HEAVENER, Okla. -- Big chunks of rock fill the bed of a creek cut through the pine-studded hills of eastern Oklahoma as a brawny PRO-4X rendition of Nissan's Frontier pickup -- packing massive firepower and applying traction to every 265/75R16 BFG Rugged Trail tire -- muscles its way in bump-bump-bump increments across so many stones.
The truck doesn't waver from our mission to ford the wash, although its front wheels, floating independently in a double wishbone design with off-road shock absorbers, articulate way-up and way-down to crawl over the rocky path.
Yet from a driver's vantage in Frontier's expansive Crew Cab cabin, we never notice the wild wheel gyrations because this pickup feels surprisingly steady despite such rough terrain.
That smooth but rock-solid ride quality begins with a rigid chassis for Frontier.
The F-Alpha platform, actually an abbreviated version of the chassis underpinning Nissan's full-size Titan truck, is a ladder-type frame forged from high tensile-strength steel with twist-resisting boxed side rails.
With a wheelbase stretching to 10.5 feet and body length for Crew Cab Long Bed configuration extending to 18.3 feet, Frontier measures up to the mid-size segment of pickups as extra inches mean more room for passengers in the cab, offered as King Cab and Crew Cab.
Nissan's experience in building trucks for America traces back to 1960 and a teeny compact truck, the Datsun 1200 Pickup. And we remember those Hardbody trucks produced from 1986 to 1997.
Frontier's nameplate emerged in 1997 on a compact-class pickup built by Nissan North America Manufacturing at a production facility in Smyrna, Tenn. That first Frontier offered rear two-wheel-drive (2WD) or four-wheel-drive (4WD) traction plus regular-size and stretched cabs but only a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine for power.
In 1999, Frontier gained a 3.3-liter V6 upgrade on one 4WD model in King Cab configuration, while in 2001 the truck scored new industrial-strength styling with a chin-forward face, thick bumpers and muscular flared fenders.
More innovations in powertrains and body configurations followed, such as a super-charger for Frontier's V6 in 2002 or the Crew Cab Long Bed S/C Frontier.
Models of 2005 grew in size to mark a third generation for Frontier, and these gen-3 issues extend to 2010 editions which come with two powertrain options and four trim variations -- entry XE, upgraded SE, the luxurious LE and sporty PRO-4X.
Frontier for 2010 presents a bold truck body with sheetmetal incorporating styling points of the larger Titan -- note those V-angled struts in the grille, big corner headlamp clusters with flat brows, crimped overhangs fore and aft plus fender flares in bold geometric patterns.
The rear truck box of Frontier, like Titan, can be outfitted with utility items like aluminum channel rails ringing the rim (two on the deck plus one on each side and the bulkhead) and rugged polymer cleats that slide in or out of the channel grooves and screw tight to create an infinite number of tie-down points for securing a load of cargo.
And there's a protective bedliner in black that's sprayed in place at the Smyrna factory.
Frontier also shares Titan's suspension design with a double wishbone up front and a rigid leaf spring in back.
Cab designs divide into King Cab and Crew Cab formats and each brings the option of 2WD or 4WD traction.
Frontier King Cab adds cabin space behind front bucket seats with a pair of flip-up jump seats and access via rear-hinged doors.
Frontier Crew Cab carries a rear bench seat with room for three riders plus conventional front-hinged back doors.
Length of the truck bed varies with the cab style. For King Cab, the bed stretches to full-size length at 73.3 inches, while Crew Cab carries either a brief bed trimmed to 59.5 inches or the longer bed at 73.3 inches.
Most of Frontier's issues for 2010 draw from a Nissan V6 engine which cranks up best-in-class power.
However, two Frontier King Cab 2WD models use a thrifty twin-cam 2.5-liter in-line-four.
The four-pack delivers 154 hp at 5200 rpm with torque numbers of 171 lb-ft at 4400 rpm.
It links to a standard five-speed manual transmission for Frontier XE 2WD and SE 2WD models or the optional electronically-controlled automatic with five forward gears.
Frontier's impressive VQ-series V6 -- assembled at Nissan's engine plant in Decherd, Tenn. -- is a dual-cam design with lightweight aluminum block. It displaces 4.0 liters and uses Nissan's variable induction control system (ICS).
The plant sparks with high output of 261 hp at 5600 rpm plus 281 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
Coupled to the V6 is a slick six-speed manual shifter for Frontier SE 2WD/4WD and PRO-4X 4WD models or the five-speed electronic automatic that's standard for Frontier SE 2WD/4WD plus LE 2WD/4WD and PRO-4X 4WD models.
Frontier's 4WD device is a part-time system controlled electronically with 2WD/4H/4LO modes.
Power assistance goes to the rack and pinion steering system and four-wheel disc brakes link to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD).
Then add Nissan's vehicle dynamic control (VDC), an advanced stability system that works on pavement and off to manage tire traction through selective wheel braking and throttle trimming.
And with VDC there are additional electronic controls to keep the truck tracking on steep slopes -- hill descent control (HDC) and hill start assist (HSA).
And the 2010 Frontier issues also score 2WD or 4WD active brake limited slip (ABLS).
Frontal air bags tuck into every model, along with seat-mounted side air bags up front and curtain-style air bags in headliners front/rear for rollover protection.
Optional packages include a Moonroof Package and the Value Truck Package for SE, LE and PRO-4X models.
Nissan sets fair price points for 2010 Frontier issues. The lowest MSRP of $17,500 applies to a Frontier King Cab XE 2WD with four-cylinder engine and the five-speed manual transmission. The highest MSRP of $29,850 goes to a Frontier Crew Cab LE 4WD with the V6 in place and the five-speed automatic transmission.