With an Australian legacy that reaches back to 1985 and the D21, Nissan’s Navara deserves recognition for its part in building the popularity of utes to the unprecedented levels you’ll find today. Go even further back though and you follow a long bloodline of pick-ups all the way to the Datsun 2225 that had its genesis in 1947.
Unlike some relative newcomers to the market, it’s fair to say Nissan has well and truly earned its place among a growing range of compelling options. But there’s only so far history and heritage will carry a brand in this fearsomely competitive market, and in the eyes of pragmatic Australian buyers, bang-for-buck is king.
That’s precisely why you won’t find the short-lived X-Class in Mercedes showrooms for much longer. The resoundingly good one-tonner was at the very pointy end of the premium ute market with a hefty price to match, and that’s before you got stuck into the options. Even the excellent V6 diesel flagship couldn’t convince enough local buyers to put their hands in their pockets.
A little of the X-Class lives on in its mechanically related sibling you see here – but now, the Nissan Navara has been treated to an update for 2021. And, as before, Nissan says the mid-range ST-X will be the breadwinner of the line-up.
On the outside, a comprehensive facelift has re-sculpted the front and rear ends including LED lighting, a massive grille, new wheel design and, more significantly than plastic mouldings, a new bonnet. It’s a bold new style that strides ahead of the more benign look of its predecessor and into territory that appears inspired by US-market tastes.
New-design wheels measuring 18 inches, or 17-inch for the lower spec variants, a new hero Forged Copper paint colour and Navara-embossed lettering in the tailgate are aesthetic highlights.
Those with a penchant for customising and enhancing their ride will be pleased to learn the range of original Nissan accessories has now been extended to include favourites such as a snorkel, winch-ready roo-bar, wheel-arch flares, underbody protection, towbar and LED light bars – all of which are covered by a five-year guarantee.
Updates are less striking on the inside, where the cabin is very familiar save for a more car-like steering wheel that feels more sporty and ergonomic, along with part-leather upholstered seats. The latter better suits shorter-bodied occupants who want to sit high and appreciate a more commercial vehicle position.
While some unchanged switches reveal the D23 Navara’s age, the large 8.0-inch central touchscreen, complemented by a generous 7.0-inch digital display between the driver’s dials, helps lift the interior for a more contemporary feel.
An off-road monitor is also now available through the central screen and effectively repurposes the 360-degree cameras to show various points about the vehicle when rock-hopping at up to 10km/h. It’s a useful feature and a clever use of existing hardware.
Practically speaking, the 2021 Navara is still a strong contender, even though it’s mechanically almost unchanged from the previous version.
Aside from a larger-diameter rear brake drum and strengthened rear axle, the Navara’s underpinnings carry over, including the choice of seven-speed automatic transmission or six-speed manual bolted to a 2.3-litre four-cylinder diesel.
Only the entry-level single-cab gets a single-turbo version while, with the update, more Navara variants are now treated to the beefier twin-turbo unit that packs 140kW and 450Nm, including all 4x4, king cab and dual cab versions.
Unloaded, the Navara is lively off the line, but the hard-working diesel only comes into its own when loaded up.
With a 325kg brick dumped in the tray, the Navara doesn’t break a sweat, with excellent acceleration and manners out on rural roads.
The slightly uprated braking system offers a firm, confident pedal with progressive feel, especially when loaded. With the load increased to include a combination of tray mass and a trailer totalling 1.1 tonnes, the transmission and engine combination is stoic, muscular and impressive.
If a majority of the Navara’s freight will be on-board, its tray can accommodate now more stuff with a little extra space found during the update. All versions can accommodate at least one tonne in the back, which is an improvement on the previous ST-X’s 930kg max.
While a new towing mode included with the three-setting D-mode driving presets is particularly good, holding gears for less brake-punishing descents and easier ascents, we question the relevance of a Sport mode for a vehicle of this type.
There’s still an unpretentious amount of agricultural noise and rigidity through the Navara’s chassis, alluding to its tough construction, but a revision of sound insulation has added a a touch more refinement to the cabin – especially on faster roads.
Unfortunately, the rear-axle upgrade has not included another retune to try and crack the unloaded coil-spring ride comfort. While the unusual rear suspension layout does offer a degree more unloaded smoothness than some other more utilitarian, err, utes, it’s still not the best – despite a few attempts by Nissan’s chassis engineers.
Loaded however, the tail is well-behaved and stable, matching the Navara’s obedient and confident front end, which is surprisingly pointy and responsive for a one-tonner. If you’re not the most confident hauler of trailers or intend to drag things close to the braked-trailer limit of 3500kg, the update brings trailer sway control.
A decent amount of safety and driver assistance kit is also standard, including autonomous braking and seven airbags across the range, with the ST and above gaining extra features such as lane departure warning and assistance, and blind-spot monitoring.
ANCAP has awarded the Navara with the full five stars available for its crash safety ratings.
While front seat comfort is reasonable, with a decent number of comfort features including heated seats, the Navara cabin is on the smaller side compared with its rivals – and you can feel it in the second row.
Headspace is good, but an upright seatback and limited legroom for taller passengers would wear thin on longer journeys. Perhaps you can distract them for a while with the unique electric central rear window, for a chat with a kelpie in the tub?
Unfortunately, our first (or should that be second) encounter with the updated D23 Navara didn’t include any time away from the open road and, while a blast out of the city with a loaded tray and trailer in tow represented one likely scenario for the model, a significant chunk of its owners will be wanting to tackle some more challenging terrain.
The good news is that there’s nothing about the update that should detrimentally impact its off-road prowess. In previous testing and comparisons, the Navara has not proven itself as class-leading, but it is still a competent and confident all-terrain performer.
Headlining its list of go-anywhere credentials is a rear locking differential which doesn’t disengage front traction control when activated, but off-road ability is limited by relatively short suspension travel and ground clearance when tackling the toughest stuff.
That said, we welcome any excuse to get back behind the wheel of the Navara and take it into the bush, looking for answers and the trail less travelled.
With a growing number of bargain-basement newcomer dual-cabs challenging the established long-standing models, the Navara cannot afford to falter or miss an opportunity to evolve and improve.
Capping off the Navara’s rich assortment of equipment, trail- and worksite-ready mechanicals, and a handsome exterior lift, is attractive range-wide driveaway pricing.
Kicking off from $47,990 for the SL dual-cab or $57,290 for the generously equipped ST-X equivalent, Nissan’s storied ute offers a compelling package and looks set to feature prominently in an Australian landscape for many years to come.