There was a time when the big fight in the bakkie market was in countries such as SA, where we had the Ford Ranger, Isuzu KB, Nissan NP300 and the perennial favourite, the Toyota Hilux.
There are others, too. Over the years some have come and gone and a few have stayed, even though in some cases we have no idea why.
The US also has a large bakkie market but their bakkies are bigger. What has not been a big bakkie market is Europe. Until now. The recent rise in bakkie sales in Europe has driven a flood of new models in the global market.
Mercedes will say its X-Class is aimed strategically at SA and other emerging markets, but it also wants to see them being driven across Europe.
Everyone else is driving a Ford Ranger, the top-selling bakkie in Europe, but manufacturers are taking note of the increase in popularity globally and SA is benefiting. It means we will not only get the new X-Class, but we also have the Fiat Fullback, Mitsubishi Triton, Renault Alaskan and this, the Nissan Navara.
As the Navara is the platform for the Merc and the Renault there are high expectations about the father of the family. It is also a model that SA has had to wait unacceptably long for while markets such as the UK got it, and a model that hopefully will be built here. An announcement on local production has been postponed often, but Nissan SA is still confident it will happen.
We liked the first-generation Navara. It had attitude with its big swathes of chrome, in-your-face facade and luxurious ride by bakkie standards. It also had Bluetooth connectivity in the days when this was only available in luxury sedans.
Since then the market has moved on significantly. Rivals can claim to be offering a luxurious ride, creature comforts and connectivity too, so does the Navara reclaim its place?
It has to be two bakkies in one because while the NP300 Hardbody will continue as a basic model, the Navara is actually the NP300 Navara, effectively replacing both. It has to be workhorse and leisure vehicle and this is probably why the company engineered it with a five-link coil rear suspension package to attempt to provide car-like levels of ride comfort.
No bakkie will ever deliver on that claim, but on-road the Navara does come the closest.
There is still some vibration from the rear when unladen, particularly on those stretches of highway around Johannesburg where the tarmac has rippled, but generally the rear suspension makes things a great deal more comfortable than some of its rivals.
We hassled Nissan to give us details of the new Navara prior to its launch. We followed its progress in international markets and were excited when it finally arrived. It had been hyped up so much we expected it to smash its rivals out of the park and claim the king of bakkies title, but it is not the new ruler of the roost.
The styling is superb and while it looks different to the first generation, it still has much presence. There is enough chrome to make it clear it is a Navara without being too garish and overall it is a vehicle that will look as at home in the city as heading down a farm track. The interior has moved on from the first generation, particularly in the top-spec LE auto we had on test with leather upholstery and all the bells and whistles (priced from R599 900).
It has a touchscreen infotainment screen that can be a little fiddly, but there are also buttons on the multifunction steering wheel. Some of the materials would horrify a Mercedes engineer but generally it achieves a good balance of being practical for work and pleasant for the weekend leisure activities.
Push the start button and the 2.3-litre turbodiesel (140kW at 3 750rpm and 450Nm from 1 500 to 2 500rpm) fires up with a bit of a clatter, which does not properly disappear until you turn the volume up rather high on the infotainment system.
The seven-speed auto box is relatively smooth but it often requires the revs to climb rather high leading to more noise from the engine. Refinement is a subjective matter, but we expected more in this aspect.
As motoring journos we often seek slightly heavier steering, mainly to remind us of the day when we drove old sports cars, but I was surprised to find such heavy steering in the Navara. It made driving round underground car parks an effort, not helped by the feeling the steering wheel is a bit too thin.
The auto lights are so sensitive that we kept flashing motorists in front every time we drove under a bridge.
Where once the Navara was a great bakkie, setting a number of new benchmarks, we found the second generation will have to fight to compete. The Triton beats it on ride comfort and the Ranger beats it on interior and powertrain. Along with the Hilux, they all beat it on price. It will be fascinating to see whether it has to make way for its French and German sons. – Mark Smyth