Nissan’s new Navara pickup ― a working-class hero
ERFOUD (Morocco), Nov 19 — Toyota’s Hilux is arguably the king of pickups, having established its cockroach-like indestructibility long ago, but Nissan’s latest version of its Navara pickup is the pretender to the throne and eager to prove as much.
We first drove it in Singapore, and found it handles the increasingly bumpy roads and ever-present speed humps with stoic stability. But the raison d’etre of a pickup is work, and the Navara can carry a tonne of cargo (or tow 3.5 tonnes of it), thanks to its powerful twin-turbo, 2.3-litre diesel engine, which makes short work of Singapore’s roads.
To put it through its paces, we were invited to Morocco to tackle sand dunes in the Sahara Desert. Erg Chebbi is one of two Saharan ergs in Morocco (“erg” means dune sea) and spans more than 300 sq km. Its dunes, which can reach heights of 150m, are among the highest in the world.
Riding high dunes in a two-tonne production pickup truck may not sound like a good idea, but it is actually not that difficult. The first thing is to take a lesson from the real ship of the desert: A camel’s toes are wide, flat pads that spread their weight across the sand. We do likewise by lowering the truck’s tyre pressure to create a flatter and larger contact patch.
To keep traction and forward motion in deep sand, the truck needs to skim across, spinning the tyres, using momentum to “float” across the top.
“You need to move like a snake as it goes over the sand,” said our instructor, rally driver Carlos Herrera, from Portugal. He should know, as a four-time participant in the legendary Paris-Dakar Rally, which included a stage that passed by Erfoud and the dunes.
“You need to do everything gently so you don’t get stuck. If you brake hard, you’ll dig the wheels in and get stuck. If you turn or work the steering too much, you’ll also dig in again.”
Dunes are shaped by the wind, but when it comes to driving on them, the experience is more akin to steering a boat. The vehicle suffers a slight delay in response to driver input, much like controlling a boat. Climbing dune crests, for instance, requires you to lift off the throttle a car length or two before you peak, while also maximising momentum so that you don’t get stuck churning sand going uphill.
The Navara makes the job of navigating the massive dunes easier, thanks to its seven-speed automatic transmission and tall seating position. It does not just stop at the four-wheel drive, but also has features like a locking differential that helps improve traction.
Once you do get the hang of it, it is tremendous fun, riding the troughs and crests like waves, skimming across ridges and finding the line of least resistance by avoiding lateral slides and looser sections of sand. The intensely blue sky makes it feel even more like surfing or sailing, except that your “board” is a two-tonne truck.
But it was not just smooth sailing on sand alone. The drive, part of an event run by Nissan Europe to showcase the adaptability of its trucks and commercial vehicles, took us from the town of Erfoud and covered more than 180km with more than half of the route on mixed, off-road conditions.
While the Navara is a much more focused machine than a consumer Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), Nissan says part of the appeal of the latest model is its familiarity. It borrows many features you would otherwise see in a normal SUV, such as an infotainment system, driver displays and independent rear suspension. Importantly for the driving in the desert — and Singapore — it has a powerful climate control system.
The pickup tackled the varied off-road conditions with ease. At one point, we hit 100kmh-plus on hard clay topped with loose soil, but it also behaved remarkably car-like and refined on Morocco’s well-kept tarmac roads.
Owning such a versatile machine in Singapore requires a Category C COE, as it is sold as a commercial vehicle. But it is a true working-class hero in ways crossovers can only dream of. While SUVs merely borrow the off-road image and need to be taken with a pinch of salt, you can easily take the Navara with a desert’s worth of sand and still keep going.
Nissan Navara Double Cab A.T.
Engine: 2,298cc, in-line four, turbodiesel, 190hp, 450Nm
Performance: 180kmh, 0-100kmh: 10.8s, 6.9L/100km, 156g/km CO2
Price: S$140,900 (RM436,262) with COE
On Sale: Now
PROS: Makes tough going easy, a real workhorse
CONS: Needs a Cat C COE ― TODAY