Utes are increasingly going upmarket. No longer simple tools of trade, load-lugging dual-cabs, like the 2015 Nissan Navara NP300 ST-X, are regularly seeing double-duty as family haulers and status symbols.
A dual-cab isn’t worth its salt today without a suite of airbags and a five-star ANCAP rating. You’d better offer car-like creature comforts such as touchscreen multimedia too. Even more vitally, it had better look tough. Why do you think the Ford Ranger sells so well? (It'll get the touchscreen soon, too).
In many ways, it’s a similar but smaller deification of the ‘pick-up’ to what we’ve seen for generations in the US, where behemoths like the Ford F-150 roam the earth en masse. Sure, some of these see heavy duty, but lots are at least half status symbols.
Look at the sales split of any major ute seller and you’ll see this phenomenon at work more than ever: Ford Ranger Wildtraks and XLTs, HiLux SR5s, Colorado Z71s, D-Max X-Runners… The list goes on. It’s this demarcation that is seeing a number of serious players in the light commercial market creating utes to meet a demand that has been upscaled.
Most will offer the rugged, entry-level variants designed for proper work and to sell to major fleet buyers, in addition to something a little more upmarket to suit the more lifestyle-oriented buyer. ‘Weekend warriors’ is an aphorism you may have heard before, and for good reason.
Nissan was in many ways at the vanguard of this for some time with the old Spanish-made D40 Navara, which offered strong levels of comfort almost from the get-go in 2005 (in particular, the ST-X 550 which came on line in 2011). It’s small surprise then, that the brand new (and much needed, given the D40’s advanced age) Thai-sourced NP300 version launched a few months ago picks up this baton.
And the Nissan needs to be good. Whereas once it was one of the major challengers to the top-selling HiLux in the sales charts, these days the Ranger and Mitsubishi Triton have supplanted it — and how.
The ST-X we test here is the range-topper, and for something different we’re testing the 4x2 version, priced at $47,490 plus on-road costs, rather than the $7000 more expensive 4x4 iteration that will no doubt prove more popular (and which we’ll be testing soon — stay tuned). They look alike, have the same ground clearance, and similar approach/departure/breakover angles.
This $47,490 starting price compares to the imminent updated 4x2 Ranger XLT dual cab ($48,690). But remember, almost nobody pays full whack on a ute.
The standard equipment list is long (read our Navara specifications story here), with some notable highlights including eight-way powered leather seats with two levels of seat heating up front, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, climate control, keyless entry and push-button start, a reverse-view camera with rear parking sensors and — perhaps most interesting for a ute — an electric sunroof. There are also seven airbags, including full-length curtains.
This is an equipment list that puts the Navara right at the pointy end of its class.
The cabin is very car-like in its layout and execution. It’s actually hard to tell you’re in a ute, as the instrument fascia is clean and simple, and that touchscreen is extremely responsive and lets you swipe like a smartphone. The Bluetooth also re-pairs rapidly, within seconds of pushing the starter button.
Hard plastics abound, but they’re suitably tough and should prove easy to clean, while leather inlays in the doors and piano black plastic inserts add some class. Everything feels solid and exceptionally well screwed-together — this wasn’t always a D40 Navara signature.
There’s also plenty of cabin storage — big door pockets, cubbies atop the dash and just ahead of the gear shifter, and four cupholders — and there is an easy-to-reach USB/auxiliary input, as well as three 12-volt outlets. The information screen between the gauges is large, though the trip computer lacks a digital speedometer, which is a pain in a country where just breathing on the throttle too hard calls the long, reactionary arm of the law down upon you.
Other omissions include reach adjustment for the steering wheel — we found it hard to get a proper driving position, because no matter how low we set to seat, the top of the wheel still partially obscured the dials — while the “leather accented” steering wheel itself feels a little cheap to the touch. The horn is also too easy to accidentally set off, due in no small part to the unwieldy ‘tear-drop’ design.
Furthermore, the sunroof eats into headroom front and rear notably. At 194cm, my hair was brushing against the roof lining. The rear seats are otherwise decent, with acceptable legroom and knee room, four grab handles, cupholders and big door pockets, map lights and air vents. There’s also a great, small, electrically-operated sliding window embedded in the rear glass, perhaps so your pooch can stick his head through and say ‘g’day’.
We’d appreciate some ISOFIX-enabled tethers back there, though, because we know that a lot of upper-end utes are used as secondary family haulers. You also can’t option any advanced active safety features such as adaptive cruise control or lane departure warning, both of which you’ll be able to get (for a price) on the updated Ford Ranger due in a few months.
Externally, you get LED daytime running lights and potent LED projector headlights, a sports bar with integrated brake lights, roof rails, a protective tub liner, side steps, heated power-folding mirrors and Nissan’s Utili-Track system in the tray, which affixes rails on both sides of the tub upon which you can slide and adjust cable tie-down anchors. The tray itself is 1503mm long and 1130mm wide between the wheel arches.
