Nissan wants to convince American truck buyers to turn Japanese. Will they?
General George S. Patton said wars are fought with weapons but they are won by men. And while the plight of competing automakers is a bit different than the brutality of war, some of the same ideas carry over. That’s because for truck manufacturers, coming out on top means more than just having a bigger and better weapon. It involves appealing to badge-loving Americans who care about towing capacities and muscular looks. These people love whatever bleeds red, white, and blue and was seen in Luke Bryan’s last music video.
Few other automakers could tell you how hard it is to be an outsider better than Toyota and Nissan, the latter of which invited us out to Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, to drive the newest version of its full-size Titan pickup truck in an effort to prove that it really is just one of the good old boys. While we were only able to vet the truck for a handful of hours before being whisked away to our secluded writing corners, the message was clear: Nissan wants to be taken seriously by US truck buyers. To do so, it will out-macho the competition with grit and the quintessentially American mantra “bigger is better." In its first edition, the Titan was rugged and competitive, although based on sales numbers it had a long ways to go.
Ford has been bouncing F-Series sales well into the six figures and the Chevy Silverado and Ram aren’t far behind. Meanwhile, Nissan’s Titan sales are equivalent to 9.6% of Ford’s sales output. To help juice sales, Nissan made the new Titan better, faster, and stronger. These adjectives aren’t just a testament to the hardware under the body panels; the truck’s physical presence does enough to make sure that no one questions its masculinity. A massive bright grille is a direct assault on the chrome faces of the F-150, Ram, and Silverado. When asked about the decision to enlarge the brakes and axle/differential combo on the Titan, Nissan said that it was done in the name of giving the truck robustness and goodness.
Apparently, many truck buyers get on all fours and peep at the undercarriage when shopping as if they were inspecting a farm animal, and Nissan didn’t want potential customers to be disappointed with what they saw. Hardware aside, the rest of the truck appears to be designed along the lines of the F-150, except with last-generation headlights and a more curvaceous roofline. Don’t let those boxy looks fool you, though, because there are some aerodynamics upgrades on this truck that keep the desires of EPA regulators in mind. Active grille shutters up front can instantly lower the coefficient of drag if the coolant is chilled enough and if AC system pressure allows.
Meanwhile, a covered tow hook, front bumper, tailgate, and roof spoilers, as well as under floor covers all combine with the grille shutters to yield a 10% increase of Cd over the 2014 Titan. This adds to an improved EPA mileage sticker of 15 mpg city, 21 highway, and 18 mpg combined. Another advantage of playing nice with the wind is less interior noise, making the Titan an ally in the battle against driving fatigue, but the laminated front side glass and three layers of dash insulation have a hand in that as well. As with the Armada, Nissan was keen on ensuring that on-road dynamics were as superb as they could be for a body-on-frame vehicle, recruiting the help of hydraulic body mounts to reduce cabin noise as well as vibration and the rubbery feel that plagues trucks.
The result was something I enjoyed. Although the jiggly shake of the ladder frame was far from absent, it was subdued enough that conversation with my driving partner during the two-hour stretch of bumpy highway driving drifted away from the truck and into the realm of politics and semi-sober life experiences. Nissan credits this phenomenon to the fact that its new truck is confident and fun to drive, but as a non-truck person my only incidents of fun with the Titan occurred when the pedal was mashed to the three-layers of firewall. This caused the 5.6-liter “Endurance” V8 to erupt with 390 horsepower and 394 lb-ft of torque. The excitement wasn’t only a result of shaming the old engine’s 317 horsepower. It came from the flat torque curve.
Mated to the ATF warmer-infused seven-speed automatic, the engine helps the Titan reach a claimed best-in-class tow rating of 9,390 pounds. For the towing newbies there's trailer sway control system, downhill speed control, an integrated trailer brake control, and a trailer light check that allow the computer to keep things in control once your skill runs out. Even the blind spot monitoring system is enhanced to account for merging capabilities that are hindered by long loads at the rear. We didn’t get a chance to test the Titan’s driving dynamics when saddled with the extra mass, but a makeshift off-road course was available to show us just what the truck could do when the pavement runs out.
With a hill descent control system sending the ABS system pulsing through the brake pedal like an Olympic athlete’s heartbeat, the Titan conquered steep pre-planned hills tilted at mind-boggling angles while cycling between two, three, or four contact patches. However, before Nissan’s off-road track was trekked, product specialists thought it appropriate to highlight some details that make the Titan one of the better planned out utility workhorses. On the bed of the truck, known to some as the central workbench, Nissan placed LED lights everywhere under the bed rail. This was done to eliminate damage to the lights and to illuminate every conceivable corner of the rectangular prism, allowing for use as a mobile woodcutting workbench.
Movable tie down points were also present and able to accommodate construction workers or motorcycle haulers with equal amounts of consideration. Removable and lockable boxes dubbed “Titan Boxes” can border the edges of the bed when checked off on the options menu and give commercial buyers of the first ever single-cab, or purchasers of the standard crew-cab Titan, another reason to buy the import (from Canton, Mississippi) over offerings from Ford, Chevy and FCA. Soccer dads looking to cling to traditional gender norms will appreciate the ability to claim the largest lockable interior storage space of any bins in the segment and a dizzying amount of cup holders to complement.
Storage lids create a flat floor in the second row and help contractors find homes for power tools or help homemakers with embedded grocery bag hooks. As with any vehicle in a popular segment, the Titan comes in a multitude of flavors. In ascending order, there are the S, SV, Pro 4X (the off-roader’s delight), SL, and Platinum reserve models available. XD variants are on sale with a 5.0-liter Cummings diesel engine in case the 5.6-liter V8 XD or crew cab options aren’t enough, although a V6 with undisclosed power, size and economy figures lies at the bottom of the crew cab options list. Like Hyundai and Kia, Nissan is luring buyers with the combination of low price, practicality and an over the top warranty.
Presenters were grinning ear to ear when they told us that the new Titan would come with a best in class bumper-to-bumper warranty of five years and 100,000 miles, backing up suspicions that the larger brakes and drivetrain components were more than just show floor show-offs. In other words, Nissan knows that it isn’t one of the big three. As formidable an automaker as it is, Nissan is willing to humble itself and work hard for the status it wants. Looking at raw sales numbers, it has a lot of ground to cover if it wants to defeat the likes of GM and Ford. To match the giants, it needs to be the best deal on the block. This will lure in customers who, once shown just how dependable a tool the Titan can be, will become repeat buyers.
The buy-in for this warranty program isn’t too steep either, with the cheapest Titan going for $35,975 for the crew cab S 4X2 model, with the more pricey Platinum Reserve 4X4 model fetching an asking price of $58,105, both prices including a $1,195 destination and handling charge. The crew cab model will be on sale later this month while the single and king cab models will have to wait until later this year to see the light of day. The culmination of Nissan’s efforts are admirable, and although they seem unlikely to take down any one of America's big three, the combination of utility, versatility, pricing, and warranty may just help the Japanese automaker steal a larger chunk of full-size truck sales than it already does.
However, despite the new confident face the Titan has, there are plenty of signs to signify that the truck is facing an uphill battle. Warranty aside, Nissan is also relying on the Leaf to skew its CAFE average in favor of its trucks. When we asked Nissan how it planned to compete with Ford’s aluminum-enabled weight savings, all that was fired back was a spiel on how efficient the 5.6-liter V8 was. While the claim didn’t say much about the truck’s aspirations to leapfrog into the future (or even present), it was telling of Nissan’s overall approach: Make a truck that is as good as possible, uncomplicated and will sell well. Whether or not this approach is a winning one is all up to you.