I was staring at a desert flat as I drove 75 miles an hour, somehow enjoying a moment of zen on Interstate 15 in a body-on-frame pickup truck. I'd been piloting a Nissan Frontier Pro-4X across 130 miles of the Mojave for the past two days, and at this point, pavement felt like a luxury.
As I watched mile markers whip past me and dug deeper into my thoughts about the trip, I was overcome with sentimentality. I knew every sign proclaiming ever-fewer miles to Las Vegas, our final destination, was one fewer minute I'd have with this truck. I started getting misty-eyed. I was loath to hand it back to Nissan ; I eyed exit signs and my watch, wondering if we had time for one last romp through the desert.
Photo Credit: Victoria Scott / Motor1.com
Before you think this is an advertorial, the truck is good, but I was not lachrymose solely on the basis of its merits. I was simply going to miss this specific Frontier , the one I had piloted through the Mojave. This was odd for me. The very nature of auto writing – with its ever-shifting cast of loaners and fleet vehicles – means I never think twice about handing the keys back at the end of my test drive, normally.
This was not a normal test drive, however. My press truck was at the end of its test-vehicle life. Most pre-production cars journalists ( such as these launch-spec Frontiers ) drive have no VINs, a smattering of early-assembly flies in the ointment, and crucially, a federal mandate that they are destroyed at the end of their test-vehicle life.
This was the last drive my Nissan would ever take. I was going to miss it.
Gallery: 2022 Nissan Frontier Pro-4X: Overlanding Feature
Old-School Auto Writing (or, You Can't Do That Anymore)
Nissan, feeling the same mawkishness about the demise of its pre-production Frontiers, organized the ultimate send-off party for them. For two days we would drive our fleet of trucks down the Mojave Road, a centuries-old trail that cuts through the heart of the Mojave Desert in southern California.
The passage – roughly 150 miles long, stretching from the Colorado River to the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles – was originally developed and used by the native Mojave people for trade, then by Catholic missionaries, then by Mormons spreading out beyond Utah, and then broadly by American settlers as the west was colonized. It has existed in more or less the same form for the past several hundred years. No sections are paved, and the entire Road is unmaintained.
In 1983, as the first Nissan-Datsun 720 King Cab pickup trucks rolled off the then-new assembly line in Smyrna, Tennessee, a group of Nissan employees and a smattering of auto journalists drove the Road from the Colorado River to the town of Zzyzx, roughly 130 or so miles. The Road then was in essentially the exact same form it inhabits today: a challenging four-wheel-drive-only path only demarcated by strategically placed rock cairns on the right side of the trail.
According to Nissan On The Mojave Road , a book published about the exploits of the 1983 crew, that original journey was rough. Author Dennis Casebier, a conservationist largely responsible for the existence of the trail and who attended with the crew, regales stories of intense thunderstorms, trucks stuck in heavy mud, and swollen rivers that were barely passable even in four4-Low. It was an ordeal; everyone made it, but barely. It was one of those auto-writing tall tales that came out of the '80s that seems, frankly, impossible to write these days.
We'd be doing our best to replicate it today.
Analog And Digital
We began our journey in Las Vegas. Before we set out for the Mojave, I decided to enjoy society for one last night, and I walked the Strip with a film camera, trying to blend the analog with the modern. I didn't get many shots.
Maybe it's because of the small-town life I normally live, but I felt stupefied by the blinding electronic signs positioned at all angles around me from ever-newer, shinier, glassier buildings. I couldn't focus on holding the camera steady and manually focusing my vintage lens in the sea of people and spectacle and gambling and booze. It felt like everyone was gawking at me with my strange camera and stranger appearance; only in Vegas can the silent photographer trying to stay in the shadows become part of the performance. I decided I did not enjoy society, and I eagerly awaited leaving it.
The next morning we hit the road, and as Las Vegas receded into our rearview, I breathed a sigh of relief. The first day officially started with a jaunt down US-95 towards the Colorado River, away from civilization.
At the Colorado River, we turned towards Fort Piute, where the remains of a stone-walled Army installation from the late 1860s was waiting for us to visit. This was one of the areas where the importance of ground clearance mattered; the trail leading to the remains of the fort was basically a rock field. The Pro-4X trim comes with 9.4 inches of clearance , which was plenty to keep the skid plates from kissing the dirt too often.
After that stop, signs of humanity were limited to the rock cairns on the right-hand side of the Road. We began a higher-speed jaunt through the Joshua tree forests of the Mojave, with relatively smooth dirt punctuated by whoops or dry creek crossings. I initially began to visualize my approaches to these abrupt drop-offs with the dog-out-the-window approach, as I found the low-res trail cameras completely useless (they’re mostly useful for parking, but shut off above five mph), but I rapidly got a feel for the Frontier's mass and was able to drive it just by looking out of the front window, something I'm not used to in most modern trucks.
