CHICAGO – Unlike last year’s face-off of fullsize pickups, this year’s bragging rights belong to the midsize segment, and Nissan weighs in with its forthcoming Frontier Crew Cab.
Frontier Crew Cab bows in November.

Frontier follows the next-generation Toyota Tacoma concept and next-generation Dodge Dakota as the third midsize pickup to debut here.

While the Frontier originally bowed at last month’s Detroit auto show with a King Cab version, the Crew Cab is slated to capture at least 50% of the 95,000-100,000 units the auto maker plans to sell.

While the Frontier Crew Cab can’t stack up against Dakota’s expanded dimensions, Nissan says its larger version comes close in interior room, and in many ways is a shrunken version of its brawny Titan fullsize pickup.

This starts with the frame, which Nissan officials say is a shortened, narrowed version of the F-Alpha frame on which the Titan rides. Like Titan, Frontier gets a new, more powerful engine. Its V-6 makes 250 hp and 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) of torque and will be mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission or 6-speed manual.

Other features that originated on the Titan include a factory-installed spray-on bedliner and its innovative Utilitrac Channel System, designed to better anchor objects in the truck bed. Frontier’s tow capacity is 5,500 lbs. (2,495 kg).

Nissan aims to differentiate its midsize pickup from the heightening competition by emphasizing Frontier’s off-road capability. The truck is loaded with off-road hardware including a locking rear differential; a 4-wheel limited-slip system; skid plates and short front and rear overhangs.

Plus, the truck’s underside hardware is tucked up into the body and rides higher than the frame, so nothing gets caught on a rock when going off road.

Frontier, which will be built at Nissan’s Smyrna, TN, plant, is scheduled for a November debut – one month later than its sister SUV, the Pathfinder. The next-generation Xterra midsize SUV, the third truck to come out of the Smyrna plant, will bow in about a year.

Meantime, Nissan at the auto show here shows a revamped Altima for the ’05 model year, three years into its product cycle. While there are some design tweaks to the rear fascia, most of the changes are to the interior.

The auto maker upgraded the materials and enhanced the overall appearance for a significant improvement to an interior viewed as the midsize sedan’s weak point. Mark McNabb, Nissan Div. vice president and general manager, calls it “an interior with nothing to apologize for.”

Nissan, buoyed by strong January sales with a daily selling rate up 27% over year-prior, forecasts double-digit sales growth for 2004 but declines to specify its targets. In 2003, Nissan-brand sales rose 3.7% over year-prior. Most U.S. sales growth came from the Infiniti luxury division.

kzachary@primediabusiness.com