Nissan ute with creature comforts doesn’t lose its mongrel, says Damien O’Carroll
Deep in the heart of Chiang Mai, a city of about a million people at the northern end of Thailand, there lives a very happy, slightly smug dog.
He sits atop a late model ute, panting contentedly despite the oppressive heat and humidity. Why is he so happy?
Because unlike most of the thousands of other dogs in Thailand he is sitting atop a ute. He is not scavenging for food on the side of the road, barely bothering to blink an eye when a truck roars mere millimetres past his head. Basically, in the land of the stray, the ute dog is king. And he knows it.
Which also happens to be a handily good analogy for the ute market in New Zealand - for many years the Toyota Hilux has sat atop the sales charts, selling happily despite its advancing age and poor ride, while the others scavenge for sales below it.
But in recent years other dogs have started to push their way into the Toyota's metaphorical wellside deck on the sales charts, the most recent being the Ford Ranger. But before the Ranger, there was the Nissan Navara.
Consistently No2 to Toyota's top dog in the ute segment, until the new generation of big ute - such as Ranger, BT-50 and Amarok - came along, the Navara has still been a good seller, despite being one of the last to get a total refresh in the face of the Ranger sales blitz.
That new Navara is what we were driving when we saw Thailand's smuggest dog.
The new Navara is being built in Thailand now, rather than Spain like the current model, and while it will not appear on New Zealand shores until sometime in the first half of next year, the international launch was a good opportunity to get a taste of what we will be in for when Nissan unleashes its latest take on something they have been making for 80 years.
The NP300 Navara is the latest in that 80-year run of building utes and compared to the diminutive dimensions of some of the gorgeous examples of early Datsun utes on display, it's not just a case of "My, how you've grown", but rather "Dear Lord, what are they feeding you?!"
Yes, that's right, the Navara is still big, but considering Nissan was one of the first to upsize, the new Navara hasn't actually grown all that much over the last model - in fact, it has even shrunk a bit in one area; the engineers reduced the wheelbase slightly (by 50mm) to improve the handling and turning circle, even though the chassis and floor are carried over.
Overall length is up fractionally (30mm for the double cab, making it 5255mm overall), while width is the same (1850mm) and the height actually drops by 10mm or raises by 5mm depending on the model you compare it to. Overall, though, it is safe to say the new Navara occupies roughly the same space as the current one, meaning it is still a big boy and is only slightly smaller than a Ford Ranger.
While the new body is familiar, yet refined and with more swoops and curves introduced to play down the size, underneath is where all the interesting new stuff lurks. Under its newly-sculpted bonnet, the Navara packs an all-new Renault-developed 2.3-litre inline four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel engine that produces 140kW of power and 450Nm of torque. That's right, you DID read that right - the new engine produces the same power as the old 2.5-litre single turbo engine in the current ST-X 450. But this time the 2.3 will do duty across the entire Navara range, meaning that Nissan New Zealand are leaving the lower-powered version of it - and the revised 2.5 - on the shelf. So all models of Navara will now pack 140kW/450Nm, as opposed to the range (106kW/356Nm, 120kW/403Nm) we have now.
Nissan has also chosen not to produce the Navara with the thumping great 3.0-litre 170kW/550Nm V6, meaning that it will lose the "most powerful ute" marketing game for now.
Hooked up to the 2.3-litre engine is a seven-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed manual, both of which Nissan will be offering in New Zealand. Nissan are claiming efficiency gains of around 19 per cent for the new engine over the old 2.5, although no figures have been officially released yet.
The other big change to the Navara is the introduction of 5-link coil-spring suspension to the rear. While the traditional leaf-spring set-up will still be available on cab/chassis models, all wellside models will come with the multi-link set-up, with Nissan claiming the same axle articulation and load-bearing capacity for both.
On the road these big changes have led to a ute that is relaxed and remarkably comfortable. While it doesn't quite have the Ranger's torque, it is a livelier engine that is far happier to rev than the Ranger's five-cylinder unit, while still possessing seriously low-down grunt work.
The new suspension gives the Navara a far more confident feel to its handling, especially without a load in the tray, while the ride is impressive. Of course, with all such things, we will have to wait until we get the new Navara on our coarse-chip roads to tell for sure, but over Thailand's poorly maintained concrete roads it seemed remarkably quiet as well.
Off the sealed stuff in Thailand the Navara was equally impressive, with the new suspension again proving to be an advantage in off-road comfort. The engine and seven-speed automatic transmission worked well together in relatively easy conditions (sandy mud with a solid base) and low range wasn't needed.
On the "off-road" chassis testing loop that Nissan set up the Navara displayed impressive rigidity and axle articulation, while also highlighting its traction electronics, and approach and departure angles (31 and 25.6 degrees respectively).
Back on the road the engine and auto transmission work complemented each other, while the six-speed manual we drove later was a huge improvement on the current manual, which always felt like you were stirring a bucket of sand with a pool noodle.
While no prices or specification have been confirmed for New Zealand yet, it seems unlikely there will be any significant increases over current prices ($43,190 for the 2WD manual up to $67,990 for the Limited 4WD).
If this proves to be the case, then the Navara will be a strong contender in the ute segment indeed.
Losing the "most powerful" tag will mean little in the long run for a ute any dog would be happy to perch on. Especially that smug one in Thailand.