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Car reviews - Nissan - Navara - ST-X 550 dual-cab utility

Our Opinion

We like
Passenger car-like drive experience. Torque and refinement of engine, high level of equipment, high towing capacity
Room for improvement
Low ground clearance, performance of transmission off-road

2 Nov 2010

NISSAN Australia gave journalists a brief sample of some of its upcoming 4x4 product with a special event at the Mount Cotton Driver Training facility in South-East Queensland.

These were short drives on closed courses within the facility and the stars of the show were the yet-to-be-released Pathfinder Ti 550, Navara ST-X 550 and 2012 Patrol (subject of a separate future models story).

The Pathfinder Ti 550 was driven over a short off-road loop where benefits of its All-Mode 4x4 system could be shown with a teaser of the performance available from the 170kW/550Nm V6 turbo-diesel engine, which is combined with an all-new seven-speed automatic transmission.

On start up the V9X engine gives a noticeable diesel rattle when heard from outside the vehicle yet from within the confines of the leather-clad interior you’d be hard pressed to pick it as a diesel at idle. The interior feels upmarket with quality fittings and chrome highlights around the cabin.

The seats are flat and firm and the controls familiar to anyone who has driven the current R51 Pathie or D40 Navara.

The Pathfinder’s centre row seat is cramped for someone of my 185cm height, and the third row is strictly for children only. The second row seat is also narrower than those found in some of its larger competitors.

The All-Mode 4x4 system is operated via a dial on the console that offers two-wheel drive (rear), full-time all-wheel drive (auto), high-range 4x4 and low-range 4x4. For this circuit, low-range 4x4 was selected.

Pathfinder uses a mix of new and old design with a separate ladder chassis, which it shares with the Navara ute, albeit with full independent suspension.

Over the bumpy track the Pathfinder 550 displayed the jumpiness usually associated with independently suspended vehicles and required a slow and careful pace to avoid bouncing around in the cabin. This also helped to reduce scraping the bumpers and side steps due to the low clearance.

Independent suspension also limits suspension travel and the Pathfinder easily picks up wheels on uneven terrain, relying on the effective electronic traction control to control wheel slip and to maintain forward momentum.

The electronic systems continue with hill decent control, which the 550 almost forces you to use if you don’t want to use the foot brake to control speeds downhill.

Selecting first gear in the transmission while in low-range could normally do this but, even with the transmission selector in the manual ‘tip-shift’ mode, the seven-speed auto wouldn’t hold first gear, shifting up to second and requiring the driver to use the foot brake to maintain a safe pace. At a preset 4mm/h the hill descent control is too fast for really steep terrain.

Ascents only require a glance over the accelerator pedal to make use of the 550Nm of torque available, giving the feeling that there is plenty more on tap if the conditions require it. The diesel engine delivers a dull groan under load as it powers up but it’s never an offensive sound.

Visibility around the vehicle is good which makes it easier to negotiate bush tracks or shopping centre car parks without scratching the bumpers. The reversing camera lets you know what’s behind you, be it a tree, trolley or small child, and vision over the bonnet is reasonably good when cresting rises.

Out of the bush and back in to two-wheel drive, the sealed driveway back to the staging area gave the briefest opportunity to open up the throttle and an indication of the performance potential of the V9X V6.

It feels like there is plenty as the vehicle swiftly accelerated with a surge of mid-range torque taking it to 80km/h, which was all the available space allowed. Again, the engine let out a dull roar but it was refined rather than unbridled.

The Euro feel and performance of the Pathfinder 550 will be appreciated by those looking for a bit of luxury in a seven-seat 4x4 wagon and at $75,990 it will need to deliver on those merits. Early indications are that it does and it’s still priced very competitively with other top-of-the-range models in its class that can’t match its performance.

Previous testing against its 4x4 ute rivals has shown the D40 Navara to be one of the better on-road driving vehicles in this class. Off-road it is hampered by its long wheelbase and low ground clearance but it shines on the tarmac both unladen or with three-quarters of a tonne on the back.

So it was only fitting that our stint in the Navara ST-X 550 was on a tight motorkhana course on a wet skidpan rather than off-road.

The Navara’s cabin is almost identical to the Pathfinder’s with cloth in lieu of leather trim on the seats and different finishes on dash and console trims. Still, the 550 gets chrome highlights and plenty of standard features.

Outside, the Navara appears menacing in shiny black with its contrasting matt-black sports bar, 17-inch alloy wheels and hard tonneau cover with garish red stripes to give a spider-like look

Navara’s 4x4 system is simpler than that in Pathfinder, only offering two-wheel drive (rear), and high- and low-range 4x4. With no full-time 4WD operation available on our test drive, it was left in 2WD on the sealed road course.

The tremendous grunt of the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine is enough to spin the rear tyres and trigger the electronic traction control on launch but once released of the electronics the full force of the V9X can be felt as it pushes you back in the seat. This vehicle will make light work of overtaking at highway speeds, with or without a load on.

For a light truck, the Navara steers and stops precisely and surprises with its agility on the slick wet surface. This is not as you would drive this type of vehicle on the road except in an emergency reaction, and it handled it with control and ease.

At a few points in the slalom section of the course when the speed crept up a bit, the stability control triggered to keep the unladen rear end in check as it wanted to step out on the changes in direction. Once again, this was well controlled and an unobtrusive application of the life-saving electronic safety system.

The drives available to us were hardly enough to adequately test the new vehicles from Nissan but did give the indication that the company is on to something good with the new engine in the Pathfinder and Navara.

Nissan’s competitors can’t come near these vehicles in terms of power and torque, and with maximum towing weights of 3500kg (braked) for Pathfinder and 3000kg for Navara, again these models are at the head of their respective classes.

The towing capacity will particularly make the new Nissan appealing to families that need to tow large boats or caravans but don’t want a large 4x4 wagon. Those who tow fifth-wheel vans have already adopted the D40 Navara as a favourite tow vehicle and the additional power and torque of the 550 will reinforce that opinion.

“With so much capacity for effortless towing, both Navara ST-X 550 and Pathfinder Ti 550 models will become the default choice for customers who think big when it comes to outdoor activities,” said Nissan Australia CEO Dan Thompson.

Only a full test in the future will confirm the impression found here but the new 500 models give Nissan class-leading vehicles on paper and this is part of what it needs to get people in to showrooms if its ambitions to become the top-selling vehicle importer in Australia by 2012 are to come to fruition.

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