I don’t know about you, but I think the ST-X looks the business, with its side steps and a nice lashing of chrome. My gawking, tradie ex-workmates felt the same way, for what it’s worth.
Under the bonnet is a new 2.3-litre twin-turbo diesel four-cylinder engine pumping out a competitive 140kW at 3750rpm and 450Nm between 1500-2500rpm. By comparison, a Volkswagen Amarok’s 2.0-litre unit makes 132kW/420Nm and the Ranger/Mazda BT-50’s 3.2-litre five-pot makes 147kW/470Nm.
It’s an engine that offers significant punch once those turbos are spooled, with plenty of tractable grunt down low (as those torque figures suggest). Still, it’d be kind of nice if Nissan had kept the brutal 550Nm unit from the old D40 range-topper.
Nissan cites a braked towing capacity of 3500 kilograms that matches the forthcoming new Toyota HiLux, the Ranger/BT-50 twins, the Holden Colorado and the Isuzu D-Max. Of the major sellers, only the new Mitsubishi Triton (3100kg) doesn’t attain this figure, though in all these cases, we’d hesitate to tow such a load over any sort of long distance, up hills or in high heat. Just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should.
Matched to the engine in our version is a sophisticated seven-speed automatic (one ratio less than the VW, one more than most other rivals), though you can get a six-speed manual if you want to save $2500 and keep your left foot busy. Our 4x2 model is rear-drive, while the 4x4s have a dual-range system.
The torque-converter auto has expanded (wide) gear ratios, meaning Nissan makes use of the engine’s significant torque. It’s hard to catch the gearbox out, really, and you can shift the selector to the left and control your own ratios manually if you want, perhaps when towing your fishing boat up hill and really want to hold a lower ratio.
Nissan claims the ST-X auto can use as little as 6.8 litres per 100km on the combined cycle. We managed a very tidy 8.0L/100km on our combined route, which is still outstanding going for a workhorse of this size — still, at 5255mm long, 1850mm wide, 1825mm high, with a 3150mm wheelbase, it’s about 100mm shorter than a Ranger and 70mm shorter in the wheelbase.
Under the skin is your typical boxed ladder frame, but atypical is the suspension sitting beneath the tray — an independent five-link setup rather than the conventional ute setup encompassing a stabiliser bar and leaf springs. This is a unique selling-point for the Nissan among its mainstream rivals — not even the car-like Amarok has this (although the Ssangyong Actyon Sports ute does!). No wonder global Renault-Nissan Alliance partner Mercedes-Benz is using the NP300 as the base for its upcoming ute.
Sure enough, while unladen, the Navara eats up harsh bumps and corrugations (speed humps and that ilk) with more compliance than your average ute, and far more like a typical SUV. The way it settles down at the rear without bucking or hopping without a weight to tame the rebound will be remarkable to anyone stepping out of a generation-old ute of any stripe.
Likewise, despite wearing 18-inch alloy wheels (shod with 255/65 Toyos), the way the Navara irons out rapid corrugations on pockmarked roads is impressive — better than most passenger cars we’ve sampled on our test route lately. Insulation from tyre roar on highways is also first rate, and adds to the decided air of refinement with the cruise control set and the long miles before you.
Body control and handling proved predictably strong — the Navara feels impressively stable at pace, even unladen, and highly composed and stable mid-corner by being free of notable body roll — though the electro-hydraulic power steering is overly heavy at low speeds with a slow rack (about 3.75 turns lock-to-lock) making parking a slightly menial exercise.
In typical ute fashion, the front disc brakes are complemented by rear drums, but the pedal feel and stopping power is very decent — even in wet conditions. Ditto the LED projecter headlights, which cast a wide and exceptionally bright beam, most useful on country roads on a cloudy night.
Despite the fancy rear suspension, maximum payload is cited as a competitive 1012kg. Of course, a great swathe of higher-end ute buyers will carry scarcely more than a dirt bike or surfing gear.
Soon, we’ll be loading up an NP300 to the hilt. We’ll bring you those results once we have them, it should prove highly informative. Our more pedestrian loads proved no sweat whatsoever.
All told, it’s genuinely hard to tell you’re at the wheel of a ute when driving the NP300 Navara. If comfort is your priority, it’s right up there.
From an ownership perspective, the Navara comes with a three-year/100,000km warranty, and three-years of 24-hour roadside assistance. Nissan requires servicing every 12 months or 20,000km - which will be welcome news to ute owners who cover quite a bit of distance - although maintenance costs are on the high side (more than $500 per visit under the capped-price plan).
The ute segment is heating up now more than ever. Over the next few months, we’re going to see a brand new HiLux, and updated versions of the Ranger and BT-50. They’ll have their work cut out for them if they’re to match the levels of comfort on offer in the NP300 Navara.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.