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1/2-Ton Heavyweight: The Nissan Titan XD Gets A Gasser

For the gas engine, the Titan XD got quite the upgrade over the previous V-8.

Lee LovellPhotographer, Writer

The Nissan Titan was first introduced for the ’04 model year, and it basically went unchanged for 11 years following. During that time, the traditional big players in the market—Chevrolet, Ford, and Ram—all redesigned their 1/2-ton offerings (sometimes several times over), with more power, capability, style, and interior appointments. By the last model year for the Titan in ’15, the truck was showing its age inside and out, and it showed in sales lagging far behind in last place.

That all created a pretty high bar for Nissan to meet if they wanted to be competitive in the highly coveted truck market. These utilitarian productivity makers offer high profit for manufacturers, but they also need to be high volume. In an effort to recover those sales, Nissan pulled out all the stops with the early 2015 introduction of the “heavy half” Titan XD with a Cummins-developed turbodiesel V-8 at the 2015 North American International Auto Show. We had to wait to get our hands on the gas-powered model.

Now, a year and half later, it is finally in our hands. For the gas engine, the Titan XD got quite the upgrade over the previous V-8. Known as the VK56VD, this new engine adds direct injection, variable valve timing and lift (on intake and exhaust), and an automatic transmission warmer, among more than 150 unique parts. These changes net a 73hp and 16–lb-ft improvement compared to the previous-generation VK56DE engine for a total of 390 hp and 401 lb-ft of torque. The engine is matched to a Jatco-sourced seven-speed automatic transmission. The engine is made at Nissan’s production facility in Decherd, Tennessee, and the company is quite proud of that fact, as well as the rest of the truck’s American-sourced manufacturing. Outside of a numerically higher axle gear ratio of 3.36:1 and a 6,000-rpm tach, the rest of truck is identical to its oil-burning brethren.

Nissan also positioned the XD in a space not really occupied by any other truck. The truck is marketed as having the capability of a 3/4-ton with the comfort of a 1/2-ton—a niche Nissan is hoping to fill. Backers to this claim include a fully boxed frame, 9.84-inch differential, 3 1/2-inch-diameter axletubes, and beefy 14.2-inch (front) and 14.4-inch (rear) vented disc brakes. Aside from the XD badging, the best way to spot this model is from the A-pillar forward, where the front-end dimensions have been stretched to accommodate the additional hardware to fit the big diesel engine. The resulting dimensions can be bit awkward when viewed from certain angles. The non-XD true 1/2-ton model features a bit of a nip and tuck on the nose and looks a bit better, in our opinion.

All those heavy-duty bits certainly add up to increased capability. While the Cummins-powered XD may be the king of towing, the nearly 700-pound weight loss of the gas XD nets you a higher payload at 2,594 pounds compared to the diesel’s 2,091-pound max. Towing sits at 11,270 pounds (down about 1,100 pounds from the diesel), and an integrated trailer brake controller is available. While the Silverado and F-150 have higher tow ratings, the Titan feels more confident towing at its max than the lighter-weight true 1/2-ton competition. We love that the Titan offers an integrated gooseneck hitch straight from the factory. You could drive to the dealership with your trailer on your old truck and drive away with a new one—pretty cool.

This 1/2-ton-plus billing is also evident on the road. Over the week with our tester, we traversed the gridlock of Los Angeles and then headed northwest to the Los Padres National Forest. In the city, we found the ride to be firm, yet a bit more forgiving than comparable HD models from the Big Three. However, be prepared for an arm workout as the steering is some of the heaviest we’ve ever experienced. We did get more used to it the more we drove it, but it still remained a chore during tight steering maneuvers.

That said, we welcomed the improved responsiveness of the gas V-8 compared to the turbodiesel, which we found to be sluggish at times, as well as the broad, down-low torque. And the sound! The Endurance V-8’s exhaust is intoxicating and possibly contributed to some delinquency off the line. The seven-speed transmission is very well matched to that engine, delivering quick, confident shifts when called upon. It’s a column-shifted unit with a “Tow Mode” button and a gear selection rocker switch. With the latter, we did find a small ergonomic quirk where we would sometimes hit the button when adjusting the nearby air vent and inadvertently switch to into manual mode, leaving us absently wondering why the truck wouldn’t shift out of First gear.

Out on the trail, the engine and transmission combo pulled with confidence up steep mountain grades, and ground clearance (at 9 inches) was never an issue. Outside of that, there was less praise. We wished the suspension had more compliance. Tire pressure, around 65 psi, didn’t help either. Also, it was particularly difficult to judge where the front corners of the truck were, making it hard to spot the front end from the driver seat. However, we did find the available Around View Monitor helpful with that, as well as the Off-Road Monitor that displayed wheel, pitch, and roll angles. Overall, we would have had more confidence on the dirt if we had the PRO-4X trim, which is much better suited for trail work and comes equipped with Bilstein shocks, skidplates, electronic-locking rear differential, and all-terrain off-road tires. For those on the fence between models, it is important to note that Platinum Reserve XD 4x4s will come standard with Bilstein shocks for the ’17 model year.

Inside, Nissan’s trademark Zero Gravity seats, designed to mimic a “classic hunter’s jacket,” were supremely comfortable, especially with cool air blowing on our backsides. Interior space is more than adequate, and there are plenty of cavernous spaces to swallow your stuff, including a clever lockable storage area under the rear seat with a cutout perfect for a hunting rifle. The Rockford Fosgate sound system has enough bass to rattle your bones. However, the outdated 7-inch touchscreen head unit seems out of place in a vehicle so new. We appreciated the large side mirrors, although we found the warning light for the blind spot monitor (helpful in a truck this size) hard to see in broad daylight. Overall, we enjoyed our time inside the Titan.

At the end of our time with the gas-powered Nissan Titan XD, we were left with the same impression we had of the diesel model: a strong effort, requiring a little more refinement in some areas. Nevertheless, we’re sure that anyone who buys this truck will be very satisfied with it capability, refinement, and impressive engineering. However, while the XD is a great truck for those who need some extra capability; it wouldn’t be our first choice for the trail. We are most excited for the non-XD Titan Pro-4X with all the off-road bits, softer suspension, and most importantly, less weight. Now that is a truck we want to blast on a trail.

Specifications (as tested)

Vehicle: ’16 Nissan Titan XD Platinum Reserve 4x4
Vehicle type: Crew cab pickup
Base price: $38,290
Price as tested: $55,520
Engine: 5.6L DOHC V-8
Transmission: 7-spd automatic
Horsepower @ rpm (hp): 390 @ 5,800
Torque @ rpm (lb-ft): 401 @ 4,000
Curb weight (lb): 6,770
Payload (lb): 2,310
Towing capacity (lb): 10,850
EPA mileage rating: N/A