“Upakan mo! Sige, upak! Upak! Upak!”
Those were the words spoken by the off-road instructor behind me, encouraging me to floor the throttle of this truck for all its worth on the sand, And why not? We've got a wide expanse of sand dunes to play with aboard the newest pick-up truck from Nissan.
We're not on some Middle Eastern desert, however. No, we're on the sand dunes of Paoay in Ilocos Norte aboard a showroom stock truck with standard highway tires, and we're doing 60 klicks an hour and getting airborne on the jumps.
Welcome to our drive of the 2015 Nissan NP300 Navara as we get to live out our deepest Dakar rally fantasies.
Date #2 with the NP300
Actually this is already our second date with the new-generation pick-up truck from Nissan; in July of 2014 we were able to get a taste of what the NP300 Navara would be like during the global press drive in Thailand.
The NP300s present were incredibly impressive even when compared to the leader in local pick-up sales in the Ford Ranger, but we cannot consider that to be a fully relevant review as the roads in Thailand were better compared to ours and the trucks we drove had a different rear suspension set up as well. That's not the case this time.
Just a few weeks after the local launch, Nissan Philippines, Inc. flew what could be the largest contingent of local media to Ilocos Norte to experience what the new generation Navara has to offer customers.
Simply put, the NP300 Navara gives off a very premium look on the outside. Compared to its predecessor and its contemporaries, the Navara shines through in terms of generating an upscale design; something that's very uncommon in a class where designs revolve around words such as boxy, bulky and utility.
The 2015 NP300 Navara has also grown in all respects, as Nissan's new pick-up (VL 4x4 variant) now measures 5255mm long (previous: 5230mm), 1850mm wide (previous: 1795mm) and 1840mm tall (previous: 1780mm). The wheelbase has changed to 3150mm (previous: 3200mm). The Philippine-spec truck bed measures in at 1503mm x 1560mm x 474mm.
Most important, however, is how the NP300 pays far more attention to overall comfort and refinement. No longer are the backseat passengers cramped in terms of leg and knee room; the Navara has loads of it. The front seats are far more comfortable than the previous generation, and the interior design, quality and panel gap consistency of this D23 (2015-onwards NP300 Navara) are leagues ahead of the previous D40 (2005-2014 Navara), though we couldn't really figure out why they backpedalled the code.
By our estimate, the pricing, positioning and speccing of the NP300 were brilliant on the part of Nissan Philippines. All NP300s for the Philippine market are made in Thailand (therefore enjoying the benefits of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement) but come in double cab form only. There are seven variants total with the 4x2 6MT base model retailing for PhP 898,000 (an attractive proposition for fleet customers) and tops out with all the bells, whistles and then some more at PhP 1.490M for the 4x4 VL 7AT.
The most unique snippet about the NP300 Navara is the rear suspension: it's not made up of leaf springs. All local Navaras will get a multi-link rear suspension with coil springs. It's still rigid axle, but no other pick up does rear coil springs in the market; no doubt we're very keen to see how comfortable it is to drive and ride and, more importantly, whether it can handle enough weight on the bed.
Testing for economy, sort of
Nissan Philippines, Inc. had organized a comprehensive test of their latest model in the northern Luzon province of Ilocos Norte utilizing 22 different examples representing nearly all the variants of the NP300 Navara.
Ilocos Norte, based on our previous drives up in that area, has some incredible roads for driving; their provincial highways are smooth and clear, their mountain roads are properly engineered and cambered, and they have some incredible scenery of the coastline from Laoag (the provincial capital) to the beach haven of Pagudpud. They even have the Patapat Viaduct; a 1.3 kilometer-long road that winds 31 meters above the coastline with a breathtaking view of the West Philippine Sea.
Great as those are, however, we were a bit disappointed that the morning drive was declared to be a fuel economy run instead of a chance to enjoy the Navara's driving capabilities and the incredible roads. Of course it's important to determine the fuel economy of any new vehicle in the market but based on experience, these “eco runs” tend to yield ridiculously high digits thanks to participants who are more interested in winning tokens and prizes than generating useful figures for their respective audiences. What's the point in going for extreme economy if you can't achieve it without shutting off the A/C, folding the side mirrors and running with the truck bed open for a supposed gain in “aero efficiency”?
