Ironman 4×4 2015 Nissan NP300 Navara VL review
Robert Pepper goes off-road in Australia in a thai-spec 2015 Nissan NP300 Navara modified by Ironman 4×4. has it been worth the wait?
[ updated 23/05/2015 with information on the coil sprung model ]
THE UTE MARKET just keeps getting hotter, so does Nissan’s 2015 Navara NP300 stand a chance?
There’s sixteen or so utes on the Australian market right now, with the exact number depending on the day of the month and whether you count conversion companies. Either which way you look at it, the market is competitive and nowhere more than in the Big Eight of, in order of sales success – Toyota Hilux, Ford Ranger/ Mazda BT-50, Mitusbishi Triton, Holden Colorado/Isuzu D-Max, Nissan Navara and Volkswagen Amarok – more on that in our full analysis of the 2015 ute market.
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The order of the vehicles is interesting. The Volkswagen Amarok is last of the Big Eight despite being very well regarded by road testers, mainly because many buyers are still stuck in the dark ages and consider that only milk comes in two litres, certainly not ute engines. The other low-seller is the Navara, which hasn’t had the best of runs of late. Tellingly, Nissan decided to sell the previous model D22 alongside the current model D40, and you don’t do that if the new model is better than the old in every way. As another example, consider again from Nissan the Y61 (GU) Patrol being sold next to the Y62, but that’s another story entirely (full offroad test of the Y62 on the way). By the way, the NP300 will replace both D40 and D22. Anyway, the Navara D40 is a decent on-road drive, but offroad it trails behind its peers, and frankly the species known as the dualcab ute is not the last word in offroad performance to begin with. The D40 lacked clearance, suffered with indifferent traction control, and was fitted with a gearbox modelled on a cat – did whatever the hell it wanted regardless of owner input. For example, descending a steep hill, it’d just shift up to second because, well, who knows, and you couldn’t even manage a second-gear start in low range so good luck controlling traction in the slop. I likened it and the Pathfinder R51 to soft-roaders that just happened to have low range. Now with the new Pathfinder going after the medium-sized soft-roader market, and the release of the Y62 Patrol (offroad test here) which didn’t exactly win fans in the Aussie offroad community, many offroading Nissan owners have been crying into their beer. The bright new hope is the Navara, which should be the standard bearer to salvage the fan’s off-road pride. There’s a lot riding on the NP300, so much so that Nissan has even sponsored a V8 Supercars round to promote the thing – the truck there will be a dualcab ST-X coiler. While the Australian-spec 2015 NP300 Navara will be launched next week, and we’ll have a review online shortly afterwards, Practical Motoring was lucky enough to inspect, photograph and test drive one ahead of the Australian launch. We want to make it clear that the NP300 Navara we drove was a Thai-spec model belonging to Ironman 4X4. There are quite a few differences to the Australian-spec ute, not least off which is the engine and trim, but there’s enough common ground to learn what we needed to learn and best of all, we drove it on our own terms, in properly tough terrain, not the easy “off-road” courses you get on press launches. Now why would Ironman be bringing a vehicle to Australia ahead of the launch? Pretty simple really, they wanted to get a head start on making accessories for it so the gear is ready to purchase same time as the Nissan owners take delivery of their new vehicle. And we may as well cover off a popular myth about aftermarket companies while we’re here. Every so often someone whinges that even though they’ve got 50 of their cyber-mates on some forum to say they’ll buy a bullbar – really, truly, bazoffroader72 sent me an private message – no company seems interested in making one, because Big Aftermarket Company hates/has a problem with their particular vehicle. The real story is a lot less exciting and is a simple commercial decision. With vehicles like one of the Big Eight utes the aftermarket knows that not only will a lot be sold, but a high percentage of those sold will be kitted out. So it makes sense to develop gear for those vehicles, and remember these days even something ostensibly simple like a bulbar is a major engineering effort due to the complexity of modern vehicles and road regulations. And big as they are, the aftermarket companies still have limited design capability, and that’s got to go on the highest volume gear. So, onto the NP300, which is definitely going to sell well. Nissan has, sensibly, decided to offer something a bit different and they’ve actually made the NP300 more or less same size as the D40, in contrast to most other vehicles which get bigger with every new release. The NP300 has a 50mm shorter wheelbase (but the same length), a tighter turning circle, and weighs around 70kg less, looking like under two tonnes going off the Thai spec, which is quite decent for a ute these days. There will be a six-speed manual, and seven-speed auto. Four Aussie grade specs will be offered; DX, RX, ST, and ST-X, and all diesel models will tow 3500kg braked. Single, king (extra) and dual cab bodies are available. The engine will be a twin-turbo 