Nissan has once again tweaked the dynamic package of its five-link Navara dual-cab pick-ups. Does this new Series III version lift the game in all-round ute quality?
Despite being simply coined the 2018 Nissan Navara by its Australian importer, the colloquial nametag ‘Series III’ is beginning to stick like Mr Sheen to the mud flaps of the ute range constantly undergoing change. As perhaps it should, whether Nissan Australia likes it or not, if only to alleviate some confusion surrounding the current era in a Datsun/Nissan ute lineage stretching back 80 years.
See, just two years into the current-generation Navara’s launch – ‘Series I’, then – late 2016 saw a raft of running changes introduced to tighten up the range somewhat and address criticisms that the tune of the dual-cab’s rear-end suspension, a novel five-link design unorthodox for its load-lugging segment, was too soft for work or play. Call that one Series II.
Another 12 months or so further on, comes another suite of spec and (firmer) suspension fettling significant enough to wear a label (Series III) rather than merely a (2018) model year designation. Perhaps, that is, if the changes applied create further noticeable improvement over the improvements already invested.
While we’ve covered off some of the Series III tweaks (and price hikes) prior, Nissan has, until now, been quiet on what specific changes have been made to the ride, handling and load-lugging package. So, here they are…
The 2018 main five-link rear-end change is the adoption of a dual-rate spring on dual-cab SL, ST and ST-X versions: softer in the initial part of the stroke for supple ride comfort, and a heavier rate in the second stage of compression to better support heavy payload in the tray when needed.
The aim, according to Nissan, is improved posture, ride or towing in either laden or unladen states. Also integral to the five-link system is a dynamic rebound damper, a buffer designed to reduce lateral body movement (with the damper contacting the chassis rail) when the tray is laden.
Engineers also retuned the steering, again for dual-cab SL, ST and ST-X versions only, with a quicker steering rack ratio and fewer turning degrees lock-to-lock. The aim is for improved manoeuvrability on- and off-road and friendlier steering for parking.
Worth noting when shopping in Navara Land, is these changes don’t apply across the wider range: the RX dual-cab 4x4 cab chassis, and all single and extended ‘king’ cab versions retain leaf spring rear ends and carryover steering systems.
In fact, the suspension and steering changes were so centric to the recent Navara Series III launch that we only had the opportunity to drive the flagship ST-X ($54,490 list) and one-rung-down ST ($49,690 list) versions of the auto-equipped diesel 4x4 dual-cabs.
Swapping between three examples over a couple of hundred kays of sealed and broken road driving, one ST was fitted with 650kg of payload, another ST was towing nearly a tonne of caravan, and a sole ST-X was unencumbered by towing or load lugging duties but fitted to the nines with accessories such as a steel bullbar, front fender flares and a canopy adding around $10K’s worth of gear to the bottom line.
There was no off-roading on launch, no need to engage high- or low-range 4x4 modes, no sampling of other drive, chassis, body or transmission choices in the 27-strong total range. That’s because the two high-tier versions are hugely popular with Aussie buyers.
In percentage terms, the figures of take-up between the top-spec ST-X (30 per cent) and ST (36 per cent) variants, of Pick-Up chassis and dual-cab body styles (90 apiece), of 4x4 drive (80) and automatic transmissions (70) amongst the mostly private owners (55) provides a strong indicator of where Aussie ute buyer tastes are currently at with Nissan.
While the Series II updates dealt with amending unsightly sagging in rear with a laden tray through damper changes, this Series III introduces a further, noticeably higher rear ride height to provide a nice flat posture with weighty loads.
With 650kg loaded in the tray, our ST finally looks, well, normal. Otherwise, inside and out, it’s tough to pick an ‘ST three’ from a ‘two’, apart from details such as the rear ISOFIX mounting points, and the revised, lower-mounted tie-down hooks in the tub.
Not featured in our test ute, but available from June 2018 production, is the introduction of a digital speedo in the driver’s instrumentation. A ‘face-lift’ it is not.
On the move, the steering immediately feels quicker, lighter and nicer to use. It’s no sportscar, but the directness of the nose in general manoeuvring is apparent. A box confidently ticked, then.
The ST (and ST-X) gets the carryover ‘high-power’ 140kW/450Nm 2.3-litre twin-turbo diesel powertrain – up 20kW and 47Nm over the lower-spec single-turbo four in cheaper RX trim – and it remains a workmanlike unit that’s amply gutsy. But, it feels a little tasked and sounds a bit gruff lugging around near two-tonnes of ute (1942kg) lumbered with two blokes, some luggage and 650kg worth of payload, a measure a quarter-tonne shy of its advertised maximum.
