A fruity turbodiesel murmurs through the cabin as we cautiously make our way up a rutted gravel hill. If we didn’t know any better we’d swear this was the 4×4-equipped model, but no, this is the base LE 4×2 Auto (R547 900), climbing assuredly with only two driven wheels, and this is just one of the challenges the new Nissan Navara has already aced. Hours before it was a high-speed gravel blast along – bookended by an entirely civil soiree on smooth asphalt. This has afforded me more than enough time for the penny to drop – and land bolt-upright on its side. Nissan Navara, what a bakkie!
Let’s be in no doubt, double-cab bakkies are beeg business in SA. The Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger – both locally manufactured – duke it out by their 1000s month-after-month as SA’s top-selling motor vehicles. Based on simple geography alone the Thai-built Navara is never going to be able to compete on sheer numbers (the realistic expectation was around 200 units a month for 2018) but that doesn’t mean it can’t better them in other respects. Aesthetically, it’s all macho Nissan pick-up, with blistered wheel arches, badass V-motion grille with LED headlights replacing Halogen beams and creases down its flanks. There’s even a rear spoiler, which improves fuel economy and dust swirl into the load bay. you’re simply being an obtuse Toyota and/or Ford fan boy if you find too much to criticise about the Navara.
In the cabin it all leans towards an SUV experience. The materials are high quality and there couldn’t be more tech in here if they’d consulted with Elon Musk – but it’s all logically placed and ergonomically sound. Leather seats are R13 000 extra, but cruise control comes as standard, as does sat-nav – even though the screen is on the small side – and there are three 12v power sockets, one of which is in the load bay for a lekker tailgate braai. Then there are steering wheel audio controls and rear air vents for people in the back. Best of all, you know the little sliding rear window at the rear of the cabin? That’s electrically operated – I can’t get enough of that. But there’s one more impressive mod-con on offer… excellent ride quality.
Leaving the traditional leaf-sprung rear end behind, it makes use of a five-link coil-sprung setup. And I know immediately what you’re thinking. ‘You see, the Navara’s gone soft, I’ll keep my Hilux, thank you very much!’ But wait, it’s not a decadent, fully independent affair that’ll tear to shreds over something as innocuous as a gravel road. No, the rear axle is still a solid beam type; it’s just that at either end, instead of something from an Ox Wagon, there are five reinforced links. In theory its best of both worlds… in practice I think they’ve nailed it. On road you’ve got accurate steering and all the lateral stability of a unitary construction car – as we found throwing it around Piekenierskloof Pass like some sort of hot hatchback – but on the rough stuff you still get that slightly buoyant feel from any sturdy ladder frame chassis. SA-spec bakkies are 40mm higher off the ground than they are from their home market. A twin-turbo 140kW/450Nm 2.3-litre diesel offers best-in-class fuel efficiency (Nissan claims 6.5 but we got 8.0 l/100km on the highway cruise) and lag-free throttle response, especially if you opt for the excellent seven-speed auto that has endured 1-million km of testing.
What is the Navara’s true value offering? It’s one of the best looking double-cab bakkies, it drives like a car and can still rough it out with the rest of them. But we’ve already seen the Merc X-Class is a heavier, slower premium version, knocking on the door of R800k once you spec it up. Which all of a sudden makes its asking price of R547 900 seem a bargain. All Nissan SA needs to do is secure local manufacturing at Rosslyn for 2019 and then they can really take the fight to the Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux.
Nissan Navara 2.3 D 4×2 LE Double-Cab in a nutshell
Styling, comfort, engine performance, practicality – yes, that’s pretty much the whole package
Ranger and Hilux offer more variety in single cab, cab-and-a-half stakes
Engine: 2 298 cc, 4-cylinder turbocharged diesel
Power: 140 kW @ 3 750 rpm, 450 Nm 1 500-2 500 rpm
Performance: 0-100 km/h 10.5 sec, top speed 180 km/h
Tyres: 18-inch alloys, 255/60
Economy: 6.5 l/100 km
Transmission: Six-speed manual
CO2 emissions: 183 g/km
Price: R547 900
Maintenance: A warranty of 6 years/150000km and a three year 90000km service plan.