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OFF-ROAD TEST: Nissan Navara 2.3 DDT 4×4 LE double cab AT

10 October 2017

We waited a very long time for the local introduction of the all-new Nissan Navara. Then we waited another four months to get hold of a test unit. Now we’ve finally spent a week in its company. The big question is: has it moved the goal posts in the double cab bakkie segment?

The new Nissan Navara test unit happened to arrive at our office the same week that the long-awaited new Mercedes-Benz X-class was launched in Cape Town. As you probably know, the new Benz bakkie is based on the Nissan’s underpinnings. So the same chassis and the new coil-spring, five-link rear suspension, as well as – for the entry-level Benz – the twin-turbo 2.3-litre four-cylinder diesel engine. We were a bit tempted to stick  a makeshift drawing of the three-pointed star over the Nissan badge, and drive around like that. Nissan probably wouldn’t have minded too much. Come to think of it, maybe the timing of the units that suddenly became available to the media four months after the initial launch wasn’t such a coincidence. Be that as it may, the engineers at Merc would not have been as pleased.

The look of it
Our 2.3 DDT 4×4 LE double cab was kitted out in a striking orange hue… rounded off with a bevy of aftermarket accessories and 18-inch wheels. We reckon it certainly looks the ruggedly refined part. It is one of the better-looking double cabs on the market today and during our time with it, it drew plenty of admiring stares and glances.  The stares may also be due to the fact that there simply aren’t so many new Navaras on the road yet. Initial sales have not exactly caused the other bakkie-peddling companies to break a sweat. Mind you, some exclusivity in the double cab segment is maybe not a horrible prospect. Every second double cab on the road these days seem to be a Hilux or a Ranger. Interestingly, the new Navara features the longest list of approved aftermarket accessories of any Nissan sold to date in South Africa. From decal kits (aren’t those quite popular these days?), headlamp surrounds, a seven-inch LED spotlight bar to canopies, replacement bumpers and winches. There are even cattle rails on the list. Our test unit came with an optional towbar, which is fitted with an LED light. At night, when the light is illuminated, it lights up the area under and around the bak. Nifty, that.

The cabin
It’s modern, fancy and glitzy. There’s an aura of sophisticated luxury in the cabin, helped no doubt by the addition of optional leather trim for all the seats. The standard infotainment has satellite navigation with 3D mapping and live traffic updates, an RDS radio that can store up to 30 stations, DVD/VCD/CD/MP3 and MP4 compatibility, USB connection and Bluetooth audio streaming, a reverse camera and a touchscreen, and all the functions can be controlled via buttons on the three-spoke steering wheel. The system worked well enough with decent sound reproduction, and pairing a smartphone proved easy. What was annoying was the system insistence to ask for an agreement that you will use the system responsibly while driving. It does this every time you restart the Navara, and the system doesn’t work until you’ve pressed the  “I agree” button on the screen. We found this rather annoying. For the rest, the cabin is certainly more SUV-like than on the previous generation Navara. It’s comfortable, spacious and sumptuous. All in all, the cabin is a good place to spend plenty of time in.

The ride
This is where it gets interesting. As the first bakkie equipped with the five-link, coil spring rear suspension, the new Navara is said to have moved the goal posts for bakkies in the ride and handling department. So has it? Well, if it has, it may have moved the ride and handling goal posts by only a few millimetres. It’s not like a first-time Navara driver would, after covering a few hundred metres in the bakkie, say something like: “This suspension is just soooooo amazing!”  That said, when you tackle a tarred mountain pass at speed, the combination of the 18-inch wheels and suspension set-up ensure spritely, sporty SUV-like handling traits. You can chuck it into a corner, and the tail, even with no load, won’t get upset about it at all. If you prefer to chuck your bakkie into corners a lot, there’s also an optional sport suspension set-up available.  Ultimately though, the suspension is not the major advancement the hype promised.

