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2022-09-02 20:02:21 By : Ms. Kitty Deng

The Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier have been midsize truck mainstays for decades, soldiering on even through the teens as domestic competitors dropped away altogether. Both of these right-sized pickups have stuck with what’s worked, eschewed modern tech and, up until recently, were the oldest new trucks a shopper could buy. Driving either one was a rawboned, throwback experience replete with toggle switches, drum brakes and Atari-level infotainment graphics. 

But now it’s 2022. The Frontier has received its first major refresh since 2005, with all-new sheet metal, updated driver tech, and a slick and modern interior. The Frontier’s off-road trim, the Pro-4X, returns with its monotube Bilstein shocks, electronic locking rear differential and a new rear stabilizer bar. The Toyota Tacoma didn’t get any dramatic overhaul for this year but did receive subtle changes, including improved suspension lift and travel to its own top off-road trim, the TRD Pro.

People use these trucks and competitors like the Ford Ranger and GMC Canyon for work and play, but the most exciting and desirable versions are the off-road trims like the Pro-4X and TRD Pro. So how do these variants of these new-old pickups stack up against each other? 

We were able to test a Frontier Pro-4X and a Tacoma TRD Pro at Mudfest, the Northwest Automotive Press Association’s annual track-and-offroad event, as well as tooling around in each truck for a week to see what they’re like to live with. Beneath the skin, we found these seemingly similar trucks are surprisingly different. 

On the surface of things, both trucks are highly capable. Both the Tacoma TRD Pro and Frontier Pro-4X have 4 high and 4 low (though no “auto” always-on four-wheel drive like you’ll find in the Chevy Colorado), electronic locking rear differentials, underbody skid plating and aggressive terrain tires. Only the Tacoma still offers a manual, but most buyers prefer automatics.

Both offer front-facing trail cams with multiple views (though the Frontier’s screen is larger and has better resolution), a must for negotiating obstacles that would otherwise require a spotter. On the course, both trucks easily took on even the tougher obstacles, clearing steep climbs and deep moguls without drama.

The trucks are evenly matched in ground clearance (9.4 inches), though the Tacoma’s greater approach and departure angles give it more dexterity over steep obstacles. The Tacoma’s new forged upper control arms allow for greater suspension articulation, and its squishier internal-bypass Fox shock package does a better job of smoothing out terrain roughness than the Frontier’s more road-friendly Bilsteins, which can feel jittery and overtaxed at speed on gravel and washboard. 

Finally, the Tacoma’s low-speed “crawl control”—while not as advanced as trail-control systems on competitors like the Ranger—makes navigating complex obstacles easier versus the Frontier’s basic hill-descent assist.  

Neither of these trucks is a Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, and a better crawl ratio and advanced off-road hardware like a locking front differential and swaybar disconnects would be needed for taking on truly punishing crawls. But as general-purpose offroaders, both do quite well, with the Toyota taking the lead for its more terrain-optimized suspension and extensive off-road equipment. 

Our off-road verdict: Tacoma TRD Pro is the one we’d trust to get us out.

Neither of these trucks is a track athlete, but the way they handle near the limit paints an eye-opening picture of their differences. 

On the road course, the nose-heavy Tacoma is utterly discombobulated, plunging and body-rolling its way through the turns in a way that feels unhinged. Its more serious off-road suspension may give it an edge on the trail, but it’s a liability on the track and in daily driving, where it can feel imprecise and jiggly. The Tacoma’s brakes, which still include now segment-exclusive rear drums, are touchy and hard to modulate on both the street and the track. 

By contrast, the Frontier feels more composed on the track than you’d expect from a full-frame truck, with its new rear sway bar (and beefed-up front sway bar) conspiring with the well-rounded Bilsteins to maintain a controlled feel. The Frontier moved to four-wheel discs for its redesign, and braking performance is linear and unremarkable. Like Toyota, Nissan uses old-style hydraulic-assist power steering. It doesn’t feel as heavy as the Toyota’s and helps make the Frontier easier to place through turns than some of the twitchier electric-assist steering systems.

The Frontier’s 3.8-liter V6 boasts 281 pound-feet of torque and a class-leading 310 horsepower, but its acceleration isn’t as perky as it looks like it should be on paper. If anything, the Tacoma’s old 3.5-liter V6, with only 278 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque, feels more responsive. At the end of the day, both trucks are adequately powered but not blistering, and neither is light on gas. the Tacoma returned just 16 mpg in mixed driving, the Frontier only 18. The Ford Ranger’s torquey turbo four does much better (22 mpg combined) and feels just as brawny.

In everyday driving, the Frontier Pro-4X’s offroad prowess doesn’t get in the way of its generally agreeable road manners. The Tacoma TRD Pro, by contrast, is compromised by its off-road tuning.

Our on-pavement verdict: the Nissan Frontier Pro-4X, hands down.