140kW / 450Nm unit (code YS23DDTT) for ST and ST-X, with a lower-spec 120kW single-turbo diesel for lesser trims, and a 122kW petrol. The much-loved 550Nm powerplant from the D40 is gone, thanks to emissions regulations, so “Australia’s Most Powerful Tradie” is no longer going to be a Nissan. Yes, the power figures aren’t class leading, but don’t write the truck off on that basis alone. It’s lighter than say a Ranger, and has an extra gear ratio. In 2015, you cannot look at a car’s spec sheet and deduce its performance from stats alone. The big news, and the real differentiator in the market is the coil rear end, available on some models, specifically the top-end ST-X dualcab. We’ve not driven it yet, but we know an independent car development expert has and he says it is “by far the most comfortable suspension in any dualcab to date, beautifully composed and smooth over all road surfaces. The front suspension now becomes the weaker link in terms of handling, some soft floaty bounce over larger humps such as railway lines etc.” However, the rear suspension is on its bumpstops with around 550-600kg in the tray. Expect that to be rectified by the aftermarket in short order. There’s several reasons coil suspension handles better to leaf suspension. One is because there’s less tendency for the axle to move around relative to the chassis, a problem that is becoming increasingly an issue as engine power increases along with vehicle weight. That is by the way why most utes have their shocks mounted asymmetrically. Another is that coils compress and extend very freely so the damping can be controlled by the shock absorber, whereas leaves have quite an element of inherent damping as the leaves rub together. In other respects the NP300 holds true to the usual Big Eight formula of part-time 4WD and drum brakes on the rear. The top-spec model will get a rear locking differential. Off-road users will of course be wanting to further improve their Navaras with a range of gear, so it was appropriate that Ironman’s test vehicle came with a fair bit of kit on it already. Starting from the front there’s the new style of bullbar, and what’s not obvious is how it’s designed. The winch fits via a cradle directly to the chassis, and then the bar bolts on over the top. This is a huge advantage when fitting as it means a lot less weight to lift. It also means the winch doesn’t stress the crush cans fitted between the bar and chassis which are necessary in order to maintain airbag compatibility. Another design feature is that there’s no need to cut the bumper, which makes fitting easier, tidier and cheaper as well as leaving an easy option to return to stock. This might – my speculation here – pave the way for removeable accessories. There’s little improvements too, such as a slot for a radio antenna cable to run through, and the wiring is plug-and-play, and waterproofed. The siderails are airbag compatible, but note they’re not rocksliders. You choose, and this isn’t specific to Ironman – either you have sidesteps that work with the airbags, or rocksliders that protect the body and won’t work with your airbags, possibly to your detriment as airbags going off early or late could well cause injury that wouldn’t happen had you had no airbags at all. The rear bar is a new design, again with plug-and-play wiring, a full 3500kg tow rating, improved departure angle and if anything touches it’s just smooth barwork, nothing to catch. Should you need it there’s twin recovery points. At the front Ironman are working on auxiliary recovery points to match. The canopy is the standard Ironman unit, and there’s a snorkel on the way too. The suspension is the latest big-bore Foam Cell Pro, same as I run my Ranger so I had a point of comparison. The lift is the usual 50mm or so, not much more you can do on independent-front utes. That’s the specs and the gear, now onto the car. Ironman’s ute was a Thai-spec model in their VL trim. There’s little comparison between Aussie and Thai trim levels – the Thais miss out on side airbags, their satnav is out of the ‘90s and even the engine is different, they get a 2.5L 140kw / 450Nm where we get a 2.3L of the same outputs. But there’s enough the same to form some opinions, starting with the inside. The Navara hurts a bit for storage space, with a tiny glovebox and centre console. Plenty of drinks holders though, even neat pop-out ones, and room under the front seats to store gear. The front looks good, nice and modern, with an easy to use centre dash display showing information like range and fuel consumption.
Moving to the back and here we have bad news. Navaras have never been known for great second-row space and the NP300 continues that tradition, so if adults are going to occupy the second set of seats it’s best to look elsewhere or take up yoga.
You can lift up the bench second row to reveal two smallish storage compartments, which on this model were just holes in the trim leading into the body panels, so easy to lose small items, I’m not keen on trying to fish out a shackle from wherever its ended up. Even worse, it wasn’t possible to pull the rear bench seatback down for extra gear storage. The storage under the front seats is good though, room for a bit of kit there. There are two drinks holders…on the floor in the centre. Not the best placement, a misplaced boot is going to break them let alone laying a hi-lift or Maxtrax on top.
