Just to put it out there: I generally prefer mid or low-grade variants over top-of-the-line models.
The Everest Trend, for instance, would be my pick over the Titanium+ while the Fortuner Q is my preference over the Fortuner LTD. The list goes on, and my reason is simple: a vehicle does not have to have all the bells and whistles to be great.
The question is whether that applies to the 2021 Nissan Navara model range.
About 6 months ago, I was able to take the Navara Pro-4X on a Manila-Ilocos-Manila road trip. With all the other drives in and around those locations, I put about 1200 kilometers on the odometer and can easily say that there were a lot of significant changes and improvements. But that Pro-4X was more lifestyle-oriented with all the extra kit and luxuries, and it was already pushing PHP 1.75 million (plus safeguard duty at the time). What if you just wanted a truck to haul stuff with?
For that, you'll look at the mid-range model, and that's what the Navara VE is.
In the model range, the VE badge is actually new. Nissan never offered a Navara VE when the NP300 D23 debuted in 2015 here; we only had VL, EL Calibre, and the barebones EL. For 2021, Nissan made the range a bit more diverse with Pro-4X, VL, VE Calibre, and EL; so the VE is a mid to somewhat low-grade model.
Understandably, you don't get as many of the exterior niceties as the top-tier variants. The black plastic skid plate on the bumper is still there, but it doesn't have the orange accents anymore. Gone are the accents for the wheel wells (overfenders), the wheels are an inch smaller compared to the VL, and the roof rails are also absent; perhaps that's the only functional part missing.
But walking up to it, I have to say that it doesn't look like a mid-low grade variant. Yes, it has the same general look as the new VL models with the revised front, but at no point did I get the impression I was looking at a mid-low grade model. There's still a lot of chrome particularly with that massive grille and the door handles. I also half-expected the headlights to be halogens, but those are quad LEDs just like the Pro-4X and paired with LED fog lamps too.
The back is actually where a lot of changes are. For starters, the bumper isn't the chrome variety; instead, it's a more integrated piece with the design, and now has a lowered step so it's easier to climb up if needed. One feature I do miss compared to the VL and Pro-4X is the utili-track system, but this still has 4 tie-down points if you need to secure cargo.
But the more major change is with the side silhouette of the bed. The forward part has been raised by about 1 inch, while the rear part where the tailgate is has been raised by about 2. That's why the gap from the top of the taillight to the top of the bed has increased significantly, so much so that I thought Nissan opted for smaller taillights. The reason for this change is because of the tendency of the pre-facelift Navara to look pitched up when loaded with heavy cargo. Altering the side of the bed for 2021 was aimed at addressing just that. There are more, but we'll get to it later.
Inside, the Navara VE hasn't changed much. The dashboard is the same one that was in the pre-facelift model. It doesn't look fantastic or particularly luxurious, but do note that this is a truck; what's more important is functionality. There are cupholders all around (including just in front of the outboard A/C vents), the tray is still there with the 12-volt outlet, and there are pockets all around for storage. More importantly, this dashboard is easy to clean because of its simplicity.
There are some noteworthy upgrades included in this model though. The steering wheel is the new design with the round horn button; no risk of accidentally honking when making a three-point turn (AKA: the maneobra). The seats are still the low-fatigue “Zero-G” type; it may seem like a marketing gimmick, but on long drives (either by time or distance, or both) it does make a difference.
The audio system is the same as the top-tier models and even comes with the same number of speakers. There are even more USB charging ports including one for the back, and a USB-C socket inside the center armrest. But the most welcome upgrade is the dual-zone climate control system; not even my 2020 VL has that feature.
The rear seat actually features a lot of changes. As with the Pro-4X, all Navaras now lose the floor-mount dual cupholders and umbrella holder; it's replaced by a rear center armrest with dual cupholders. Nissan also made some changes to the rear bench seat because the cushion is a bit thicker and the thigh support has also been extended. They also added a retractable headrest for the middle passenger.
There are quite a few features that aren't present in the VE. Being that this Navara is a 4x2, there is no 4x4 selector or hill descent control; so instead of that panel, there's a rather useful extra pocket for storage. The seats are fabric and not leather, and gone is the power adjust for the driver's seat. The electronic fuel lid release is also missing; to refuel, the vehicle just needs to be unlocked and the flap can be opened. This also does not come with the auto-dimming rearview mirror, but that was expected. The feature I miss the most is the proximity key; I often found myself grabbing the driver-side door handle and looking for that button to unlock. Maybe I've been spoiled by all these key-in-your-pocket vehicles.
