Car reviews - Nissan - Navara
Dynamic improvements, general refinement, specification upgrade, dash layout, spacious cabin, storage facilities
Room for improvement
Engine/auto transmission combination, driver positioning, hard plastic surfaces, no centre-rear headrest, no AEB
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27 Feb 2018
By TERRY MARTIN
NISSAN Motor Corporation has set ambitious goals for its global light-commercial vehicles division under its current mid-term plan, with a minimum 40 per cent increase in sales volume expected by 2022 – largely on the back of its Navara one-tonne pick-up, which is now sold across a whopping 133 markets.
Australia is currently the Japanese manufacturer’s third-biggest market behind Mexico and Thailand, however sales of the new D23 (or NP300) series launched in 2015 have been well behind the previous combined D40/D22 generations, managing only 16,532 new registrations last year – some 9500 units behind where Navara was just five years earlier.
Perhaps surprisingly, Australian-market tuning for its suspension and steering was not conducted before the D23’s launch, and while a Series II update released a year ago went some way to addressing customer concerns – specifically for dual-cab models with the five-link coil-spring rear suspension – further mechanical changes have now been implemented with this Series III update.
Nissan is clearly now listening to Australia as it openly needs to improve Navara’s sales performance here to meet its objectives.
The question is: do we now have the Navara we should have received in 2015?
Australia’s geographical position appears to have counted against it when it comes to the Nissan Navara.
Of course, most of the one-tonne utes from the big-name mass-market brands are built in Thailand, and Navara is no exception.
The free-trade agreement between our two countries is also clearly a benefit for the industry and, we must assume, the customer as Nissan Australia works through pricing of its comprehensive Navara range spanning no fewer than 35 variants.
But in developing the current D23/NP300 generation, Nissan Motor Corporation left the Antipodes out of early advanced-level product planning and did not conduct specific Australian-market testing, despite being the third-biggest market for Navara sales volume worldwide.
Thailand, on the other hand, is the second-biggest market for Navara (behind Mexico) and, coupled with the fact that it’s a production base, was deemed a priority market for product development and engineering.
As a result, Nissan focused more heavily on the needs of the Thai customer – who is typically after a lower-spec, plush-riding workhorse with a single or king cab – than the Australian customer, who overwhelmingly prefers a twin cab (90 per cent), pick-up rear (90 per cent), 4x4 driveline (80 per cent), automatic transmission (70 per cent) and a high specification (36 per cent ST, 30 per cent ST-X).
So, yes, the single biggest-selling Navara variant is the Dual Cab 4x4 ST auto, closely followed by the similarly configured ST-X, yet Nissan has struggled to find traction with the new D23 Navara in our marketplace, sales have fallen, and criticism levelled at key areas such as the vehicle’s dynamic performance – particularly in relation to dual-cab models with the five-link coil-spring rear suspension.
A year ago, the Series II Navara arrived with a specific Australian rather than South-East Asian suspension set-up – new front and rear shock absorbers, and stiffer rear springs and rebound dampers – in a bid to improve its aesthetics (lifting the rear end) as well as ride and handling, particularly when towing or carrying a decent load.
Our response was that the changes made were welcome but left room for improvement – including the need for quicker steering – which brings us to Series III that features a dual-rate rear spring system for the multi-link rear suspension and a faster gear ratio.
Having driven the relevant dual-cab variants over three legs with a 940kg camper trailer, unladen and then with 650kg in the tub, we can say that Navara now fulfils the brief with a compliant ride across various road surfaces, predictable handling for a hefty ute and relatively accurate steering.
These qualities were especially apparent on a fast-flowing loose-dirt section of road in an unladen ST, driving in (easily selectable) 4x4 high and finding the Navara in its element as it remained well grounded, stayed settled over mid-corner bumps, resisted overzealous intervention of the various electronic handling devices, ironed out corrugations with ease, had a meaty feel to the steering and kept vibration and harshness well out of the cabin.
The only unwanted noise intrusions came from loose gravel tumbling around the wheelarches and some stones pinging off the rear undercarriage.
You are never in doubt that you are driving a decent-sized pick-up that tips the scales at almost two tonnes, but by the same token there’s no doubt the dynamic performance of D23 Series III is a vast improvement on D40, light years ahead of D22 and clearly another step forward from Series I and II.
The brake pedal has too much travel for our liking before biting, particularly when pulling up to a complete stop in the dual cab (both the unladen ST and laden ST-X), we beeped the horn unintentionally a few times when turning at low speeds (a tiller redesign is needed here), and the cruise control was unwilling to hold the selected speed when travelling downhill on Melbourne’s metropolitan ring road (it flashed a warning, though).
The 2.3-litre twin-turbo engine and seven-speed automatic combination leaves us with mixed feelings, providing acceptable pulling power from standstill and smooth enough shifts but also proving underwhelming in hillier terrain with a load onboard and noisier than anticipated when managing the ebb and flow of busy country towns in morning/afternoon traffic.
A willingness to rev with somewhat tall gearing seems at odds with the nature of the engine, especially seeing it has a fair dose of torque at its disposal (450Nm from 1500-2500rpm), and the automatic seemed unwilling to hold any gear other than seventh when descending steeper hills on bitumen back roads at speed.
At least there is a sequential manual option which offers the driver more control.
With the 940kg trailer hitched, we noticed some vibration at idle that wasn’t present on the other vehicles we sampled, and the engine performance was certainly blunted on uphill stretches – but not overwhelmed. It also felt solid and refined on the open road.
The Navara cabin is a blend of modern comfort/convenience with some familiar traits that mark it as a workhorse vehicle.
Among various elements, we like the spacious cabin, dash layout, clear instrumentation, big door bins, bottle/cupholders, oddment storage, three power sockets up front, rear air vents, the small rear power sliding window panel and large rear exterior mirrors.
That said, we are less impressed with the hard-plastic surfaces across the dash and doors, no A-pillar or overhead grabhandle on the driver’s side to help with ingress/egress (such as in off-road situations), no seatback pockets, only basic rear seat comfort and an ongoing lack of steering wheel reach adjustment.
The latter, combined with limited front seat travel, compromises the position for taller drivers in particular, while lumbar adjustment is only available with the $1500 leather-accented electric seat option package. The regular seats should have this extra level of adjustment.
The Isofix child restraint system on all dual cabs and 360-degree camera on ST-X grades have made their way into Australian-spec vehicles at the Thai factory after being available since launch on European models built in Barcelona, but other safety features we’ve seen on UK-spec Navaras such as centre-rear headrests and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) are, sadly, yet to be implemented in Australia.
This comes back to Australia’s geographical position and our ties with Thailand production and specification – in other words, cost and complexity and regional priorities – which are still limiting a mature, sophisticated and rightly demanding market that values high-grade equipment and should have access to every single safety and convenience item developed for the vehicle in question.
Dynamically, Australian customers now have the Thai-built Australian version we deserved in 2015. But we still deserve more.
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