I just hate not being able to get up a challenging 4WD track. What makes it even worse, though, is when there’s a crowd watching you do it.
Unfortunately for me, that’s exactly what happened when Nissan invited CarAdvice to drive a test mule of its incoming, range-topping Navara N-Trek Warrior.
This is not just another allotment of black styling and special names – the kind of thing that manufacturers seem to be only so happy to trot out in an effort to drum up some excitement. ‘Warrior’ designation means this Navara has been modified with all of the good stuff: suspension, wheels, tyres, protection. They’re talking my language.
I’m not thinking about all of this as I once again make an assault on this steep, soft sandy climb in the Victorian Big Desert area. The twin-turbo diesel clatters hard under the bonnet, skinny pedal welded to the firewall and sand flying out the side. We rock from side to side, but momentum once again wanes and we bog down. Just, just shy of the crest. What I wouldn't give for a few PSI to come out of the tyres.
It’s no fault of the vehicle; others at the event were able to make the climb. Maybe I just wasn’t ruthless enough, I don’t know. I'll come back one day, maybe in my own 4WD. Anyway, enough about my failings. Let’s look at the car in question.
Like I mentioned, we’re looking at a test mule here. It’s a Navara ST-X that Nissan handed over to the Australian automotive engineering outfit Premcar to bash about in over a series of weeks.
It’s not an exercise in frivolity. Premcar has been tasked with designing, engineering, testing and validating a special, off-road-focussed version of the Navara that will sit right at the top of its range.
Like everyone else, Nissan has seen a shift towards super-higher-grade 4x4 utes: Ranger Raptor, HiLux Rugged X, Colorado Xtreme. Not to mention big-dollar options like the Ram 1500, Amarok 580 and X350d. The Navara has hit a glass ceiling of sorts with the ST-X.
Premcar was given a broad canvas on which to express its work. Nissan’s directive was to build Australia’s best-looking Navara, with the imaginary buyer being a ‘mad grey nomad’. It’s a strange concept, but once explained it makes sense.
Grey nomads are hard on their vehicles, from a loading point of view. Many meet or exceed towing and gross capacities, which puts big stress on the suspension, chassis and driveline. That's why heavier-built 4WDs make good tow rigs.
Nissan doesn’t want to throw the utility baby out with the capability bathwater. While being better and more fun to punt around off-road, the Navara needed to keep the core ute attributes of payload, towing capacity and durability intact.
While the end result will certainly look different, what we have here is 99 per cent of what the final product will have in terms of suspension and tyres.
Premcar has been doing work like this for years. The company used to be called ProDrive, and was at the heart of FPV and TRD work, along with the highly vaunted ‘Holy Grail’ Falcon. Like I said, they’re talking my language with this Navara. Let’s have a look at what they have done.
First up is a 42mm suspension lift, 20 of which is achieved by new-specification coil springs. The rears are still a progressive-rate set-up that first appeared in the Series 3 Navara. Going away from conventional thinking, the front springs are softer. A longer free-standing spring height achieves the required lift, and is a much better way to go for an off-roading 4WD. You don’t want stiff springs, as this ain’t no bitumen-bound race car.
These are matched up by new dampers made by the same OEM supplier (Tenneco). One bit of good news about these dampers is that they are bigger, with a 35mm piston and twin-tube design. That means there is more oil inside the shock, and they’re better equipped to deal with fade-inducing, high-oscillating action that comes with off-roading.
Along with having a correctly tuned length, these shocks are also able to have their compression and rebound damping fine-tuned to suit the application, and what kind of driving characteristics they want in the end product.
At the scene, there was a funny-looking horse float that smelled like hydraulic oil. It was full of disassembled shocks, shim stacks and a shock dynamometer. This lets Premcar build and rebuild shocks with different tunes onsite, which it can then field-test to its heart’s content.