One aspect that Nissan didn't scrimp on with the Navara VE is safety. Features like ABS and stability control are standard as expected, but what surprised me was the presence of 6 airbags. I would have been content with the dual front set because this is a more affordable model, but it's good to see Nissan didn't un-tick those boxes when speccing the Navara VE.
To be perfectly honest, I also wasn't expecting any Nissan Intelligent Mobility features. No, this doesn't get the blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, the auto-dimming rearview mirror, or the 360 camera system known as the Around View Monitor. But I didn't expect that it would come with a rearview camera (basic, but effective), cruise control (standard, not adaptive), and intelligent auto braking with forward collision warning. That last one was a real surprise because that meant this Navara will brake if it detects the driver didn't react to a stopped vehicle ahead. We tested it on a few stacks of jumbo balikbayan boxes to simulate a small hatchback, and it does work... albeit inconsistently. Maybe we can try it with a bigger simulated obstacle.
The last time I drove a 4x2 Navara was in 2015 with the EL Calibre, but that one had the 163 PS engine; this VE Calibre has 190 PS. But what makes this Navara VE grade unique is that it's the only grade in the range that has different engine specs depending on the transmission. The 6-speed manual version has a 163 PS 2.5L turbodiesel, but this 7-speed auto variant has the more powerful 2.5L with 190 PS and 450 Nm. It's not that uncommon for an automatic model to have a higher torque (e.g. first generation Innova 2.5L AT vs MT) but it's unusual for the same grade to have very different power and torque figures.
Driving the Navara VE around it's obvious that the steering is lighter, but the engine and transmission are really carryovers from the pre-facelift models. The feel is the same particularly at city speeds and the tendency to feel like it's shifting a bit late from third to fourth gear. It's not a big deal, but it could be better. Despite that, it seems like there's an improvement in fuel economy: I was averaging 8.5 km/l in the city without even trying, and about 13.5 on the highway. Normally, I would expect a bit less given the manners of the transmission at low speeds.
The reason behind that has to do with the weight I think. This version is the lightest Navara variant with the more powerful 2.5L engine at 1,910 kilograms. The heaviest variants are the 4x4 models which tip the scales at 2,012 kg for the VL, 2,011 kg for the Pro-4X, and 1,987 kg for the VE 4x4 MT. Even the VL Calibre 4x2 is at 1937 kilos.
That has three potential effects, and clearly, the fuel economy is the first. The second is the acceleration; it just feels sprightlier and lighter on its feet (or tires). But the most important advantage is the enhanced payload: this Navara VE 4x2 AT has the highest payload rating (passengers + cargo) of the entire model range at 1,043 kilograms.
Some who are familiar with the Navara would say that the model isn't optimal for maximum cargo carrying. That's not without merit though as the D23 Navara for the Philippines has never been about all-out cargo-carrying like the Hilux, D-Max, or Strada, and much of that is because of the rear suspension.
In 2015, Nissan Philippines exclusively opted for the all coil spring version of the Navara. This was a clever strategic move because it meant the Navara was the only truck in its class (prior to the Raptor which is a special model) that we can consider truly comfortable for everyday driving even if the bed was empty. Comfort became the Navara's USP or unique selling proposition. But the trade-off is with cargo capacity; coil springs are not as resistant to compression under heavy loads like a set of leaf springs.
But what Nissan did for the updated model is an upgrade in suspension. They sought a compromise and they fitted the new 2021 Navara with dual-rate coil springs for the rear. Basically, it's a two-in-one kind of spring; there's a softer rate to give a bit of comfort. But once that is used up under compression, then the stiffer rate takes over.
On roads with small bumps and imperfections, the Navara is still comfortable but definitely not as “plush” as the 2015-2020 models. There is a bit more resistance on heavier bumps. But the advantage is that once you load up heavier cargo, the rear doesn't squat as much as the older models. That's what the happy compromise is with this Navara.
What I think Nissan has here is a Navara variant that is incredibly value-packed. They did a good job selecting which features they can leave out without downgrading the package to bargain-basement levels because it isn't. At PHP 1,336,000 it's on the high side when compared to direct competitors like the Hilux 2.4G or Ranger XLT 4x2, but I think Nissan successfully differentiated their Navara from their leaf-sprung rivals.
As it stands, I quite like this 2021 Navara VE 4x2 automatic especially as an everyday truck that you can put to work if 4x4 isn't a necessity.