The seven-speed automatic is faithful enough in that it doesn’t hunt around ratios in protest, though it does slur noticeably in upshifts regardless of how much right foot effort the driver invests. It’s no great seachange compared with the old Navara experience, or its segment competitors in general: quiet and polite under a constant throttle, far from agricultural in general demeanour, if a little more co-operative to driver inputs thanks to the improved steering providing you don’t pile too much speed into a roundabout. Those multi-terrain 16-inch tyres with large 70-series sidewalls up front don’t offer much in the way of lateral turning grip on sealed roads once you start testing the friendship…
With its loaded tub, the Series III is perhaps a little more settled in body control than its forebear, if by shades. The rear end still bobs around when travelling over road undulations, still takes a few vertical movements for the suspension to settle. Hit a decent depression in the road and the Navara will still find its bump stops with a soft thud, dynamic rebound damper or not. That unnerving sensation of the payload over the rear axle affecting direction stability has been tamed somewhat, if far from eradicated.
Swapping into towing mode, the ST feels much more comfortable and confidence inspiring dragging a load than it is lugging one. With around a tonne of camper trailer hanging from the rear, the 2.3-litre oiler feels only fractionally less urgent than it did in the prior exercise, with newfound stability and general levels of dynamic competency that makes towing the kinds of weight most Navara owners might likely lug – well shy of its quoted 3.5-tonne braked maximum – a taskless joy.
Sections of our road loop ventured off onto gravel roads, often tight and twisty with frequent gradient changes, though there’s enough guts in the powertrain and drive in the 2WD mode that the need to opt for all-paw traction was unnecessary folly. Again, the higher the road speed, the more settled ‘five-link’ Navara becomes, though there wasn’t much in the way of big dips and humps in stage two of our road test of the like that would’ve induced that unsettling bounce typical of the Series II generation.
It’s unsurprising, then, that the ST-X, sans trailer or payload, is Navara at its happiest, most comfortable and most satisfying, if perhaps merely because that’s the way it’s always been in the current (formerly NP300 designated) generation.
It doesn’t need weight over the rear axle to settle its ride and to iron out fidgetiness over road ripples and corrugations, as so many high-end utes do. And, it’s at its quietest, most cooperative and genuinely comfortable without anything aboard bar two blokes and a couple of swags. And, we’d imagine, it’d be much the same with a couple of kids in the back during the urban school run.
For on-road occupant pleasantries, then, higher-end dual-cab Navaras shine in the types of driving disciplines where, stats suggest, most buyers are likely to use them. Push them into hard-working, blue-collared territory and they’re less impressive, though, it’s fair to argue, Nissan does offer harder-core Navara variants further down the fiscal tree, if freer of bells, whistles and niceties.
Speaking of which, the newly introduced Around View Monitor 360-degree camera system comes as standard fitment on the ST-X (King or dual-cab). Yes, it’s a handy addition, though the signals collated from four separate cameras displayed onto the seven-inch infotainment system results in a grainy, rudimentary collection of user-selectable viewpoints that are novel by ute standards, if low-rent compared with some tech available on the market.
We have praised high-end Navaras for having an “SUV feel in a ute body” in the past, yet Nissan has missed a trick by changing next to nothing with the cabin treatment in this update. The seats are decent and comfy but leather or electric adjustment (driver only) is cost optional even in top spec.
You get proprietary sat-nav but it’s a fairly low-rent application and there’s smartphone mirroring functionality. Only the flagship gets climate control, the rear seating scores air vents if nothing else bar bottle holders in the door bins, and little – well, none to be precise – effort has been injected into making a the cabin design, layout and user-interfaces just a little more contemporary.
The dual-cab Navara cabin space is a pleasant place to be, if plainly anchored in work truck roots and injecting next to no effort in helping raise the segment game of offering much more than make-do appointments.
The nutshell verdict, then, is that new-new Navara dual-cab seems a little more familiar than it perhaps should, a case of a little too much of the same. Particularly four years in and what, timing wise, is about the face-lift point of a typical model range lifecycle.
“Despite Nissan’s local engineering work on the Navara’s ride and handling, the change hasn’t been significant enough to necessarily notice a difference unless they’re driven back-to-back.” That’s what we surmised about the updates made to the outgoing Series II. And it pretty much sums up our initial impression with the further enhanced Series III.
Perhaps in the presence of its direct rivals, in a testing premise favouring family friendliness as much as it does hard yakka and yet-untested off-roadability, the tree-topping Navara revamp may prove a dominant force. Bring on the comparison tests.