Everybody thinks that tradies who buy utes fall into one of two categories — those who buy a ute for work or those who buy one for lifestyle reasons.
But there's now a middleground of buyer, one who wants the look and ruggedness of an entry level work ute, but the ability of a lifestyle weekender that can be bought without spending mega dollars.
Nissan is capitalising on this emerging trend by introducing the all-new 2017 Nissan Navara SL. It offers the looks and ability of a worksite warrior, but counters that with the bells and whistles of a more expensive ute. And it comes with the ability to go off-road on weekends.
Priced from $43,990, the Nissan Navara SL is available only as a dual-cab, four-wheel drive and sits above the entry-level RX and below the sub-premium ST in the Navara range.
Where the Navara RX looks like a basic work ute, with thin tyres and steel rims, the SL turns it up a notch with beefed up wheel arches, a tray-mounted plastic spoiler, privacy glass, LED daytime running lights and headlights, wider 255mm tyres, and side steps.
Inside the cabin, the SL comes with all of the features fitted to the RX, plus vinyl floors, rear-view camera, a 5.0-inch infotainment screen, auto dimming rear vision mirror, and a rear differential lock.
The SL was released at the same time Nissan made adjustments to the ride and handling of the entire Navara coil-sprung range.
Nissan started off by understanding the ride of the Navara was compromised when payload was added to the tray. Our experience found that in an ST-X, even with 650kg of payload (well short of its 900kg+ limit), there would be constant impact with a rubber stopper used to prevent metal-on-metal contact.
Nissan also said the car looked unappealing with a weight in the rear, which meant it looked like it was constantly overworked and sagging, unlike a lot of its competitors which appear more composed when carrying a payload.
This issue was resolved, according to Nissan, by making changes to the front and rear shock absorbers, with rear rebound dampers also stiffened to prevent the oscillation effect experienced with a softer ride carrying a payload.
To see whether the changes helped sort the Navara's ride, we drove over a mix of city and country roads, as well as spending some time off-road.
One of the first things you notice when manoeuvring the Navara around city streets is the excessive amount of effort required to make turns – especially u-turns. The Navara uses a hydraulically-assisted steering rack that needs 3.75 turns to move from lock-to-lock.
That means that small steering inputs are barely recognised. This big steering effort teams with a fairly heavy steering rack, which makes driving at low speeds unpleasant at times. It's not like the Ford Ranger, which has a much easier and quicker steering rack in comparison.
Luckily that's where the dramas end for driving around the suburbs. The engine is a pearler and offers a heap of torque throughout the rev band.
It's a 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine that produces 140kW of power and 450Nm of torque, with torque sent through a decent seven-speed automatic gearbox, consuming 7.0 litres of fuel per 100km on the combined cycle.
The ride around town was never really an issue. The rear five-link coil-sprung suspension absorbs bumps nicely, but can feel a bit disconnected from the front end at times.
On paper, the specifications look good. It features a 3500kg braked towing capacity and a payload of 982kg. But, try and put any more than 600kg in the rear and things tend to become unpleasant.
When we tested the ute with a 650kg load in the rear, we sent it across a speed hump at low speeds and counted six oscillations before the ride settled. It also still hit its bump stops, which is something Nissan worked to eliminate from the Series II update. This is well short of its advertised 982kg load carrying capacity.
While most people won't carry more than 600kg in the tray most of the time, if we change the scenario and look at carrying a 2000kg caravan and assume around 10 per cent of the load acts as a down-ball weight, it then limits tray capacity to 400kg before these issues reoccur.
It's not a deal breaker, but it's an area where the rest of the Navara's competitors don't fall down.
Load carrying to one side, we stretched the Navara's legs through the country where it proved to really excel with ribbons of open road stretching out ahead of it. The torque-laden engine explosively pushes the Navara forward for overtaking and accelerating out of corners.
The wider 255mm wide tyres fitted to the SL also give it more confidence in the wet, which can be a bit touch and go in models with thinner rubber.
If you head for the mountains of a weekend, the SL has you covered with a dual-range four-wheel drive system that includes a rear differential lock. We found some offset surfaces to see how well the Navara would cope without the diff lock engaged.
Despite a slippery and muddy surface, the traction control system managed to limit wheel slip, with the four-wheel drive system taking over to distribute torque effectively.
The best part about the cabin is the vinyl floors. Even after a muddy weekend away, they can be lightly soaked or hosed to remove dirt and are rugged enough to handle the work site.
Infotainment comes in the form of a 5.0-inch colour screen that handles native satellite navigation and radio. It doesn't have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto like some of the other competitors in this segment.
The sound system is good and a voice recognition system offers a good solution to operating functions on the move. We found the quality of the Bluetooth to be really good for transmitting as well as receiving.
Leg- and headroom in the second row is good and there are air vents to keep second row passengers cool. Fit and finish within the cabin felt excellent and the doors closed with a solid thud – the sign of a robust work ute.
Nissan offers a three year, 100,000km warranty with yearly 20,000km service intervals. Servicing comes in the form of myNissan service certainty, which outlines servicing costs at each interval.
Over three years, the Navara costs $1852 to service for diesel manual and $1832 for diesel automatic. Over three years, that makes it one of the more expensive options in this segment. But, over 60,000km a vehicle like the Ford Ranger requires an extra service (due to 15,000km service intervals), meaning it costs more over the same three-year period if you travel an average 20,000km per year.
While the Nissan Navara SL represents great value for money, and is a competent package for buyers after a rugged work vehicle they can also be comfortable in for a weekend away, it's still being held back by its rear suspension setup and its steering – especially if you frequently carry heavy loads.
To really make the Navara a serious competitor in this segment, the steering needs to be quicker (and ideally electrically-assisted) and the suspension needs to be capable of carrying its payload capacity without second guesses.
Until these issues are sorted, we recommend checking out some of the Navara's competitors. If, on the other hand, you don't plan on carrying more than 600kg frequently in the tray, it's a great package.
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