During the Nineties, almost every middle manager with a family wanted a double-cab as their company car; they sold like hot vetkoek and, as a result, South Africa remains enthralled by the "family bakkie". The first-generation Navara made its UK debut in 2001, but it was merely a tinselled-up version of the Hardbody, a stalwart (replete with sliding heating controls) that still soldiers on in South Africa as the NP300. Mzansi had to wait until late 2005, when the second generation (D40) Navara arrived as a full import, and it has undergone a host of updates throughout the years.
But, after almost 11 years, it's high time for an all-new Navara. Codenamed the D23, this Navara started life as a blank-canvas project – even the name hasn’t escaped a makeover. The "NP300 Navara" designation follows the new global house style for Nissan's commercial vehicles, denoting the type of vehicle (Nissan pick-up) and gross vehicle mass (3 tonnes).
As you can see from these images, Nissan hasn’t tinkered too much with the outer appearance of the new Navara, which features a revised front grille, restyled bumper and sleeker bonnet. It certainly looks handsome in the metal, but that's not to suggest it's a show pony: the newcomer can still haul a 1-tonne load and pull 3.5 tonnes on the rear hook – just but not both at the same time. To do that you’ll need to reduce the tray load by half a tonne.
Handsome new NP300 Navara proves its mettle on a rutted off-road course.
The Navara is again offered in king cab (KC) or double cab (DC) form and both versions offer rear seats, but while the DC has a traditional bench in the back and four conventional doors, the KC has two (cinema style) flip-down rear seats and small back doors hinged on the rearmost edges of the cab.
The interior represents a significant improvement for the Navara. On the high-spec derivatives there’s piano black trim, metal-effect accents, a touchscreen infotainment system with satnav and surround view monitor, the latter of which is a very handy feature on a vehicle of such enlarged dimensions.
The infotainment system will be familiar to anyone who's driven a top-end Nissan SUV or crossover recently. The system is intuitive to use by virtue of simple, easily-navigitable menus and slick Bluetooth pairing, although the image quality relayed by the surround-view cameras could be better.
Although its cabin looks SUV-like in quality, the Navara's still based on a commercial vehicle underneath – the leather steering wheel and gear lever feel upmarket, but those expecting soft-touch plastics on the dashboard will be disappointed. Yes, the Nissan cabin's overall build quality is solid and will probably be as tough as old boots, but the plastics are all hard to the touch, unfortunately.
Piano-black finish and touchscreen infotainment lends a luxurious, SUV-like feel to the Navara's dashboard.
Nissan SA has not confirmed engine/transmission line-up for the local-spec Navara, but expect it to be offered with the choice of 2- or 4-wheel drive and the option of a standard 6-speed manual or 7-speed automatic gearbox.
The South African range could receive the new 2.3-litre Renault-Nissan alliance turbodiesel motor, which is claimed to be up to 24% more efficient than the ageing 2.5-litre unit it replaces, and is said to be the "cleanest and most economical in its sector". Available with two power output options, 120 kW (409 Nm) and 140 kW (450Nm), the range-topping version introduces twin turbocharging technology – a first for Nissan in this segment.
The current 3.0-litre V6 dCi, which produces 170 kW and 550 Nm of torque, is expected to remain.
Multi-link rear suspension configuration lends the Nissan improved handling stability and a forgiving ride quality.
In this regard, Nissan has set a precedent with the latest Navara. Gone is the bone-shaking leaf-sprung suspension on DC models which, mercifully, has been replaced by a new independent five-link coil system which provides a much more refined and well-behaved ride.
However, all KC models retain the rear leaf spring arrangement.
The decision to switch to a multi-link rear suspension is entirely justified as the results are instantly evident. The outgoing Navara bounced and shimmied its way along the road, leaving the driver constantly aware of the rear of the vehicle whilst giving the feeling that the load bed is entirely separate from the cab.
The new NP300 Navara does away with that feeling thanks to its new suspension as the multi-link setup removes the wobble and crash of the rear, while a new rubber seal between the load bed and the cab provides cushioning and reduces shaking.
The ride is undoubtedly smoother, but it’s as a rear passenger where you’ll notice it most. Previously the Navara (like most pickups with leaf springs), would gently jiggle you into submission over a long journey. Now, the ride is fairly static and bobble-free.
Rear passengers (in particular) will benefit from the pliant ride quality, especially on long-haul journeys.
What's more, the rear-seat comfort has also been improved by increasing the angle of the seatback and the length of the cushion squab. While rear legroom is still not overly generous, it must be said, the changes have made the new Navara a much more practical vehicle for four occupants.
From the driver’s seat, the Navara now feels more composed both on- and off-road. The improved ride quality and quicker steering rack make the driving experience more enjoyable and less of a challenge. If you entered a quick, sweeping corner in the outgoing model, the nose tended to push outwards, but the new model tracks much better in the bends and the steering wheel conveys the front wheels' contact with the road with greater accuracy.
Despite the improved on-road characteristics, the NP300 is still more than capable off road. A 4WD derivative comes complete with a low range ’box, hill descent control and excellent axle articulation. If you want to get really serious, a rear diff-lock is optional. Fortunately, it was fitted to all the test vehicles.
Nissan’s proven electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system has three settings: 2H, 4H, 4L and a more lightweight construction helps the NP300 Navara feel more nimble and agile than its predecessor, while the 450 Nm of torque means there’s plenty of push when needed. Up steep and rocky trails and down deep, rain-carved gullies, the Navara didn’t break into a sweat… but I did!
Navara features electronically-controlled 4WD and a differential lock; its axle articulation is excellent.
The NP300 Navara offers the best ride comfort of any unladen bakkie I’ve driven to date. The previous-generation Navara (and other leaf-sprung competitors) tended to be bouncy and rather unsettled, but the new Navara DC feels much more stable and displays considerably better road manners.
However, there are still reminders that the Navara is, in essence, a working vehicle. There’s no getting away from the fact that below the sheet metal there’s a heavy-duty live axle attached to a ladder-frame chassis.
Nonetheless, the NP300 Navara will be one of the best pick-ups to have ever reached South African shores when it arrives. While not quite blurring category lines, it certainly narrows the gap between rough, tough, work-a-day bakkies and road-biased SUVs.