ancestors who fought Comanches probably ate more than one coyote which is probably good.

            I used to frequent a Mexican food place and it was rumored you couldn’t find a cat for a mile around it. We called them gato tacos and that was sure good.

            A friends family used to eat turtles all the time and considered it a delicacy. I never got to try it but I’m sure it’s as good as anything else.

            Then there are countless cultures worldwide who eat their dogs when the mood strikes and I probably won’t get to that point either.

    • My nephew, in the Soviet State of New Jersey, where deer stand in the driveways and defy you to run over them, had killed 130 as of mid-December. He typically kills over 100 each year. The state, quietly, sends him in to areas where people complain about the damage to cars and landscaping but refuse to allow hunting. He and his crossbow take them out quietly and efficiently. He often takes 5 or 6 a day.

      He and his immediate family have plenty of venison, of course. The rest he takes to a processing plant which prepares them for distribution to charities to feed folks in need.

      Part of the secret to venison is preparation. As Eric points out, it is lean in most cases. So it can become tough as shoe leather if improperly prepared. Maintaining some moisture is critical, so crock-pot recipes often work well. One sure-fire method is to grid up the whole critter for hamburger. Beginners often add pork to the blend for a little fat content. In spaghetti or chili, even the kids won’t know Bambi is on the plate. Steaks and roast had better be rare, or your teeth better be good. In the right areas, depending on the quality of feed and the amount of fat on the beast, the ribs are wonderful when slow-smoked. However, a friend brought me some ribs a year or so ago from woodland critters, and it was difficult to tell the meat from the bone.

      • I commonly kill deer with 1/2-1″ of tallow on their backs. Texas deer don’t seem to be tough but like you say, it depends on butchering. I leave the hide on mine and let them hang as long as weather permits. Heavy aging venison is just like heavy aging beef and results in tender, tasty meat. Once the inside cavity is covered with mold the meat will be very tender.

        We use venison, wild hog and beef to make a chili to write home about. If you want to take the trouble jerky isn’t hard to make, just takes time to slow dry and a dry place to do so or you can speed it up racking it in the oven and using really low heat.

        I highly recommend a book by Frank G. Ashbrook entitled : Butchering, Processing and Preservation of Meat. It covers cattle, hogs, sheep, game, poultry and fish. It’s approved by the Whole Earth Catalog, no slouch itself in proper methods of living off the land.

      • ” The rest he takes to a processing plant which prepares them for distribution to charities to feed folks in need.”

        I’ve read a number of stories where hunters did exactly that and the state (which ever one a story was from) shut them down or some advocacy group became offended that people were being fed vermin or some such nonsense. Be it deer or geese or some other commonly or once commonly eaten critter.

        “where deer stand in the driveways and defy you to run over them”

        The geese do that by me. I just drive at them, they move. Some even remember they can fly. Deer might be different though because of the serious body damage they can do.

        • Deer will stand their ground. When I was in college this huge buck would stand in the middle of a campus road. In the worst possible spot too, a blind curve at night. It was a miracle no one ever hit it.

          I had to have road cones stored (had a staff job in buildings and grounds) in nearby buildings so security could block the road off when it would be standing there. Would stand there for hours sometimes.

          We ended up hiring a bow hunter to come in on Christmas break when the campus was mostly empty of students and faculty. We made that decision very quietly as we knew what would happen if it would become public. People are so stupid now a days when it comes to stuff like that. We even made sure it was a bow hunter so the neighbors wouldn’t hear a gunshot. Turns out the hunter thought the buck was rabid which would explain it’s behavior.

          Thankfully few noticed it was gone in the new year.

          • Behavior such as that is the true indicator of rabies. We once had a possum come up and live by the porch, eat dog food and be chilly when we were standing close to it. I stopped by and asked our vet why a possum would be so chilly. He said non-typical behavior was the harbinger of rabies as opposed to all those stories of foaming at the mouth and being aggressive.

            When I got home, the dogs come running to see me and the possum is there too. I didn’t take the chance he had just had a change of mind and suddenly loved dogs and people. I put the dogs up and well, eased him off to possum heaven.

    • I’ve seen as many as 12 in my yard at one time. I live on 1.25 acres in a subdivision. I often think of SHTF scenarios where it would be nice to have a free food source. I need to get some crossbow skills! The problem is, my family wouldn’t eat it unless they were literally starving.

  4. Hi Eric:

    Great review. I bought an 04 Frontier in 2014 with “only” 105,000 miles on it. Paid $4,500 for it.

    Mileage had me worried until I saw some others for sale with 280,000 miles.

    It now has over 125,000. I’ve put shocks and belts on it.

    It is great. Averages mid twenties. I hope I never have to replace the PCV valve because it is a PIA to get to.

    My only complaint is the power, or lack thereof. I have the 2.4 with 2WD and 5 sped manual. I putting on a header this spring and 2.5 inch exhaust. Just looking for maybe 10-20 hp more.

    I’m running into the manufacturer not making parts anymore. Was looking for some interior trim parts and many are discontinued.

    That is one pain in owning older cars – but no payments more than makes up for it.

    • Thanks, Blake!

      Ditto on the power issue; I’ve thought about gearing mine a bit more aggressively – but that would hurt the fuel economy.

      I’m interested in the header. What brand did you go with? Are you going to keep the cat?

      • Hi Eric:

        Went with a pacesetter.

        You can get the ceramic coated one for about $100 more.