That said, when we were handed the keys to the top spec 2015 NP300 Navara 4x4 VL 7AT, we decided to just treat the eco run normally but sensibly; no special tricks, just casual driving at respectable speeds of 70-90 km/h, comfortable aircon settings and overtaking maneuvers when necessary.
The D23 NP300 Navara actually has a carryover engine from the previous D40 Navara but, at 190 PS and 450 Nm of torque from a 2.5L variable turbo CRDI diesel, we really don't mind that the YD25DDTI wasn't changed. The lower grades of the NP300 get the less powerful version of the same engine, but at 163 PS and 403 Nm of torque, it's not too much of a loss either. What they did put in was a great 7-speed automatic gearbox in this variant, though for those who want three pedals some Navara versions get the 6-speed manual.
Our morning routes would allow us to take the NP300 from Paoay to the Bangui Wind Farm along the coast and back, and it was on these roads that the Navara exhibited the many qualities of a well-sorted SUV; yes, you read that right, it felt like an SUV. Most of the other trucks in the pick-up class have a tendency to bounce around when the bed is unladen; not so in this NP300. The way the rear suspension was engineered has taken the ride, the road holding and handling of the NP300 to new heights for the category.
When we did finish our run, our drive actually yielded a surprising number of 15.7 kilometers for every liter for this 4x4 VL 7AT. Great numbers considering there were three of us in the car and running at typical highway speeds without sacrificing comfort. As for the unrealistic numbers (thanks to the special tricks), two of the Navaras did well north of 20 kilometers to the liter, though the drivers looked mighty sweaty afterwards. Go figure.
After a little break beside the historic church of Paoay, we were then told to head over to the sand dunes at La Paz about 30 minutes away. Only when we arrived and looked out over the horizon did we realize just how vast this site is.
The sand dunes at La Paz encompasses a large expanse of land in Ilocos Norte; approximately 85 square kilometers on the western coast of the province. There are wide, flat portions where we can really max out the speed on the sand, followed by dunes that vary in elevation and height from 10 to 30 meters. There were already paths on the dirt where the locals drove and, by our estimate, it's challenging. There was even a “wall” wherein 4x4's would enter at speed and ride it back down.
The 4x4 variants of the NP300 Navara were prepared to take on the dunes while the 4x2 models can only sit back and watch. Mind you all these trucks are riding on highway tires, so the local off-road experts dropped the pressures to 15 PSI to give them better traction on the loose sand. Driving on sand would be tricky, but the most important thing to remember is to maintain momentum and be smart about applying the throttle and the brakes. The local 4x4 experts then told us that this was to be a speed run around the dunes and not a slow 4x4 course.
Once back in the NP300 4x4 with the tire pressures down to proper levels, I took the truck out. The Navara VL has the traction control system but we shut it off lest it interfere, though the hill descent control system did prove to be quite handy when going down what looked like 30 degree inclines.
When we got on the flatter parts of the course, the instructor just told me to floor the throttle, sending all 190 horsepower to the wheels as the NP300 accelerated to 60-70 km/h in 4x4 high. Those speeds on tarmac are fine, but they're different on sand. We were jumping some of the dunes, pushing flat out whenever we sensibly can and riding the wall of the course, kicking up as much sand as the tires can grab.
This isn't a mere test drive any more. This is now a 4x4 rally track day and the 2015 Nissan NP300 Navara performed flawlessly.
After the dust settles
After all the fun and games, it's clear that Nissan Philippines, Inc. is banking on this new generation 2015 NP300 Navara to boost their numbers to where they're supposed to be.
The Nissan brand hasn't enjoyed the same success as some of their fellow Japanese automotive brands in the Philippines and the reasons are as numerous as can be. Some challenges that their brand have faced are based on historical perceptions of the lack of reliability, durability, low resale value, and the like. Past models simply weren't competitive or exciting enough, and it didn't take more than a visit at their showrooms from a few years ago to realize that. It also didn't help that there were two companies selling their own versions of Nissan in the Philippines, thereby tugging every which way but one.
Now it's different. The new national sales company has new leadership, a new team with fresh ideas and a new generation of products that they're excited bring to the market. The 2015 Nissan NP300 Navara is proof positive of that.
We have yet to fully test the Navara on everyday driving conditions for a full review but, judging from our time behind the wheel, this truck is ready for the challenge.