Highways optional: 800km across Australia's South West with the Nissan Navara

The updated pickup is finally a proper all-rounder
by Sharleen Banzon | Sep 27, 2018

'When were we last on pavement? Not in the past two hours, surely'

We're carving our way through a state forest at a furious pace, and I'm seeing red. All red, literally, as our convoy kicks up a maelstrom of rust-colored dirt and sharp bits of rock. Trees loom high on either side of the road, barely letting sunshine pierce through the swirling sea of crimson dust. At least I see the odd flash of light up ahead or in the mirrors—I'm still in the convoy, and I intend to keep things that way until all four tires of my Nissan Navara are rolling on pavement.

Come to think of it, when were we last on pavement? Not in the past two hours, surely.

I'd been warned of this earlier, before we ventured off the black stuff. "The people here, they do 80 to 100 on roads like this," said Shinichi Kaneda, general manager for exterior and HVAC development at Nissan Technical Center South East Asia, pointing to the gravel surface we were standing on, "and they go for hours. Crazy!"

And they, as in the Aussies, travel down these rough roads not just when they've got no other routes to take. A fair few are back on the rocky stretches and hitting the trails at the end of the week—or anytime they feel like it, for that matter. It's all about work-life balance here.

'Work-life balance' could well have been the design brief for the current Navara. The model having been known for outstanding highway behavior in its previous iteration, Nissan decided to boost its all-rounder credentials by flouting convention and giving the latest version a multilink coil-spring suspension in the rear, instead of the industry-standard leaf springs. Not surprisingly, the resulting product lives up to the nameplate's rep as a comfortable on-road cruiser. It's competent in off-road conditions, too.

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The issues came to light whenever the ute was made to do some actual hauling. Never mind hardcore utility work—even the so-called lifestyle buyers felt the pickup couldn't handle their towing and load-lugging needs. But that's here in Australia, where it's perfectly normal to load up the bed with leisure toys, or hitch a camper to the back and tow it halfway across the state.

What Nissan did, then, was to send over engineers to develop a new suspension setup for typical Australian conditions. So, here I am driving the top-spec, dual-cab Navara with an updated rear suspension that is, for now, exclusive to Australia and New Zealand. And though we don't do any heavy hauling during this trip, the local journos say this 'Series III' model has finally proven itself capable of carrying out workhorse duties without the tail slumping down and the nose pointing skyward.

The positive changes are also evident in everyday driving situations and on the trail. But first, one downside: Over flat but rugged sections, the rear end can be jumpy and squirrelly with the bed unladen—a consequence of fitting in the new dual-rate springs, the lower spring rate of which yields a slightly stiffer and taller (by 25mm) ride than the old coils did.

Going off the main road once again and onto another gravel track, we're told to either stay in rear-wheel drive or switch to 4H. The slipping and sliding isn't unmanageable, but I opt for 4H as a precaution—I've come to value my work and my life, thank you.

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If you've ever been to Australia outside of city limits, you'll know why the people here are always venturing off the highways in search of adventure. Just in the South West region of Western Australia are 24 national parks and 1,000km of coastline. All around the country, you'll find more such parks, state forests, beaches, and mountains waiting to be explored. And don't forget the harsh, imposing Outback that dominates the landmass and defines the image of the Land Down Under as a whole.

Mandurah is our first stop, and the sight of the pristine coastline is so breathtaking, I forget for a second I'm driving on sand for the first time. It's easy enough to keep going at a steady pace on the powdery surface, but only as long as the tires are well within the tracks made by the vehicles ahead. I get stuck once and quickly learn my lesson: Don't lose momentum, keep a firm grip on the wheel, and make sure not to veer off the course.

Much more challenging are the off-road trails in Margaret River, where you can take your pick from various types of terrain in either lush or arid settings. The Navara stays surefooted throughout, the four-wheel drivetrain aided by traction control and the brake limited-slip diff. Torque from the Euro-6 2.3-liter twin-turbodiesel, which has the same peak figures as the Philippine-spec Navara's Euro-4 2.5-liter mill, comes in smoothly via the seven-speed automatic, though not without a bit of a ruckus if you ask for too much, too soon. It's definitely quieter once up to speed and cruising.

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The rear suspension is now also equipped with dynamic rebound dampers, and it cancels out most of the heavy impact from going over boulders and sudden dips. The truck's list of upgrades includes a faster steering ratio as well. Lock-to-lock takes fewer turns than before—a godsend when you have to steer clear of sharp protrusions that could rip the sidewalls open.

It's on narrow, winding back roads, however, that I really feel all the updates coming together. The speed we're going requires confidence and precision behind the wheel—which could be a big ask when you're driving a tall vehicle in a right-hand-drive country.

Not so with the Navara. The ride feels solid without being harsh, the suspension doing a decent job at suppressing body roll during cornering. Though not exactly razor-sharp, the steering feels adequately direct and responsive, and before long, I'm taking sweepers at speed on the wrong side of the road like I've been doing it for years. Ride comfort, as expected, is very good, and despite the steering being heavier than I'm used to, I don't feel fatigued at the end of each day of driving.

There's no word yet on when these updates will reach other markets, but given the cutthroat competition in the midsize-pickup segment, Nissan would have to be giving the matter a lot of consideration. I've noticed the interior could do with a refresh, too—even with new leather seats and the Around View Monitor, it's starting to look dated, and the steering wheel still doesn't come with reach adjustment. Already a solid offering and a popular choice among pickup buyers, with the sales figures to prove it, the Navara still can't afford to slow down and go for a highway cruise, because the race it's in is really an uphill scramble.

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Speaking of which, the literal uphill scrambling is something I've come to enjoy over the course of this trip. After tackling one last trail to a lookout over Yallingup Beach, we're back on the highway to Perth, and I find myself wishing we were on a less straightforward route.

I think the Aussies' penchant for the rough stuff has rubbed off on me. But trust me: if you jump into a pickup and spend a few days exploring this beautiful country, you won't be that keen to get back on the highway, too.

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PHOTO: Nissan Australia
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