On the road and the Navara drives very much like its current peers – decently powerful but certainly not with the oomph of the D40 550. My Ironman driver was product development specialist Greg Smith who has a company 550, and he assured me it “leaves the NP300 for dead” as you’d expect from a glance at the power and torque figures. Otherwise, the NP300 is helped by seven gearbox ratios, more than most which are only six, and the automatic is intelligent too, always seeming to be in the right gear as well as making very quick and smooth changes. Handling is on par for the class, it’s no sportscar but you can make quick progress if you work at it. Steering is a bit slow and lack-lustre though, perhaps a step backwards from the D40 550, and not up with Amarok levels. A niggle is that it’s not at all comfy to rest your right arm somewhere when in cruise mode, which is not going to be popular with 99% of Aussie blokes. On the upside, the cruise control itself is easy to use, digital, and calibrated to 1km/h. We tested it downhill and yes, Nissan will save your license as the truck keeps its speed down a slope. All models will have Bluetooth, but not all will have Bluetooth audio streaming which these days is a serious omission. Nissan has gone with interesting styling for the bonnet. It’s a clamshell bonnet, with pronounced bulges at the sides. You see this sort of thing on sportscars, not utes, but it’s not a bad look, makes it a bit different and has some practical value with helping position the front wheels over rough ground, so overall I like it. And in the tradition of the Patrol, there’s a lot of bonnet to look at too! The tailgate has an interesting flat edge to it. It’s actually going to be really handy to rest a cup or a tool on, so good thinking by Nissan. The tailgate latch is one handle (hello, Hiliux!), and in higher-spec Aussie models will incorporate a reversing camera, which you can see in the image below to the left of the silver handle. Dustproofing the tailgate looks to be the usual exercise in frustration.
Payload will vary from 880kg to 1112kg. The tub size on the dualcab is 1503 x 1560 x 474. The Thai ute has no tiedowns in the tub, but certainly the Aussie ST-Xs will have. Safety had better be on track for 5 star as that’s the minimum these days, and 7 airbags should help. Into low range work and let’s get the criticism out the way first – gearing. The NP300 still doesn’t let you pull away in second gear, and the gearbox remains a bit too keen to do what it wants not what you want. It is better than the D40 though. But the gearing’s not all bad. Retardation in first low is good (1:45 crawl ratio or so), and there’s hill descent control too which is reasonably effective if not class leading, although that won’t be available on all Aussie spec NP300s.
The gearbox is much less of a problem before, because the NP300 now has improved clearance, and also hugely improved traction control which kicks in early, and very effectively, hammering another nail in the coffin of the cross-axle locking differential (yes, send me hatemail). The slightly shorter wheelbase (by 50mm) helps with ramp angle, and this car had Ironman’s Foam Cell Pro suspension which I’ve noted is pretty good at low-speed rough work like the rocks we drove. The vehicle also had ATX aftermarket wheels which are slightly greater offset than stock (making the track wider), and slightly taller diameter tyres.
All up, this has transformed the NP300 into something of an off-road weapon by ute standards. You learn a lot when watching a vehicle from outside, and where I was expecting the NP300 to struggle – because my Ranger, equipped with the same suspension, wheels and tyres – would have done, the NP300 cruised. Did I just say the NP300 is better off-road than the Ranger? I did. Making fans with this article, aren’t I? Well, the traction control certainly is better calibrated and that goes a long way towards off-road ability these days. The Ranger has a rear cross-axle locker, but like most factory options using it disables electronic traction control on the front axle so it’s not the advantage it seems. The ST and ST-X NP300s will get a rear locker, and that will NOT disable traction control on the front axle. Good work, Nissan! The NP300’s power delivery is pretty good, allowing you to inch over obstalces. That was with the Thai-spec 2.5L motor, not our own 2.3L, but the tune is likely to be the same.
A couple of times when I was out of the car taking photos, Greg tooted the horn, then apologised as it was an accident. I gave him some stick, but had to eat my words when it was my turn to drive as I did the same. So I’m blaming Nissan for making the horn too easy to press when the steering wheel is turned! As a further point of reference, Greg had just been out for a week in the Victorian High Country testing Ironman products, and they brought along his D40 550. He tells me the difference was stark, and where the 550 struggled the NP300 just eased up and over. Good on Nissan, and their fans can now start to hold their heads a bit higher. To sum up, the NP300 Navara is looking like a decent option if you want a modern ute that is good offroad and weighs a bit less than the average, which with its improved engine and seven ratios should translate into decent fuel economy. Bear in the mind the limited second row space, and what looks to be not very much room to stash recovery gear and the like in the cabin. Overall, the NP300 probably isn’t enough to challenge the acknowledged market leaders of Ranger/BT-50 and Amarok (especially with the 2015 Ranger update on the way), but it will carve out its own niche. It looks like a significant improvement all round on the D40 and it’s on sale… right now. Check back next week as we attend the Australian launch. Thanks to Ironman 4X4 for the use of their NP300 test car. Read our roadtest of the Aussie version, and technical analysis of the NP300.