The two trucks couldn’t be more different on the inside, with the Frontier’s updated cabin embracing modernity while the Tacoma feels old. The Frontier’s tall, upright driving position, lower beltline and large window and sunroof openings help give it an airy cabin and great outward visibility. The Tacoma feels cloistered by contrast—with thick A-pillars, a low roofline and giant schnoz of a hood to look over. Visibility isn’t much better than in a lot of full-size trucks.

The Tacoma extends the old-truck theme with its grainy infotainment screen, expanses of matte plastic trim and old cartoon font of its gauge cluster, while Nissan brings the Frontier into the 21st century with piano-black accents, a nicely updated gauge cluster with large center info screen and wisely-placed soft-touch surfaces and buttons. 

The slightly smaller Frontier makes better use of its interior space than the Tacoma, resulting in a roomier feel, particularly in the second row: While the seats themselves are a little small and upright, it feels less cramped and there’s more space to put your feet than in the Tacoma. The Frontier’s backseat is also better equipped for passengers, with a fold-down center armrest, USB and USB-C charging ports, and a 110-volt outlet, none of which is available from Toyota.

The Frontier is slightly better equipped elsewhere as well—only it offers a heated steering wheel, and it has one more USB port than the Tacoma along with the extra 110-volt outlet (the Tacoma’s single one is in the bed). However, the Frontier’s steering column tilts but still doesn’t telescope, which is odd in a modern vehicle. Also, the Tacoma’s front seats are the more comfortable of the two, despite the hype of Nissan’s “zero-gravity” seats that are so comfy in models like the Rogue.

Interior verdict: The more modern and better-equipped Frontier wins.

How good are each of these two off-roaders at doing truck stuff? For starters, both the Pro-4X and TRD Pro can only be configured in crew-cab with a 5-foot bed, so they miss out on the extra volume of the 6-foot bed available on both trucks’ lesser trims. On payload, the Frontier Pro-4X gets a slight edge, with a 1,230-pound max to the TRD Pro’s 1,135. The Frontier’s bed also has a lower floor, which helps make loading easier. 

There are differences too in how the beds are equipped, with Nissan bundling the most helpful equipment and Toyota mixing standard and a la carte items. The Pro-4X’s Convenience Package ($1,900) provides a three-rail sliding cleat system with burly cast-aluminum cleats, a spray-in bedliner, the dual 120V outlets, LED bedrail lighting, a Class IV receiver hitch with seven-pin wiring harness and other niceties like remote start and heated seats, steering wheel and mirrors. There’s also a Bed Access Package ($550) that includes a kick-out step and a rail-mounted grab-handle to help climb into the bed. 

Meanwhile, the TRD Pro’s Class IV receiver is standard. It also comes standard with two bed-rail tracks that seem flimsier than the Nissan’s, and requires plastic cleats ($30 each) and tie-hooks ($45) to be bought separately as accessories. Items like bed lighting ($149) and deployable bed step ($300) cost extra. 

As for towing, the Tacoma TRD Pro gets a slightly higher maximum towing capacity (6,400 pounds) than the Frontier Pro-4X (6,270). However, the Frontier’s excellent tow/haul mode helps it feel more controlled towing near its limit, as it holds gears during acceleration and provides some engine-braking downhill. The TRD Pro, with its jiggly shocks and its simpler “ECT Power” mode that controls shift points only, is more apt to feel underpowered and pushed around by a medium-sized camper.

Our utility verdict: The Frontier Pro-4X gets a more accessible and better-equipped bed, and excels at towing. 

The Tacoma TRD Pro starts at $47,800 with destination, while the Frontier Pro-4X’s base price is $36,345. However, the Toyota comes standard with a lot of stuff that has to be added via package to the Nissan, including towing equipment, premium audio, the surround-view monitor with trail views and a full suite of active-safety tech that includes adaptive cruise. 

When comparing apples to apples, the Frontier Pro-4X, with Toyota-equivalent tech, convenience and safety items added, comes out to just under $43,000, while the Tacoma TRD Pro blows past $51,000 with the automatic transmission and a few bed accessories.

The concept of “value,” of course, hinges on what’s important to the consumer, and those seeking gnarly off-road adventure might lean toward the TRD Pro. However, the down-market Tacoma TRD Off-Road is a more economical way to access the trail prowess of the TRD Pro, minus the bypass shocks and a few bells and whistles. Moreover, the TRD Off-Road can be optioned up with tech and accessories similar to the Frontier Pro-4X’s, and get out the door for around $44,500. This still makes the Frontier a better deal, but enables Tacoma diehards to save some dough. 

At the end of the day, the Tacoma offers a lot of capability, plus a tried-and-true reputation for durability and resale value that the new Frontier hasn’t established yet. But with the Frontier’s notable improvements over its outgoing generation, plus its superior road manners, fuel economy, interior tech, and price tag versus the ancient Tacoma, the Frontier Pro-4X represents a tempting proposition to those who are considering the two trucks objectively—and quite possibly an off-road bargain. 

Value verdict: The Nissan Frontier Pro-4X is the better deal overall. 

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