Since its introduction late last year, the Nissan Frontier Navara has garnered many a positive review from the press and made a splash in the sales charts, particularly the 4x4 variants. An interior at par with many compact SUVs, a close-to-perfect blend of common rail diesel direct injection and evenly distributed gearing, a ride that is near SUV level (whether with load at the rear or not) and loading ability that can rival container vans made the pickup segment a closely competitive five-horse race.

But the true test of a pickup's ability is to haul cargo and go anywhere. And where the Navara 4x4 m/t answers these needs - along with creating an SUV ambience that's rare for a beast of burden - with all the willingness of an obedient dog.

The exterior resembles a smaller Nissan Titan (the Navara's bigger pickup sibling), with the very obvious similarities at the front end. The rear is Nissan utility at its best, with the 4x4 variants getting an additional 55 mm of width (the Navara 4x4 is 1850 mm wide), a class-leading 3200 mm wheelbase and 1000 kg worth of payload to increase the bed's loading capability. One day spent with the unit saw the bed tote 80 mahogany plants (all in makeshift plastic bags for pots) and two sacks of coconut shells meant for firewood, delivered all the way to Bulacan for a relative's duck farm. The total weight of the aforementioned items may be just one fourth of the pickup's full payload ability, but nevertheless proved to be dependable. The tailgate is heavy, but loading stuff to the bed is easy due to the rear bumper, which sits low and has plastic inserts with deeply set grooves within it (along with a bedliner) to avoid scratching the body. The only downside to the bed is that there are only four tie-down points to secure cargo. In contrast the Toyota Hilux has six tie-down points, which gives the driver more peace of mind when the pickup -and the load at the rear - moves laterally.

Inside is a welcome change from the drab dark/light gray of the previous Frontier. The predominantly khaki colorway evokes warmth and relaxation, unlike the cold (and purely workhorse attitude) of its predecessor. The interior features may be a bit basic - and even Spartan to some - but the ergonomics and attention to detail are topnotch. For example, the radio has paltry bass replication, but is CD/MP3 ready and the buttons (along with the volume knob) logically placed for easy sight and reach. Lighting between the front visors and the middle of the ceiling make looking for items quick at night. You sit instead of squat in the rear, with an inch and a half of legroom to spare. Storage bins (including cupholders) are numerous, especially the receptacles with raised nubs above the head unit and below the airconditioning controls, which prevent small items from tumbling about. And there are wide provisions for door storage in each door, a detail common to SUVs but rare for pickups. The downsides? For some reason the airconditioning wasn't up to par with the trademark arctic cold Nissan aircon, requiring constant use of the blower two setting even during the night. Also, there's no easily visible door unlock indicator, with the locking tabs having the same colorway as the interior.

The strong YD25DDTi 2.5L can jump off the line better than most passenger cars on tarmac. Waking up the turbo (2,250 rpm) and getting into the powerband (1,900 rpm) is relatively easy due to the fat power curve. Top speed is limited to 180 kph and the 8.85 km/l on four days mixed driving pales in comparison to the 10 km/l attained by this writer with the Navara 4x2 m/t, but a given considering the Navara 4x4's curb weight (1880 kg for the Navara 4x4, 1730 kg for the Navara 4x2).

Getting the power to the ground is a revelation. The balanced six speed m/t allows the engine pace to get a little more breathing room at the top end before reaching its plateau, an advantage in highway emergency lane changes. One can even use fifth gear for acceleration on flat tarmac, but for mountain passes fourth gear (or third, depending on the incline's severity) is suggested. The m/t also has a reverse gear with a shift lock of sorts to prevent accidental launches backwards, requiring a push down on the stick and moving it to the downward rightmost area of the gate.

Then there's the off-road capability. A knob below the aircon vents allows for quick transition between two wheel drive (rear wheel bias) and four wheel drive. The high range (4H) setting moves the transmission setup to a maximum of four gears, while the low range (4L) ability kicks gearing down to second. A mechanical limited slip differential delivers torque to the wheels that need more traction, just as long as there's even a remote semblance of wheel-to-ground contact. Toss in the aforementioned engine performance, an eight-cross member ladder type frame (for added strength and durability), a high 225 mm ground clearance, a tall departure angle and ground clearance and you can wade through hip deep water easily (with no water entering the cabin during river crossings).

Normally pickups aren't exactly paragons of handling decency, but the P1.339 million Navara 4x4 m/t is an exception. There's little body roll, and the ride is similar to its Patrol sibling in comfort, whether the cargo bed has load or not. Traction from the Dunlop AT20 Grandtrek 255/70R16 111s hold up to 80 kph; beyond that is a dramatic transition from understeer to manageable oversteer. Much like any pickup, steering is lumpy (or even numbing) in feedback but light in feel.

Nissan made sure that safety is a plus with the Navara. The brakes grab hard at the slightest prod, the ABS comes in one big push, and handbrake grip is surprisingly strong. The side mirrors reach up to the second lane of sight in latitude, and exterior lighting is bright. The foglights are bright enough to substitute for the headlights during night driving.

Given all of its features, its loading and off-road capabilities, what may be considered as the blueprint of a beast of burden now has upped its game big time.