Nissan's rugged, powerful new Titan pickup truck is the first seriously competitive foreign entry in the full-size pickup market long dominated by American automakers.
The three top-selling vehicles last year were pickups from Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge. They come in a large variety of trim levels that aren't matched by the Titan -- at least not yet.
The Titan was developed, styled and mostly engineered in America. It's built in a new $1.43 billion Mississippi plant that easily can increase production. Japanese auto makers don't spend that kind of money for low-volume vehicles.
Such automakers traditionally enter U.S. markets slowly, then increase production of cars and trucks to sell a large number of them to seriously eat into those markets. The Japanese started with economy cars and surely will produce high-volume big pickups, which can generate huge profits. Count on the South Koreans to follow.
Toyota's full-size Tundra pickup offers a roomier crew cab version for 2004. But the Tundra has a 240-horsepower V-8, and that's not enough power to seriously compete in the big pickup market. Toyota's new FTX concept pickup hints at its larger, more powerful 2006 pickup. It will be built at a major new Toyota plant in Texas with plenty of production capacity.
The Titan has no horsepower issues -- it's got a brawny 5.6-liter V-8 that generates 305 horsepower. The new large Ford F-150 -- top-selling pickup -- has a top rating of 300 horsepower, although the big Chevy and Dodge pickups offer V-8s with up to 345 horsepower. (A hot rod Dodge pickup can be had with a 500-horsepower engine but it's a specialty item.)
Never mind the 300-345 horsepower ratings because the Titan's high-torque V-8 lets it outrun the American pickups and the Tundra in the 0-60 mph dash. That's partly because it's much lighter than the leading three U.S. pickups and not much heavier than the Tundra. The Titan also can tow up to 9,500 pounds and has a 1,640-pound payload capacity.
The sophisticated Titan V-8 works with a standard, responsive five-speed automatic transmission with tow/haul modes. Fuel economy is an estimated 14 mpg in the city and 18-19 on the highway.
The Titan was the winner in a comparison test of Ford, Chevy, Dodge and Toyota full-size pickups in the February issue of Car and Driver magazine, which said, "Who would've imagined a foreign truck making its full-size debut and coping [first] prize?''
The Titan is offered in base XE, mid-range SE and top-line LE trim levels. It shares its chassis and powertrain with the burly new Pathfinder Armada sport-utility vehicle, although the Armada has a different rear suspension for a smoother ride.
Even the XE is pretty well equipped, although you must move up to the SE to get such standard items as power windows, mirrors and door locks with remote keyless entry. The LE adds items including heated front seats and leather upholstery.
The Titan isn't pretty, but has rugged styling that should appeal to many truck fans. It comes as the King Cab extended-cab model and as the Crew Cab model, which has a crew cab pickup's typically larger rear seat.
The four-door extended-cab model has rear-opening back doors without outside handles that don't open independently of the front ones. But they're hinged to open flat against the body sides, making them handy in tight parking spots. The crew cab version has four regular carlike doors with large outside handles that lead to a roomier rear seat area.
I tested both models and found legroom in the King Cab is tight for a 6-footer behind a driver with his seat shoved about halfway back. The Crew Cab offers plenty of knee room for rear-seat occupants and has back windows that roll all the way down.
Cargo bed lengths are 6 feet, 7 inches for the King Cab model and 5 feet, 7 inches for the Crew Cab. The XE standard front bench seat is optional for the SE and LE, which have more comfortable front bucket seats, console and floor-mounted shifter.
Two- or four-wheel drive are offered. The four-wheel-drive system must be disengaged on dry roads but has low-range gearing for tough off-road driving.
Anti-lock brakes are standard. Traction control comes with four-wheel drive and is optional for rear-drive versions.
Optional safety features include an anti-skid system. Also optional are front side torso air bags and head-protecting side curtain air bags for both rows of seats. Power-adjustable pedals cost extra for the SE but are standard on the LE.
Among Titan "firsts'' are a locking storage cabinet in the left rear fender, factory spray-in bed liner, adjustable cargo-bed tie-downs, fold-flat front passenger seat and a cargo area light with illumination for the tailgate, which is quite heavy.
Good-sized running boards help you get in and out of this tall truck, which has a high step-in. The comfortable, businesslike interior has high seating, large inside door handles and plenty of cupholders and storage areas. The interior is rather plasticky looking. It's generally quiet, but exhaust rumble can be annoying.
Gauges can be quickly read, and the dashboard has easily reached controls. Climate controls are large, but audio system controls are small. Fold-up rear seats considerably increase the interior cargo area.
Steering is quick with decent road feel, with an adjustable wheel. Handling is very good for a big pickup, partly because the engine is set way back for better weight distribution. However, a potential Crew Cab buyer should check out his garage size. Plenty of room is needed for maneuvering in tight quarters.
The ride is firm, and the rigid rear axle hops in bumpy curves. Strong brakes provide quick stops and have an assist feature for better emergency stops.
The Titan offers more than some rivals for the money and probably is making domestic truck producers nervous.
2004 NISSAN TITAN
Roomy crew cab version. Powerful V-8. Very rugged. Good handling.
Very firm ride. High step-in. Exhaust rumble. Fuel-thirsty. Limited trim levels.