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Nissan pickup has come long way

I had a bad case of the bends this week.

The decompression I suffered from exiting last week's Mercedes-Benz E320 wagon and climbing right up into a Nissan Frontier pickup - cracking my knee on the 4X4 transfer case shifter - was too much for my system.I should have arranged for a less dramatic transition vehicle, maybe a Honda Civic or Ford Escort and then the truck.

But I'm better now. After a couple of days in the Frontier SE King Cab, Nissan's top of the line pickup, I was able to sit up straight again, but it was a near thing.

The Frontier is Nissan's new entry into the small pickup wars. You may think you've never heard of it, but you have. The Frontier is the subject of that TV commercial where the dog takes his sleeping master for a wild ride in a BarcaLounger to the local Nissan dealership. A Frontier is sitting in the window like a department store Christmas display.

"Dogs love trucks," declares that ubiquitous Japanese gentleman who pops up out of a manhole with his Jack Russell terrier.

Maybe dogs do, but I'll be darned if I can figure out how that's supposed to sell them to humans. My guess is that 95 percent of Americans wouldn't be able to recall what brand of vehicle that ad, or any of that whole series of Nissan's "Enjoy the Ride" campaign, is pushing.

But the Madison Avenue folks can be as inscrutable as Nissan's pitchman, who is supposed to represent Yutaka Katayama, or "Mr. K," the founder of Datsun/Nissan in North America. It's all very Zen-like, but I'm afraid the message may be lost on American pickup buyers, raised on Chevy's "Like a Rock" images of trucks as tools for working people.

Whatever, there is nothing inscrutable about the new Frontier. While it represents no great leap forward in the state of the small-truck art, it is improved over its Nissan predecessor in almost every way.

Which is no small thing considering that Nissan (then Datsun) pioneered the small truck concept when it first imported the 1959 Datsun 1000 pickup into the United States 40 years ago.

The Frontier's redo for '98 begins with a revamped frame that enhances rigidity, thus reducing noise and vibration. The body that sits on it is a half-inch wider. The regular cab is 9.7 inches longer and the stretched King Cab is 6.1 inches longer. The bed is the largest and deepest in its class and features double-wall construction so dents and dings on the inside won't show on the outside.

It also offers one-hand tailgate operation, and the bed can be separated into two tiers by horizontally laying a partition board across the bed. It can also be divided into front, middle and rear compartments by using partition boards that fit into special slots.

Power comes from a 2.4-liter 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder, which produces 143 horsepower that is just barely (one pony more than the Toyota Tacoma's standard four-banger) the best in its class. Torque is rated at 154 foot-pounds, found mostly in the low and middle ranges where it's most needed in trucks - trucks are supposed to be plow horses not race horses.

Nissan as yet offers no V6 (let alone a V8 a la the Dodge Dakota) option with the Frontier, which is probably just fine with its competitors, most of whom do. However, Nissan says an optional 3.3-liter V6 should be available by fall for 1999 models.

Acceleration was OK for the Frontier four-cylinder, but at stop lights I was usually the last vehicle to make it across the intersection. On the plus side, it is rated at 22/26 mpg in city/highway driving, which is great for a truck. (That's with the manual 5-speed shifter found in my test truck. With the optional automatic transmission, city mileage drops to 19 and highway to 21.)

That kind of mileage means you can drive your truck as a daily commuter and not end up owing your soul to OPEC.

The new suspension package in the Frontier worked quite well toward achieving the industry's goal of making trucks ride like cars. It's no Mercedes-Benz, but my kidneys survived pretty much intact. The Frontier is rated for a 1,000-pound load. Towing capacity is a best-in-class 3,500 pounds with the manual shifter and 2,000 with the automatic.

The Frontier's 4X4 system worked just fine in that big blizzard we had on Presidents Day. It does have that manual transfer case shifter in the cab, but you don't have to get out and manually lock the wheel hubs, a nasty chore of bygone days. The Frontier's hubs lock automatically.

The interior has also been redesigned, and it works well in being "carlike." All of the luxury touches, such as power windows and outside mirrors, are accounted for, along with a good sound system that had a built-in CD player. The seats were very comfortable and supportive, but I was less impressed with the long, upright shifter that reminded me of the willowy wand in my dad's old '39 Plymouth.

The test truck had a lockout device for the passenger side airbag, the first time I've seen that feature, which was created by a spate of tragic accidents involving children hurt and killed by the bags in what were otherwise minor accidents.

Along with virtually every other vehicle segment, there is no dearth of quality competition for the Nissan Frontier, but it is a fine contender in a niche that gets bigger every year for the world's carmakers. Nissan says pickups currently account for 20 percent of its retail sales.