The 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine has two turbochargers: a small, high-pressure turbo and a larger, low pressure turbocharger. The smaller version comes into play at lower engine revolutions, and counters the age-old boost issue of turbo lag. At higher engine speeds, the exhaust gas is channelled to the large, low pressure turbo. This, says Nissan, allows for more low-speed power and improved consumption. In our test unit, the twin-turbo engine was mated to a seven-speed automatic gearbox. The gearbox is maybe not quite as refined and efficient as the eight-speed auto used in the VW Amarok, but we reckon it’s certainly a step-up from the Hilux and Ranger’s automatic gearbox efforts.

On the road, the ‘box and the DDT engine combine to indeed offer lag-free motoring. In this regard it certainly has one up on the VW Amarok 2.0BiTDI AT, which can, if you catch it in an unguarded moment, display a measure of lag. Nissan claims an average (combined) fuel consumption of just 6.5 litres/100km, which sounded quite optimistic when we first noted it. In practice, and over a distance of about 1 000km, we managed an average of 9.5 litres/100km. This included a long-distance trip, city slicking and a patch of rough gravel-road driving.

Can it 4×4?
Adequately, yes. It’s a part-time 4×4 with a transfer case based on a tough ladder-frame chassis, and it has the option of 2H, 4H and 4Low drive modes. You can shift from 2H to 4H at speeds up to 100km/h. The Navara also gets the latest version of Nissan’s Active Brake Limited Slip Differential (ABLS) system, as was used in the Nissan Pathfinder. The system actively manages the traction, working in conjunction with the vehicle dynamic control (VDC) system. For most applications, the ABLS system works okay, but we’ve found it less adequate on really tough 4×4 obstacles. Essentially, a wheel needs to lose traction and spin for the system to react and direct power elsewhere.

When a wheel or wheels spin, you lose momentum: and losing momentum and spinning to a (brief) halt is not the ideal way to tackle most obstacles. Thankfully, there is a good old electronic rear differential lock in the armoury, too. Nissan claims 229mm ground clearance. That optional 4×4 accessories catalogue will come in extremely handy if you require  a bull bar, rock sliders, suspension upgrades or winches. If you want to head off to Timbuktu in your shiny new Navara, you can have some of those options fitted and head off into wild Africa in a highly capable overlander.

Is the Nissan Navara the new benchmark in the double cab bakkie class? Well, after a week living with it we reckon it’s close. Unfortunately, it’s not quite the game changer we had imagined. Don’t get us wrong: it really is a very, very good package, and it deserves to sell really well. Yet it has so far failed to set the sales charts on fire, selling a monthly average of 135 units (April to June 2017). Why? Well we don’t reckon the actual Navara bakkie is at fault; instead it’s the circumstances around its introduction that have caused it more harm. For one, it arrived in South Africa about two years too late. A lot of Nissan fans had eagerly awaited this model’s arrival, which had been on sale in Australia since 2013. Many of them had since moved on to other brands.

Also, the Nissan now has to compete with the seemingly untouchable Hilux and Ranger bakkies in the local market, too (only the Isuzu KB is putting up some form of resistance). Unfortunately for Nissan, our economy is in a technical recession. Except if your surname is Oppenheimer or Ramaphosa, the average South African customer seems to be, at this point in time, holding back on acquiring a new house, or a new car, or even a new toaster. If they do fork out some money, they appear to be sticking to mainstream options. So, through very little fault of its own, the Navara is – unfortunately – facing a bit of an uphill sales battle. Despite any benchmark setting, or not.

NISSAN NAVARA 2.3 DDT LE 4×4 double cab AT
Engine Four-cylinder twin-turbodiesel
Displacement 2 298cc
Power 140kW @ 3 750r/min
Torque 450Nm @ 1 500–2 500r/min
Transmission Seven-speed automatic
4WD system Part-time (2H, 4H and 4Low)
4WD driving aids ABLS, VDC, hill descent control, hill start assist, rear diff lock
Ground clearance (claimed) 229mm
Consumption 9.5 litres/100km
Fuel tank capacity 80 litres
Service plan Three-years/90 000km
Service intervals 15 000km
Warranty Six-years/150 000km
Price (standard) R597 900