A Nissan Frontier for sale represents a lot of things. It holds all the strength, capability, and design that the pickup has become synonymous with, but you knew that. What you may not know is all of the history that led to this point in the Frontier’s life and the long line of pickups that preceded it. When it comes to trucks, Nissan is not an opportunist jumping on the bandwagon but an early leader in pickup development with a slew of firsts to its name. Nissan continues to innovate to this day and lay the groundwork for another millennium of prestige in the segment.
Nissan Truck Origins
Pickups feel like a very American vehicle, with automakers like Ford and Chevy leading the pack in all things truck. However, Nissan actually pioneered the compact pickup, being the first to create a half-ton truck under the brand name Datsun. Nissan’s early pickups were largely produced by Datsun, an automobile manufacturer owned by Nissan and active until it was shut down in 2022.
Datsun specialized in both commercial and passenger trucks, and in 1958 debuted the first pickup from Nissan in the United States. It was the Datsun 220, a quarter-ton pickup that made 37 hp with its 1.0-liter engine. It was later upgraded to a 1.2-liter that produced 48 hp. In 1965, another truck from Datsun made waves in the United States. The Datsun 320 was powered by a 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine that made 60 hp and was mated to a floor-mounted four-speed manual transmission. The Datsun 320 allowed for a smoother ride than the 220, thanks to an upgraded torsion bar front suspension.
Datsun was crushing it in the small pickup market, but there was one problem: their trucks really were compact. So, in 1977 they hit another milestone with the introduction of their first-ever extended cab pickup. The Datsun 620 King Cab, otherwise known as “Lil Hustler,” was quite a bit roomier than earlier Datsun pickups. It had 11.3 cu.ft. of storage space behind the seats, which meant more room for cargo and the space for those seats to recline. A 2.0-liter four-cylinder powered the Lil Hustler and enabled a 1,100 lb payload capacity.
The firsts kept coming for Nissan pickups, and in 1983 they debuted, for the first time, an American-made truck from the Japanese automaker. The 1984 Nissan 720 pickup (now marketed as a Nissan as part of a global strategy for brand recognition) was soon followed by one of the most iconic Nissan pickups of all time, the 1986 Nissan Hardbody. Its tough build and brawny styling inspired the nickname that would eclipse its official moniker, D21. It debuted with both four-cylinder and V6 engine options, generating 106 hp and 134 hp, respectively.
Production for the Hardbody ended in 1997, but Nissan was far from done with compact pickups. The first Frontier debuted for the model year 1998. For its first model year, the engine was a 143-hp four-cylinder, but a V6 was soon to come. The Frontier continued picking up ponies and inches over the years, growing into the Frontier as we know it today. Meanwhile, development for the Titan started in 1999, with plans coming to fruition for the 2004 model year. Thus, the modern Nissan truck line was born.
Nissan Pickups, Today
The modern pickup looks and drives quite a bit different than those from fifty-plus years ago. Almost everything has gotten bigger—engines, wheelbases, beds, cabs—creating trucks that are more capable. Not only that, but developments in car tech have allowed automakers to capitalize on those larger dimensions more efficiently, so trucks have never been meaner or cleaner. The two grizzly pickup offerings from Nissan in 2023, the Frontier and Titan, are prime examples of just how far trucks have come.
The 2023 Nissan Frontier
The modern Frontier may be larger than its predecessors, but it still keeps the spirit of the compact pickup alive with styling inspired by the Hardbody Nissan of the 1980s. It was freshly restyled for its third generation, which debuted in 2022.
Its singular engine options, a 3.8-liter V6, cranks out 310 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque for a maximum towing capacity of 6,720 lbs. The 2023 Frontier comes in specialized options, making it a versatile pickup that can serve the needs of a lot of different drivers. It’s offered in both King Cab and Crew Cab configurations and rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive powertrains. There are Frontiers designed for both work and play and ample trim levels—including an affordable base option—that can fit into different budgets. There’s even an off-roading model, the PRO-4X. It comes standard with features designed to help drivers tackle tough terrain, like premium shocks from Bilstein and underbody skid plates.
The 2023 Nissan Titan
Nissan may have pioneered the compact truck, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be put in a box. The Titan is Nissan’s half-ton pickup offering and the only imported pickup to have a V8. Like the Frontier, the 2023 Titan has exactly one engine option. That V8 is a 5.6 liter that produces 400 hp and 413 lb-ft of torque for a towing capacity bumped up to 9,323 lbs. For the larger Titan XD, that towing capacity is increased to 11,033 lbs. The XD is a version of the Titan that’s heavier duty due to bigger brakes, a tougher suspension, and commercial-grade features like axles from American Axle Manufacturing. The XD’s frame is also reinforced for extra durability.
One of the most notable differences between modern pickups and those from yesteryear is the plethora of driving assistance technology that is more and more commonplace. The 2023 Titan leads its class in standard safety features with Nissan Safety Shield 360. It is made up of six features, including rear automatic braking and rear cross traffic alert. The Titan also has driver assistance tech aimed at making towing a little less cumbersome. Fifty years ago, drivers had nothing but mirrors, sense, and—if they were lucky—a buddy to help them align truck with trailer. These days, the Titan has multiple camera views, a specific tow/haul mode, and various braking and anti-sway technologies to make the task of towing easier and safer.
What’s Next for Nissan Trucks?
In 2022, Nissan debuted several concept pickups in tandem with the debut of the new generation of Frontier. There was the Project 72X Frontier, which borrowed style notes from the Datsun 720 “Lil Hustler” and had a beefed-up suspension to honor the playfulness the throwback Datsun offered. Another was the Project Hardbody, modeled after, of course, the Nissan Hardbody of the ’80 and ‘90s. Its design offers vintage Nissan pickups while maintaining a modern look, plus it has several upgrades to make it off-roading-ready.
These concept pickups reinforce Nissan’s reverence for the trucks that made their line what it is today and also demonstrate their ability to craft a specialized vehicle that is highly capable. I bet we’ll see more of both in the future. Plus, Nissan has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2050, meaning electric pickups are probably on their way. The future looks bright for Nissan pickups, whatever it may hold. If history is any indication, we can be sure the automaker will look boldly toward the future while respecting its foundation rooted in the past.