        It is for 98-00, but the difference with 01-04 is the latter have the “fast light off” cat built in to the exhaust manifold. The second O2 sensor (emissions compliance only – not used for engine management) that is currently after the first cat but before the underbody cat will have to be flipped so it is AFTER the underbody cat or I suspect my “check engine” light will come on for emissions noncompliance

        I also am replacing the factory underbody cat with a magnaflow 2.5″ “high flow” one ($80). I also selected a 2.5″ magnaflow muffler. A got the large one, since I’m not looking for drone or that “crazy rice burner” sound.

        I need exhaust anyway, so the only thing I’m buying that I don’t really “need” is the header. The O2 port for engine management is in the #3 primary tube. It also has provisions for EGR.

        So I’ll be deleting the “fast light off” cat but using a new underbody cat.

        Hope I’m not fined $15,000,000,000 for “cheating”

        I’ll let you know how it works out this spring.

        If I can feel any difference, I’ll consider it worth it.

        It may even improve mpg…

        • Generally speaking the computer looks for higher frequency changes in the second O2 sensor to determine if the catalyst is working within accepted ranges. A catalyst can be working just fine and because of modifications to the exhaust flow, temperature of the pipe after the cat (because the aftermarket pipe is of different construction), after market catalyst, etc and so on, the sensor changes too rapidly and the MIL comes on. Adding low pass filter (a capacitor and resistor) to the O2 sensor output removes the high frequency signal and the ECU is happy.

      • Hi Eric:
        I went with the Pacesetter header:

        You can also get the ceramic coated version for about $100 more.

        This is designed for 98-00 models. The 98-00 only had 1 underbody cat. The 01-04 version has a “fast light off” cat built in to the exhaust manifold in addition to the underbody cat.

        The 01-04 Frontiers have a second O2 sensor between cat #1 and cat #2. I have a feeling if I don’t flip this sensor so it is AFTER the underbody cat, the “check engine” light will think the cat is not working.

        I bought a Magnaflow 2.5” “high flow” cat with O2 port to replace the factory underbody cat. I was about $80 (header collector diameter is 2.5”). It appears the factory harness is long enough to flip this to downstream of cat.

        I also bought a Magnaflow 2.5” muffler. I got the large 3 chamber one since I’m not looking for drone or that “zippy rice burner” sound.

        If I get any more power I can actually feel, I will consider it worth it.

        I’ll let you know how it goes on my 04 this spring.



        • Hi Blake,

          Good stuff; thanks for the info! I am very curious to find out whether this will provide a noticeable performance boost. It was possible – very possible – to achieve dramatic horsepower/performance gains by changing out the usually awful exhaust systems of cars made in the ’70s and ’80s. They were very restrictive and also (usually) heavy as hell, too.

          But many newer cars come with pretty good OE exhaust. I have no clue about the Frontier, though, as it’s not something I’ve looked into closely… yet!

          Thanks for the jump start!

  5. Yes, I think 1998-2004 was a Golden Age for cars and small trucks, especially those from Japan. Modern enough to run really well, for a LONG time. But not encumbered with electronic trinkets and gizmos of questionable value. And not grossly super- sized.

    Had a 99 Tacoma, then a 2006 Taco, which still fit in that “just right era” paradigm. Wish I still had either, particularly the 2006. But circumstances changed, and dictated that I needed a Much Bigger Truck. Got a ’15 Tundra quad cab with 6.5′ bed, which was absolutely perfect. But now, I no longer need a full sized truck.

    But the Tundra is a fabulous vehicle, that should last me forever. So I’ll probably just keep it, and put up with the extra parking effort.

    • Hi Mike,

      Apparently, Ford is going to bring back the Ranger… although I am pretty sure the current model is basically a mid-sized truck, like the GMC Canyon/Chevy Colorado twins…

    • Yes!!!! I completely agree. I would even extend that out to about 06 or so. Maybe even up to 07. After that, cars became encumbered by electronic gizmos and gadgets. You might be able to find like a standard issue Corolla, Subaru Legacy, or maybe a base Camry up to about 10 that might not have the touchscreen or the over controlled dash. But beginning in 11, the gas mileage requirements became phased in along with increasingly complex safety regulations (they actually began in 09, but automakers got 4 years to phase it in.) The super sized cars of today are an optical illusion. They aren’t dimensionally different, there is just more sheetmetal and weight behind them to meet side impact and roof crush standards. Newer cars built in 15 and after are increasing in size to maintain interior volume.

      All of that said, I now drive a 2003 Lexus ES300 that I picked up for just north of $5k. It had under 100k when I bought it and looked brand new on the inside and with a very good exterior. Car rides and drives new.

      The one thing I really like about Grandmas car is that it is simple to operate, you can see everywhere and looks like a car with proportions, not some government regulated pod that people are driving today. It doesn’t have that obese diabetic looking sheetmetal that todays models carry. No gunslit windows. No haptic touchscreens. No “bluetooth connectivity.” No rearview camera needed. No expensive Turbos to replace either. Climate control consists of large buttons on the dash, not some menu driven nonsense.

      It feels like a real car. It doesn’t corner very well, but it accelerates adequately down the road and rides as smooth as a Lincoln Continental. Gas mileage is the mid twenties combined and probably close to 30 on a long trip at speeds under 80 mph. Just like all the cars I have owned.

      I am glad I live in the United States where there is no shortage of transportation around. I will always be driving cars like it from now on.

      I will not step foot into a car dealership to get the latest thing as the latest thing sucks. Not unless Trump undoes some of the bullshit. I’m not counting on a thing.

  6. Had a couple of the Datsun/Nissan “hardbody” trucks back in the eighties, and a couple of Rangers in the 90’s/early 2000’s. I’m just a weekend warrior, so those were a lot more sensible than anything I can buy today. Sure wish I could get a new Ranger like they sell in Europe, especially the diesel.


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