Matra might have got the crossover market started with their Rancho, but it was undoubtedly Nissan that turned it mainstream with their Qashqai.
Now it’s trying to do it again, telling us that a viable alternative to the larger crossover and SUV market is a double cab pickup truck. To convince us, it’s fitted the new NP300 Navara with multi-link suspension at the rear that mimics that of a regular car, which means the ride and handling promises to be more refined and less agricultural than its previous efforts.
It’s certainly more like an SUV in terms of design. The exterior has an air of Tonka toy about it, as you might expect, with massive wheel arch extensions, acres of shiny chrome, bold LED lighting and strong, taut lines. It would stand out from the crowd thanks to its sheer bulk, but the designers have worked well to add presence, if not beauty.
The same holds true on the inside. The X-Trail appears to have donated its dashboard in its entirety, which is no bad thing. Cupholders, gear selectors, air vents, dials and anything else in there is surrounded by some fake aluminium that lifts the cabin, making it appear suitably premium. However, look more closely and the Navara’s workman roots show through, with plastics harder and scratchier than you will find on road cars. Being kind, they’re solid and hard-wearing. At least the steering wheel and gear lever are trimmed in leather.
As in nearly every Nissan, there’s a touchscreen infotainment unit mounted in the centre stack, with satellite navigation and an all-round camera view monitor in this top-level Tekna spec car. It’s clear and intuitive to use, but the camera system frustrates with one minor detail – it’s impossible to leave them turned on, which is handy when you’re off-road and manoeuvring through a tiny gap.
As this is the double cab model, there’s a set of rear seats that accommodate adults with ease. However, the floor is quite high so knees end up being nearer the chest than you might expect. If you’re thinking of cutting costs and taking the King Cab, which has two small jump seats in place, but loses the high-tech suspension which is replaced with old-fashioned leaf springs.
Obviously, there’s no boot, its place taken by a load bed that measures 1,578mm long and is able to swallow 1,047kg of stuff.
All this bulk is pulled along by a new 2.3-litre engine. It produces 190hp and 450Nm of torque on this model, where the twin-turbochargers do their best to remove the lag. You’ve still got to wait a moment or two before anything happens but, once it does, the NP300 Navara is a surprisingly sprightly lump of metal. There’s an old-fashioned diesel clatter at idle, and it gets rough as you wind the revs up beyond 3,000, but once warmed up and cruising along it fades into the background.
The same can’t be said of the six-speed manual gearbox. With a long throw and vague action, it attracts attention for all the wrong reasons. However, the seven-speed auto option suits the car well, despite tending to hang on to gears a little longer than you might like. Opting for the auto impacts economy slightly, but a combined 44.1mpg is apparently possible with the manual.
Both the manual and auto work well off-road. Crossing a rather rural area, differentials were locked and low-range was selected, such was the demanding terrain. Bar the odd scrape to the front bumper – that’s thanks to those cameras turning themselves off just when you need them – the Nissan Navara got through everything we threw at it. Granted, a Jeep Wrangler would have barely broken sweat, but then a Jeep Wrangler can’t transport a family of five and more than a tonne of Yorkie bars. Even if it could, the Navara is light years ahead in terms of comfort and refinement.
That’s where you notice the new suspension. Out on the road, it’s by far the most comfortable of the pickup options available. Once settled on a motorway, it’s a match for most SUVs, and it’s surprisingly agile around twisty bits. Of course, that light back end means it can skip around in corners or under braking when you’re really pressing on, but it’s stable enough under most circumstances.
Despite all that though, it’s not quite a replacement for an SUV. It’s closer than anybody has yet managed, but unless you need to carry a tonne of gravel around, or bikes for the entire family as well as some camping gear, then the X-Trail will prove a more rewarding option. That the NP300 Navara takes it as close as it does though is quite an achievement.
This review was originally written for a consumer title and was not intended for a commercial or professional audience.