As the day wore on, I found that it wasn't just clear, easy sightlines that evoked fond memories of bygone pickups; the Frontier has done an excellent job of translating rugged, traditional off-road prowess to the 21st century. Yes, the dashboard of the Frontier has a screen in it, but the gauge cluster is still composed of gauges, and it's easily readable at a glance. The driving controls, stereo, and climate control all still use physical buttons that are clearly marked and perceptibly click.
The Frontier retains this old-school character from behind the wheel, too. Granted, no one is mistaking its 310-horsepower V6 and nine-speed transmission as a creation of days past – those feel modern, and I'm thankful for it – but the parts of old trucks that were actually fun are all still here.
The Pro-4X's four-wheel-drive uses limited-slip differentials to route power when traction is lost; there is shockingly little computerization between your right foot and the all-terrains. Power steering – which is pleasantly weighted, but never felt like an unnecessary workout to control – is still hydraulically assisted, rather than electric. The Bilstein shocks are fantastic at smoothing out whoops and rocks for hours on end, but they transmit just enough information I never felt like the experience had been overly numbed.
Unlike me with my film camera on the Strip, the Frontier has an excellent handle on blending the analog and the modern. It hosts all the pleasant parts of modernization in harmony with what makes me nostalgic for older vehicles. At the end of the first day, as we sat around a campfire and prepared our tents, I felt a sense of relief. We'd escaped the lights of Vegas, and we did it in a truck that felt as happy to be in the wilderness as I did.
The Old-School Story (or, You Can Totally Still Do That Now)
The next day would be another 60 or 70 miles to just outside of Zzyzx, where we would finish our run at the same campsite the '83 crew finished up at, have a few drinks, and then all head back to Vegas in the morning.
We visited the site of the last old-west gunfight, the Pisgah lava field, and the Mojave Road Mailbox in our travels as our guide, Sean Holman, told us the history of the Road and pointed out sights. It was a relaxing, comfortable day; I spent most of it with the window down sightseeing as much as I was driving.
Photo Credit: Victoria Scott / Motor1.com
And then we saw lightning, and the time to relax was over. If you're unfamiliar with desert thunderstorms, they are intense and dangerous, turning otherwise simple desert terrain into an impassable stew of fast-flowing rivers, thick mud, and deep standing water. In other words, we were facing a perfect replica of the '83 Nissan-Datsun journey.
We had about 12 miles of dirt road left to get to Baker, the nearest town with pavement, and the fastest way to it was a straight line directly through the oncoming storm; we'd just have to hope that the desert washes criss-crossing our route weren't already impassable by the time we reached them. Sean led the way, followed by our camera crew, and then me. Sean has run this trail at least once a year for two straight decades, which means he's damn fast at off-roading; I was struggling to keep up in my normal press-car driving style.
Photo Credit: Victoria Scott / Motor1.com
But this wasn't a normal press car: it was getting crushed! Would Nissan really mind if I put a few scratches in it? It was, after all, in the interest of old-school auto writing – and survival.
So I abandoned gentleness. I wrung out the V6,used the skid plate, and pinstriped the paint off bushes while I slammed the Bilsteins onto the jounce bumpers as we all tore through the desert, wipers furiously beating away rain as we tried to outrace God. The water got deeper – and my stabs at the throttle got more urgent – as the five-story thermometer in the city of Baker beckoned on the horizon. The truck was completely unfazed by all of this. I can't pretend I test most vehicles quite this rigorously, but it sure seemed like the Frontier could handle a class-leading beating.
Photo Credit: Victoria Scott / Motor1.com
By the time we arrived in Baker, the thunderstorm was directly overhead and visibility was less than a mile thanks to the deluge. As we got gas, I realized I was soaked in sweat; meanwhile, my truck was totally fine, despite driving it like I stole it. A quick chat with the other auto writers confirmed that all the trucks were fine. It turned out that the Frontier was not just pleasantly analog in nature, it could handle an old-school auto-journalist test just fine too.
At our last campground, with survival assured, we did a few more river crossings just for the hell of it. The trucks handled that gratuitous abuse with grace.
The Perfect Send-Off
The next morning was the interstate drive back to Vegas where I had my crisis. I only regained a hold of my emotions when I realized this trip was the perfect send-off for any vehicle. I didn't need to prove anything more to the truck, and it certainly didn't have anything left to prove to me after the storm. The Frontier had handled its chaotic final trip with exceptional grace; it didn't break a sweat even when I did, even when I was tearing gashes into the clear coat. It was, clearly, the right truck for the circumstances.
By the time this story is live, the pre-pro pickup will be a cube, but I will always have nostalgia in my heart for the Frontier that outran the wrath of the desert.
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