NASHVILLE, TN - The vehicle formerly known only as Nissan Truck finally joins an elite group of pickups that have actual names - sans an alpha-numeric designation. The Frontier, as it now is monikered, marks the seventh generation truck to emerge from Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s fold, and the third to be built in the U.S. at the automaker's Smyrna, TN, plant.

Frontier's bragging rights include claim to the title of the first compact pickup truck to be introduced in the States. Now, more than 40 years since that first model hit our shores, Nissan is banking on Frontier to capture a larger chunk of a recently stagnant segment that only now shows signs of a recovery.

First glimpse here of Frontier reveals a reshaped skin that sheds its boxier front end and sharper edges in favor of a smoother, face with more rounded corners. A lower sloping hoodline increases road visibility, while the front end as a whole imparts a more car-like semblance over its very truck-like predecessor.

Refinements extend into the underhood area. Frontier features an improved 2.4L 4-cyl. engine that makes 143 hp. That's nine more horses than before - a class-leading figure for base engines. It stomps on the comparable Ford Ranger 2.5L's output by an almost frightening 26 hp. Ford Motor Co.'s entry, on the other hand, has yet to see its market share challenged by the more powerful Nissan.

Frontier's power gains, reduced emissions and improved fuel economy are achieved in large part due to the revised engine layout, including the move to a DOHC 16-valve design from a SOHC 12-valve arrangement.

The interior also is a variation of a now common theme in pickups: Truck as Tall Car. All requisite creature comforts are present, placed in a pleasing-yet-logical arrangement that assures that Frontier is as easy to drive as an Altima. As with most of its peers, all hints that this is really a truck have been erased from the cabin. Except things that say 4X4.

Nissan and its pickup truck already have won over hearts here in its North American home - where loyalties generally fare strong for all things domestic - as evidenced by the vehicles on the road. Improvements to the new model should make Frontier a stronger player in most markets.