Nissan Navara (2021) Prototype Drive

We headed to Nissan South Africa's factory at Rosslyn to drive a pre-production version of the revised Navara double-cab. Competition is fierce in the local bakkie market – arguably more so than ever before... Has the slew of updates made the locally-assembled Navara a stronger contender than the pre-facelift version?

When you ask an average consumer about which bakkies are currently on sale in South Africa, the usual suspects are the Toyota Hilux, Ford Ranger, Isuzu D-Max, Volkswagen Amarok and, to a lesser extent, the Mazda BT-50, Mitsubishi Triton and GWM P-Series. A name that doesn't get that many mentions is the Nissan Navara – and the SA subsidiary of the Japanese brand wants to change that. 

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With a steady stream of constant and regular updates, the motoring media landscape's bakkie content is dominated by the likes of the Hilux, Ranger, Amarok and most recently, the new P-Series. 

Although the anticipated reveal of the all-new Ranger (and perhaps a look at the next Volkswagen Amarok), as well as the local introduction of the latest Isuzu D-Max are scheduled for next year (2022), 2021 will be far from uneventful for the South African bakkie market. Late last year saw the introductions of the updated Hilux and all-new P-Series; since then, there has been a slew of special-edition Ford Rangers, but the biggest news of the year, double-cab-wise, is the imminent arrival of the new-D-Max-based Mazda BT-50 and a revised version of Nissan's perennially-underrated Navara. 

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New vs old: Despite the camo, you can see the redesigned tail lamps.

Nissan became a mainstay of the South African bakkie market with models such as the Champ, Hardbody and Navara and the Japanese brand is determined to regain lost ground. Its campaign to change public perception (and grow sales) of the Navara began in April 2019, when Nissan announced a R3-billion investment in its Rosslyn facilities. Production was scheduled to start in 2020, but then Covid-19 struck. The investment will create 1 200 new jobs at the Nissan plant as well as in the local supply chain, and it's estimated the Navara will add around 30 000 units to the facility's annual production volume. 

Previously the Nissan Navara was imported from Thailand, but now the Japanese brand's bakkie will be assembled locally, or as the brand puts it: "built in Africa for Africa." The benefits of local production are immense, with mainly cost implications being in South Africa's favour. The SA-built Navaras will also be exported to the rest of the continent.

We spent a day with the 2021 Nissan Navara prototype as well as the current model for a back-to-back comparison, under the guidance of Nissan SA's Wilhelm Baard. Some of you may know him as the pilot behind the 'wheel of some crazily-tuned high-performance Nissan GTRs that raced up the hill at the Simola Hillclimb in Knysna. If there's a guy who knows and loves Nissans, it's him.

2021 Nissan Navara: What has changed?

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The real test: SA dirt roads. 

The changes incorporated in the 2021 Navara stretch far beyond a mere visual overhaul. Much has been said about the Japanese bakkie's rear suspension (especially its 5-link rear setup) and the brand has worked tirelessly to enhance the bakkie's underpinnings, right down to the details. Updated bushes have been fitted and the dampers have been retuned, while dual-rate springs have been installed at the rear in an effort to maximise ride comfort without compromising load-carrying ability. The chassis, meanwhile, features new mountings for reduced vibration and the ride height has been increased.

What's more, there's been a focus on reducing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) in the bakkie's cabin. Substantial investment has been devoted to implementing these improvements, including thicker windscreen glass! The steering setup has been tweaked too: Nissan SA has quickened the 'wheel's turning ratio, which has improved responsiveness and made parking manoeuvres easier to execute.

There's a new engine too, although it's less sophisticated than before. The current-gen Navara uses a 2.3-litre twin-turbo diesel engine that produces 140 kW and 450 Nm of torque. However, the new Navara features a 2.5-litre single-turbo diesel engine that produces 120 kW/403 Nm and the reason for the change is better durability, -parts availability and -compatibility with African export markets. 

Nissan also increased the payload rating, with the Navara said to have the best-in-class capacity of 1.2 tonnes; the payload has gone up by 100 kg thanks to an increase in the height of the load box.


The Navara cabin has improved with more refinement and comfort.

What is the 2021 Nissan Navara like to drive?

The benefit of driving an outgoing model and its replacement back-to-back on the same stretch of road is that the exercise highlights the upgrades and enhancements incorporated in the latter product. We had the opportunity to drive both old and new Navara models on a variety of surfaces (and at different speeds) to get a sense of what's been refined and improved upon. A quick sojourn through a suburb showcased the faster steering setup, which definitely felt a touch sharper and more responsive, particularly at lower speeds, while the newer bakkie dealt with speed bumps with greater ease/pliancy.

Speaking of speed bumps, just to clarify, the revised Navara's suspension setup is just as up to the task of soaking up impacts with so-called "sleeping policemen" as well as before, but what's really eye-opening was just how quickly the newcomer's damping returned to neutral. We did the same route in the outgoing vehicle and noted that the pitching motion was more notable and lasted longer. 

We also drove on a seriously poor-quality road that had potholes, ruts and cracked edges. Usually, we'd be hesitant to traverse such a road at the suggested speed, but the suspension felt like it was more than capable of handling it all. It's impressive stuff, but given how the majority of bakkies have transitioned from workhorses to lifestyle vehicles (without compromising on payload capacity), the test wouldn't have been complete without driving a stint on a highway... 

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Not only was the bakkie's in-cabin refinement under scrutiny when we travelled on the open road – we also had a chance to open the taps of the 2.5-litre single-turbo engine. At the national highway speed limit, the updated and locally-assembled Navara's cabin was notably hushed, with good levels of insulation from road and wind noise. At the time of driving the new bakkie, we weren't aware of the 2.5-litre engine's outputs. We expected similar performance to that of the outgoing model's 2.3-litre twin-turbocharged motor and, suffice to say, we could not feel a significant difference between the engines.

Overall, there is now more of a "premium-ness" about the Navara's ride quality, while its interior is more comfortable, feels a touch more upmarket and offers substantially enhanced refinement. With pricing that's not radically different to the imported model, we suspect there's a market dustup on the horizon as Nissan South Africa seeks to pinch a few sales from the Toyota Hilux and outgoing Ford Ranger.

Summary

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It may have been a prototype, but consider our interest piqued.

Our first taste of the South African-built Nissan Navara was all too brief, but we had sufficient exposure to the newcomer to appreciate the extent of the updates, both inside and out. The key design elements of the bakkie's facelift were masked on the pre-production unit, but if you're reading this, you've probably already seen what the SA-spec Nissan Navaras look like.

The real changes have occurred under the sheet metal, however; Nissan South Africa has evidently made a concerted effort to engineer some luxury and comfort into what is, after all, a ladder-frame bakkie. The newcomer feels remarkably upmarket – you could easily be fooled into thinking you're behind the 'wheel of something far more premium... and not (just) a bakkie. 

We look forward to spending more time with the locally assembled Nissan Navara during its upcoming local launch; rest assured we're planning another big bakkie shootout featuring all the major players. 

New Nissan Navara (2021) Price in SA

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