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Car reviews - Nissan - Navara - ST-X 550 dual-cab utility

Our Opinion

We like
Impressive mid-range torque, engine smoothness, towing ability
Room for improvement
Transmission operation, a bit thirsty, turbo lag, gearing

3 Feb 2012

THE HUMBLE ute, the backbone of Aussie primary industry since forever, isn’t so humble or primary industry anymore.

The likes of the ebullient mining industry will continue to ingest truckloads of them and spit out the rusted hulks a few years later, but the volume of sales to ute buyers who want all the flash luxury gear and no shortage of power has grown from a sheep pen to a sizable paddock.

Nissan’s Navara ST-X 550 would seem like the ute you could imagine tradie royalty (if there is such a thing) picking for their work truck these are individuals who don’t need to be on the tools any longer but can’t quite let go of them.

There is a fair bit of money involved here we’re not talking Range Rover prices, but as it’s nudging $62k, the ST-X 550 is the most expensive ute on the market.

With its standard rear sports bar, side steps, hard tonneau lid and unique alloy wheels, the big-ticket Navara certainly looks like an up-spec ute arriving at the worksite, but to the casual observer no more so than the foreman’s 2.5-litre ST-X.

The cabin is not anything special either, unless you tick the Premium Pack option box, which for an extra $4000 gets you leather seats (heated and powered at the front), a premium audio system, sat-nav and a reversing camera.

So when you settle into the driver’s seat, there is the same layout that has been with us since the D40 Navara arrived in 2005. What that means is you get a spacious cabin with soft yet fairly supportive front seats and a simple control layout, but hardly the latest word in design or cabin finish. Certainly the fluorescent backlit instruments and chrome accents here and there are nice touches, but they don’t make the cabin feel as modern as the new competition.

The rear bench has a useful split-fold design, providing the option of carrying loads securely and out of the weather and unique to the ST-X 550 a netted under-seat storage area. Vision out of the cabin is excellent to the front and sides and with such large side mirrors you’ll have to be towing something big and wide to need towing mirrors. Like most of the dual-cabs, reversing is a bit of a guessing game unless you have the Premium Pack’s reversing camera.

The load area has the ingenious tie-down system we first saw in this D40 series in 2005, and with the load liner and hard lockable tonneau lid (which is linked to the central locking), lugging loads is a cinch.

Twist the key and the ST-X 550 settles into a smooth idle. The diesel is a relatively small displacement V6 but has the hairy-chested rumble of one of the big turbo-diesels. Around town at intersections and in slow, stop-start traffic it is hard to see what all the fuss is about there isn’t exactly a mountain of torque as you begin to roll more like a molehill.

This slow but sure start as revs ease off idle is contrasted by a big gush of torque as revs reach 1800rpm or so. It is not as sharp a contrast as some turbo-diesels, but for a new engine design it could be better. Even though the claimed 550Nm torque figure sounds like a lot, in some situations it doesn’t feel a whole lot more responsive than the 450Nm 2.5-litre Navara.

It seems as though part of the engine’s problem with garnering adequate response actually comes down to the gearing and transmission response.

The seven-speed auto’s top gear ratio is 0.774:1 versus the 2.5-litre auto’s 8.34:1. Final drive is 3.133:1 versus the 2.5-litre auto’s 3.538:1. Even accounting for the V6’s torque arriving earlier in the rev band than the four-cylinder - and that there is more of it - that’s still a big difference.

The seven-speed auto should have a ratio for every occasion but it appears very keen to get into its tall top gear and stay there. When rolling in traffic and you’re hoping for an easy transition into a gap in the adjacent lane, it seems to take an eternity for the transmission to respond to the throttle buried into the carpet. It is better to try self-shifting in anticipation of such a manoeuvre.

Yet get the V6 into its sweet spot between 1800 and 3000rpm and it rewards with a consistent, jet-like thrust forward. Even when revved to redline it does so with smoothness and not as much diesel clatter as you might expect.

In outright performance, it is probably one of the quickest diesel utes, it just doesn’t feel it because of the lack of response when you need it.

It seems a lot better when towing a heavy trailer, because the engine seems to get into its torque band more readily and slugs along well. We towed with 2000kg behind, and barely knew it.

The transmission will not hold gears when you want engine braking off-road, which is frustrating and potentially dangerous. It’s not the best thing for a transmission to shift up a gear as you’re descending a steep, loose gravel track.

Yet the auto has some smarts when you’ve backed off the throttle to come to a gentle stop, the transmission’s adaptive program gets what is going on and smoothly downshifts a gear. That’s a feature that’s been around forever, but rarely have I seen it work so effectively. A pity the transmission isn’t as clever elsewhere.

Fuel economy isn’t sensational, but an easy cruise gets the fuel figure down to 10.8L/100km. With a mix of off-roading and touring, we recorded more than 14.0L/100km and, when towing a two-tonne trailer, consumption rose to 15.2L/100km.

There is no real handling finesse here this is a commercial ute after all, so we’re talking about the blunt end of the ride and handling scale. Within that context, the Navara handles well, with a timely response to steering inputs and a flat cornering attitude allowing fairly smooth point-to-point touring. Ride is not as accomplished as some other utes, but it is not so stiff that you end up being winded over big bumps.

A lack of ground clearance and the transmission’s inability to hold a gear are the main bugbears off-road, while good mid-range torque and over-bonnet visibility are pluses.

There can only ever be a good case for introducing more advanced technology in a ute and for many the dual-cab is what the medium-size 4WD wagon used to be, before most went soft and the better off-roaders remaining went too pricey.

Whether the Navara ST-X 550’s ‘advanced’ technology is advanced enough in terms of low-rpm response and transmission behavior is another thing.

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