We’ve said it before and we will say it again: Australians ask a lot of our utes.
Dual-cab pick-ups are expected to look tough, match four-wheel-drives in the bush, carry a tonne in the tray, tow more than three tonnes and offer car-like comfort on the road.
Nissan took a new approach when developing the current-generation Navara ahead of its 2015 debut in Australia, swapping conventional leaf suspension for car-like coil springs in the rear end. As the model was being built in Thailand (where utes and ute-based vehicles represent more than half of new vehicle sales), the suspension was tuned to be softer than Australians might like.
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Slow steering and the soft rear end felt odd under load, particularly when its rear suspension would compress so much that the suspension’s bump stops (pictured below, and cheekily renamed ‘dynamic rebound dampers’ by Nissan) would be in contact with the chassis even when parked. We’ve never seen that from a dual-cab ute, and those traits didn’t go down well with the team at Drive.
Putting the Navara to the test against key rivals in 2015, Sam Charlwood said it was "way off the pace”, "struggles under weight” and that "the rear sag (pictured below) causes the vehicle to fidget and even wallow”. Andrew MacLean felt it was "fidgety over patchy surfaces and is upset by big bumps”, while Mark Short said the Navara was "not very confidence inspiring”.
"It's like one group of engineers work on the front and one on the back and they never spoke to each other once,” he said.
I attended the original launch of the 2015 Navara in Thailand – where Nissan did not offer an opportunity to drive the car with a load on board – as well as a 2017 update that introduced suspension changes intended to improve the car’s practicality.
Comparing it with the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger with a heavy load in the tray, I found the Navara’s low tail, high-nose stance (pictured above), slow steering and under-sprung rear end result in a car that felt nervous and jittery on the open road, lacking the sure-footed stability of its key rivals. While the Navara was fine enough for regular use, we couldn’t recommend it to people who needed to put the car to work.
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Nissan’s series three update for the Navara took place outside Melbourne, where the manufacturer promised the car would be better.
The manufacturer’s vice president of light commercial vehicles, Ashwani Gupta (pictured below, left), told reporters "our centre of gravity used to be Thailand”, but that will no longer be the case for dual-cab utes.
"Australia, in most other products, becomes a consequence and not an objective, just because of the simple reason that we don’t have industry located here,” he said.
"In Australia we don’t have any engineering facilities, it’s not our biggest market. Now we are putting a lot of attention into the market.
"We have changed.
"We will be having more integration of the country’s voice, from customers, from you, from the teams we have in a very advanced upstream phase.”
Nissan’s chief product specialist for light commercial vehicles, Pedro de Anda (pictured above, right), said "Australia might not be the biggest volume, but it is clearly the one that is setting the trend for performance”.
"This may not be the biggest market for utes, or the biggest market for Navara globally, but it’s certainly one where the customer has meaning, usage, and is setting the trend.”
It’s abnormal for car companies to fly senior executives from France and Japan to a farm in the Yarra Valley for mid-life updates to a model not sold in its manufacturer’s home country.
The extensive nature of Nissan’s changes is similarly rare – running changes normally amount to new alloy wheels, restyled bumpers and new toys to the interior.
Instead, Nissan engineers travelled to Australia for three development trips in 2017, examining how we use our utes before reworking the pick-up’s underpinnings.
The front end benefits from quicker steering, with revised gearing and an improved steering ratio reducing the number of lock-to-lock turns from 4.1 to 3.4.
At the rear, dual-rate rear springs offer softer initial compliance and a much firmer mid-section offering almost twice as much resistance as the previous model. Other elements such as shock absorbers are carried over from last year’s series two update that attempted to address initial concerns with the model
Unusually for suspension changes, you can pick the revised Navara out of a line-up at a distance. That’s because of new tail-up stance that sees the rear end jacked an additional 25mm into the air when unladen (pictured below), sitting 40mm higher – and well clear of the bump stops – with a load on board.
The revised stance puts more weight on the front tyres, evening the car’s front-to-rear balance, particularly when laden.
We tested the revised Navara with 650 kilograms in the tray, finding it felt much more secure on the road than its predecessor. The steering is sharper, the front end feels like it has a better connection with the road, and the back end does a better job of soaking up mid-corner bumps.
The new Navara feels cohesive and composed to the previous model.
Early indications are that this is the car the Navara should have been from day one, but we’ll put it to the test on home turf and against key rivals before issuing a definitive verdict.
It’s not a perfect car – like many pick-ups, there is a lack of reach adjustment for the steering wheel, the unladen ride is a little jiggly, and the cabin isn’t as comfortable as SUV cousins.
We spent most of our time at the launch driving top-end Navara ST-X automatic models priced from the same $54,490 plus on-road costs as before.
Nissan’s 2.3-litre twin-turbo diesel returns with reasonably strong 140kW and 450Nm outputs sent to all four wheels through a seven-speed automatic transmission. It hasn’t been changed, and that’s not a problem – the Navara is efficient, grunty and reasonably refined on the road.
Other tweaks for the ST-X include a new 360-degree camera and digital speedo which represent welcome additions, though we’re disappointed Australia’s Thai-sourced Navara misses out on the autonomous emergency braking system fitted to Spanish-built sister cars.
Expect it to feature in the next batch of running changes.
De Anda says Australian-led tweaks to the Navara’s suspension will eventually be applied to five factories producing the pickup for dozens of countries around the world.
"It’s very important that we learn from Australia and we carry over this to Navara, globally,” he said.
"We will now roll out these countermeasures to other markets.
"We’ve heard from you and we’ve heard from the customers in Australia.”
2018 Nissan Navara ST-X pricing and specifications:
Price: From $54,490 plus on-road costs
Engine: 2.3-litre four-cylinder twin turbo diesel
Power: 140kW at 3750rpm
Torque: 450Nm at 1500-2500rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed auto, four-wheel-drive
Fuel use: 6.8L/100km
source : drive.com.au