The final piece of the suspension puzzle is a redesigned bumpstop, which has a more progressive nature about it. Simply, a small slab of rubber that stops the steel suspension from crashing into the steel chassis. This is a fairly hard and shallow piece of rubber on a regular Navara. It certainly lets you know when maximum up-travel has been achieved.
The new-design bumpstop is softer and taller, effectively slowing that final bit of travel and softening inevitable impact considerably.
Hanging off all of this new suspension is a new wheel and tyre package. Don’t pay too much attention to the wheels on this mule. They suit the size and offset from a testing point of view, but the Rosta-sourced final wheels will look different.
The tyres, however, you can look closely at. Premcar chose Cooper AT3 all-terrain tyres in a 275/70R17 size and with light-truck construction. Premcar picked these after benchmarking a variety of tyres from the aftermarket, and found these to have the best balance of on-road and off-road performance.
That metric size equates to 32.2 inches of diameter, which is a great size for an off-roading ute. The tyres are wider, and will sit wider off the Navara thanks to an increased wheel offset (30mm).
There’s no change to differential gearing for the N-Trek Warrior, which means the taller tyres will effectively increase on-road gearing of the Navara across the board. Camber has been slightly adjusted to suit the new set-up, and the Navara’s throttle response has also been tweaked.
And while the final product will get its own hoopless bullbar design and underbody protection, our test mule makes do with a garden-variety Nissan bullbar.
Burning question time: What difference does it make to stock, and how does it perform in the rough stuff? As part of our invitation, and along with the opportunity to embarrass myself on the sandhill, we were able to get behind the wheel of this mule and put it through its paces on some soft, rutted and sandy tracks in Victoria’s Big Desert region. And for comparison’s sake, we also had a stock-standard Navara ST-X at the ready.
Let’s finally cut to the chase: It’s good, and a significant improvement over the standard offering. Not to say the current Navara is bad; they have finally managed to get the suspension tune pretty good after a few cracks.
We all know that increasing the tyre footprint of your tyre gives you more clearance and traction, and these Cooper AT3s are a clear improvement over the standard offering. A slight bump in track width helps with stability, and the tyre’s LT construction leaves them to be more durable.
More clearance also comes from the increased ride height, which also affords the Navara more suspension travel. It’s more supple and controlled, especially when bashing quickly through rutted tracks. You can carry more speed where you want it, and feel much more in control of proceedings. The bumpstops, a smaller detail in the suspension tuning, are particularly good.
The shocks, 99 per cent dialled in for the finished product, feel bang-on. Importantly, they’re soft enough to let the coils move freely, but rebound is dialled nicely at the same time.
Small tweaks to the suspension geometry make the Warrior feel a little more playful and responsive, as well. It has an eagerness to turn into corners that the standard Navara doesn’t have.
The end product is a Navara that is better all round. And, importantly for a 4WD, it's a better (and more enjoyable) off-roader.
Perhaps one of the best things about this showroom-fettled, second-stage homologated Navara is the fact that Nissan’s standard five-year and unlimited-kilometre warranty stays intact without any questions.
Of course, that doesn't mean other modified Navaras are not covered by the warranty – this boils down to a case-by-case basis. And in the prickly ones, Australian Consumer Law will always have the last say.
However, there is no denying the peace of mind that comes with not having to worry about being knocked back. That will make the N-Trek Warrior especially appealing to many.
Nissan hasn’t reinvented the wheel here. It has done what many Australian 4WDers do off their own bat, and the recipe is similar to our own CarAdvice Nissan Navara: more tyre, better suspension, and a bit of protection.
The good news about what Nissan has done here is that it has taken the time to dial everything in properly, and get that suspension tune to suit the end product. Not all aftermarket suspension is as nicely tuned as this, and those that are will be expensive and time consuming to get right.
These kinds of mods improve the Navara off-road, but can also bring an improved on-road ride at the same time. And, of course, a nicely modified 4WD can be a better looker. I’m looking forward to seeing the final product.