Perfecting our favorite compact pickup of 2005.
This year's Real Truck Club Challenge event was sponsored by Nissan North America. As such, the good folks at Nissan's corporate headquarters contributed a brand-new 2005 Nismo Frontier that Four Wheeler editors can modify in preparation for the event. This excited the staff because we recently named the Nismo Frontier Best Value in the midsize pickup category for 2005 ("10 Best Buys in Four-Wheel Drive," Sept. 2005). What better platform to start with than our favorite midsize pickup? Additionally, the pickup represents what the competitors of RTCC would begin with--a vehicle that is both practical and capable. The Nismo Frontier has a long list of assets that any wheeler would ask for in a daily driver/trail machine.
For starters, the Frontier sports a fully boxed frame, based on the Titan's F-Alpha platform. We can work with this. It also comes equipped with a 265hp 4.0L V-6 -- not too shabby. The Nismo version of the Frontier was developed in conjunction with engineers from Nismo, Nissan's motorsports group. Nismo tunes each Nismo Frontier with such goodies as Bilstein shocks, skidplates, and unique 16-inch aluminum-alloy wheels with BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A P265/75R16 (32-inch) tires. Perhaps most importantly, though, is the rear axle, which houses an electric locking differential that defaults to a limited slip when disengaged.
What more could you ask for in a part-time commuter, part-time wheeler rig? We recently spent three days railing on our new Project Frontier in Southern California's Mojave Desert. It was part of our first organized staff wheeling trip (see "Mojave Road Part 1 and 2," Aug. and Sept. 2005). What our editors discovered was that the Frontier is one tough little pickup. When run through desert washes and over washboard passes and rocky stream beds, the Nismo Frontier handled the terrain proudly and begs for more. So how can Four Wheeler make such a capable OE platform perform better in the dirt? Follow along as we start with a few basic upgrades.
The first thing we added to our Project Frontier was a factory-supplied receiver hitch. We did this to provide a much-needed rear extraction point. The front had a good-sized tow hook from the factory but the rear was unarmed. Despite hampering rear approach angle, this hitch sure added a lot of functionality to the truck, and protects the rear bumper.
Next we installed a 2-inch leveling kit for the front suspension. This kit from Stillen balances the ride height from front to back by raising the front up to the level of the rear. The change in height does not affect the factory ride or spring rate. Basically, the kit contains two chunks of milled aluminum and some hardware to bolt it up. We installed it in a little over two hours in the driveway using basic handtools and a floor jack.
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To install the Stillen leveling kit, you must jack up the front of the vehicle, remove the wheels, and disconnect the front sway bar. Next, remove the struts from the vehicle. Four bolts secure each strut. Once removed, the aluminum spacers simply bolt on to the top of the strut, effectively adding 2 inches to its overall length (see "Before" and "After" images).
Next, we decided to upgrade the tires and wheels. We wanted a larger footprint better suited for mud, sand, and snow. We picked Toyo Open Country ATs because they offer a good compromise between street and dirt use. The tread blocks feature cross-sectional siping, which should help out a lot on wet pavement. The Open Country's eight-ply sidewall rating should also resist punctures better than the factory rubber. As a 33x13.00/18, the tire's contact patch is quite a bit wider than the stock rubber, which should offer better flotation in soft sand and mud. We had these tires mounted to a set of 18x8.5 American Racing "Fuel" wheels.