Matt Campbell comes to grips with the all-new Nissan Navara in the forest in northern Thailand.
Australia's highly competitive ute market will see the introduction of the first all-new Nissan Navara in a decade at the start of 2015.
Replacing the popular Navara D22 and D40 models that have held rank for 17 years and nine years respectively, the D23 Navara – which is referred to by the Japanese brand’s marketing team as the NP300 (NP for Nissan Pick-up) Navara – is an all-new beast.
The styling brings the new model into line with its competitors, with swoopier styling, a more attractive front-end with segment-first LED daytime running lights, and not a single shared panel with the existing D40.
Nissan has completely rethought the interior, too, with a more car-like presentation that mimics some of the brand’s passenger-car wares. More on that later.
Under the bonnet of Australian-delivered models will be a new 2.3-litre turbo diesel engine, which is available in two different layouts – a single turbo version with 118kW of power and 403Nm of torque, and a twin-turbo unit with 140kW and 450Nm that we drove on the launch of the new model in Thailand.
The one-turbo diesel is down 8kW on the 2.5-litre engine it replaces but maintains the maximum torque figure. The twin-turbo offers another 14kW and 47Nm but is still shy of the current flagship V6-powered ST-X models (170kW/550Nm).
The good news for Nissan is that while the new engine isn’t as grunty, it is impressive.
With peak torque achieved at just 1500rpm, there’s very little noticeable turbo lag from a standstill, and the power delivery is smooth and quite linear, albeit accompanied by notable diesel clatter under hard acceleration - though it is worth noting that even with heavy throttle, the Navara is quieter inside than most of its competitors.
The new seven-speed automatic transmission – matching the number of gears on the current V6's auto – is a decent and smooth-shifting gearbox, and performed well under light and heavy acceleration. It allowed the engine’s torque to pull it up hills rather than dropping back a cog, and at highway speeds the extra overdrive gears (both sixth and seventh) made for comfortable cruising.
The new Nissan Navara is offered with a multilink rear suspension layout which does away with the horse-and-cart-derived leaf spring setup that has graced the rear end of utes for decades. The front is carried over from the existing model, but with softer settings for both the springs and dampers.
Nissan claims the new suspension gives the ute more car-like road manners, and they’re right. Compared with the current model the ride is more settled, particularly at the rear.
Over rutted, rough and unsettling road surfaces, the back end resisted the urge to buck and fumble as a ute with leaf suspension and an empty tray would be expected to, though over mid-corner irregularities the rear could still step out slightly. We also noted that on smooth surfaces the wheels could pitter-patter and feel restless, which may have had more to do with the 18-inch alloy wheels and 60-profile tyres.
Off-road we found the suspension to be reasonably sorted over a rough, muddy track, too. Sharp-edged rocks and soft-to-hard surface changes were dealt with impressively, and the suspension reset quickly without too much bounciness.
While our test included some deep wheel-rutted puddles that tested the Navara’s 228mm ground clearance, we didn’t get the chance to wade through rivers. Nissan claims 600mm of fording ability – which is 200mm less than the best in class.
In terms of how it drives, the steering of the new model is its biggest let down. While it is decently weighted on the highway, and adequately responsive at 100km/h, at urban speeds or during parking or low-speed manoeuvres it simply requires too much effort for not enough response.
The steering requires 3.75 turns from lock to lock, which means you’ll need to do plenty of arm-twirling when performing a reverse-parallel park, which is already awkward given the size of the thing. That means the everyday drivability cannot match for the benchmark-setting Ford Ranger and Volkswagen Amarok.
It also means avoiding road obstacles – like elephants, chickens and stray mutts on the road loop we took – is harder work than it needs to be.
Another disappointment was the responsiveness of the brakes, which made it feel as though the vehicle was fully loaded despite having only two people in the cab and nothing in the tray.
The Navara’s interior quality has stepped up, and in some aspects it is possibly the most impressive in the class.
The infotainment system on the car we tested, for example, is taken straight from the X-Trail, and offers simple menu systems and Bluetooth phone and audio streaming on all models, which is better than models such as the Pathfinder SUV that doesn’t get audio streaming on the base model.
Dual-zone climate control is also a nice touch, as are the rear air-vents on dual-cab models. The instrument cluster with its central digital readout adds further car-like goodness, while the three 12-volt outlets (one on top of the dash a la Amarok, one in the centre console and a third in the central stowage bin) means keeping devices fully charged will be easily taken care of.
The newly designed front seats are comfortable and offer decent support, with the version we drove offering electric seat adjustment for the driver. The lack of reach adjustment for the steering wheel means drivers with short arms and long legs may struggle to get comfortable. Only the VW Amarok has that car-derived feature.
The storage of the Navara has improved, with decent stowage points between the front seats for loose items, and a glovebox big enough for a large water bottle. The door pockets have been enlarged, too, with big bottle caddies but a shallower section that may not be large enough for big folders or notebooks. The rear door pockets are decent, too, though the Amarok still sets the benchmark for door stowage.
The rear seat of the current dual-cab Navara is one of the tightest in the segment and not everything is resolved for the 2015 model. It's a tight fit for bigger frames up back, particularly for knee room, though headroom is reasonable. Nissan has revised the rear seat shape to make it feel more comfortable, but it remains a knees-up affair that would be uncomfortable for taller occupants over longer distances.
Safety is accounted for with dual front, front-side and full-length curtain airbags, with a knee airbag expected to be offered in Australia, too. A five-star crash test rating is predicted, according to Nissan.
Further back – in the tray – are internal tie-down points (to keep the exterior of the tray smooth), and the dual-cab’s tray measurements are 1503mm long, 1560mm wide and 474mm deep (previous version 1511mm long, 1560mm wide and 457 deep). Payload ratings are expected to start just below 1000kg, as is the case with the current model which has capacities varying between 828kg and 1223kg, depending on body type, drivetrain and specification.
Our first drive of the 2015 Nissan Navara reveals a more modern ute that improves notably in many areas, such as crash safety, comfort and more car-like presentation and driving manners.
We'll have to wait until early 2015 to see whether the main disappointments - slower steering and a still-not-spacious rear seat - prove costly or not against the best of breed Amarok, Ranger and BT-50.