The 2018 Nissan Frontier can be the cheapest new pickup truck in America, undercutting largely because it hasn’t been redesigned since 2004. That’s not the case outside the U.S. though, where the Navara has replaced it. Here’s what America’s missing in Nissan’s latest diesel-powered mid-sized pickup.
(Full Disclosure: Nissan wanted me to drive a Navara so badly that I was given the keys to one personally belonging to the company’s head of communications in Sweden. I used it to move some furniture and other things and returned it with a full tank of diesel.)
What Is It?
At this point, the current style Navara isn’t exactly new anymore, either. This third generation of Nissan’s mid-sizer was introduced outside the U.S. in 2014, at which point many industry observers were pretty much positive we’d see the same design launched in America as the next-gen Frontier so that Nissan could more aggressively compete with the Toyota Tacoma and the then-fresh Chevy Colorado.
But alas, it never happened.
Globally, and especially in Europe, the Navara’s main competitors are the Ford Ranger, Toyota Hilux, and Volkswagen Amarok. But Nissan has leveraged its alliance with Renault and recent partnership with Mercedes-Benz into a platform sharing agreement for the truck, spawning the Renault Alaskan and Mercedes X-Class.
And that platform’s a pretty simple one. The Navara rides on an updated version of the ancient Frontier frame with a fresh body on top, or three fresh bodies if you count the Renault and X-Class.
It’s got Nissan’s recent styling language, a few trim level options from bargain basement for commercial use to fully-loaded for the increasing number of Europeans catching on to the American trend of using pickup trucks as daily drivers.
Specs That Matter
Like the Frontier, the 2018 Navara is an architecturally straightforward body-on-frame pickup truck.
It’s built on the old ladder frame I mentioned earlier, with double wishbone and coil over strut front suspension. King Cab models use a rear leaf spring design while the Double Cab has been updated to a multi-link with coil spring rear suspension, said to greatly improve the ride in everyday settings. It’s got disc brakes in the front and drums in the rear, so underneath, this isn’t a particularly modern vehicle, but it gets the job done.
You can have one with four-wheel drive and low range, or rear-drive only. A six-speed manual is standard across the lineup. A locking rear differential is optional and so is a seven-speed automatic if you order the four-door Double Cab with the higher output engine.
Speaking of engines, the Navara comes with any powertrain you want, as long as it’s a turbocharged diesel four-cylinder.
There are two 2.3-liter engines to choose from: a single-turbo version pushing out about 160 horsepower and 298 lb-ft of torque, and a twin-turbo high-output with a claimed 190 HP and 332 lb-ft. Nissan says that the Navara will do about 6.9 l/100 km, or roughly 34.1 mpg in combined driving, and having spent hundreds of kilometers with the thing, I think you’ll probably see a little less than 30 mpg but that’s pretty respectable for a simplistic work vehicle.
The Double Cab Tekna trim model I tested measures about 17.5 feet long and 6.85 feet wide, and weighed in at a factory-claimed 4,422.5 pounds. Max payload is a respectable 2,269 pounds and the Navara can supposedly tow over 7,700 pounds with the most powerful engine equipped.
If off-roading is your thing, you may be interested to know that the Navara has 8.8 inches of minimum ground clearance and approach, departure, and breakover angles of 32, 25, and 22.2 degrees, respectively. It’ll wade 23.6 inches of water, which isn’t particularly groundbreaking but should be enough for casual off-pavement endeavors.
Low-range, activated electronically by a switch in the dash, should help you get through dirt and steep stuff, too. Along with that locking rear diff which is also toggled by a button.
The Navara is an honest, well-rounded, capable pickup truck. It’s got plenty of options in top spec form including touchscreen navigation, a solid Bose stereo system, enough driver assist technologies to help you out but not annoy you, a handy-dandy 360-degree camera system, and decent space for four passengers and a decent sized cargo bed.
I’m also a fan of the updated suspension, which gives the Navara pleasant everyday drivability over leaf sprung trucks.
The truck handles other aspects of everyday driving with ease too, proving to be easily parkable even in tighter Swedish cities, and is plenty efficient on the highway, squeezing about 500 miles out of a single tank. All of the technologies are very user friendly, if a bit dated, and I think it’s a pretty handsome-looking truck, though I got some pushback on that opinion from friends and colleagues.
The Navara wears Nissan’s V-shaped grille nicely, and it’s refreshing to see a pickup with a bit of curvature these days. The paint job you see on my tester here–curiously named “Savannah Yellow” despite its obvious orange hue–looks awesome in the sun and sets this truck apart for the onslaught of gray, black, and white vehicles sweeping the planet.
Also, the Navara’s payload and towing capacities make it very competitive, even among American offerings like the Chevy Colorado, GMC Canyon and Toyota Tacoma, besting all of the above even when the GM twins are equipped with their diesel engine option.
Finally, the Navara’s steering is tight and nicely-weighted, and the ride is comfortable, composed, and quiet, especially with a cabin full of people and a bed full of stuff.
The infotainment system is easy to use because it’s so dated. But the old ways are not always necessarily best, as this somewhat small touchscreen lacks awesome features like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. What’s more, rear passengers will find themselves a bit uncomfortable after a while thanks to the extremely upright seating. Actually, all seats in the Navara could stand to pack in a bit more cushioning, as they’re pretty hard on the old kiester after a few hours on the road.
While the diesel makes great torque at lower speeds, it’s a little breathless when asked to pass on the highway, laboring to scoot the somewhat hefty truck along past slower traffic. The seven-speed automatic isn’t the most responsive transmission, and I know it’s cliche to say on Jalopnik at this point, but I would have preferred the manual to get the most out of the diesel’s power band. Also, with just myself on board and nothing in the rear, the ride is pretty bouncy, more so than the Colorado and Euro market Ranger, but similar to the Tacoma in ride quality. The Chevy and Ford feel more buttoned-down, largely to do with their superior build quality.
Which leads me to something you probably could have guessed: Nissan still hasn’t quite figured out interior appointments. There’s just too much hard plastic throughout the cabin, and not necessarily the good, tough kind either. A bit more soft-touch on parts of the dash and doors would go a long way, especially on a top trim pickup that many families are starting to choose as their primary vehicle.
In Sweden, the Navara starts at 240,990 crowns, which converts to about $27,123. Bear in mind that the Swedish crown is a lot stronger now versus the dollar than it’s been historically, and vehicles in Europe are more expensive overall than here. The Double Cab Tekna model I tested starts at the equivalent of $32,413, which would make this truck pretty attractive among its other fully-loaded competitors, even in the U.S.
Abroad, the Navara doesn’t represent the lowest possible MSRP kind of value that the Frontier does Stateside, but rather aims right at the heart of the market, undercutting more luxurious options like the Amarok but starting a bit higher than the Ranger and Hilux and their commercial-minded base offerings.
The Navara’s specs make it instantly competitive among a still-thin midsize truck market, and the fact that it’s a Nissan makes it appealing to both general consumers and diehard fans of Japanese midsize pickups alike. I hope this means the next-generation Frontier will be a hell of a truck, otherwise, Nissan should face some questions about missed opportunities.
Right now, the Navara is still built in Thailand, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, and China, making it subject to the absurd 25 percent “Chicken Tax” that affects imported light trucks if it were to come to the States as an import. It’s not unreasonable to think that Nissan could have set up its Canton, Mississippi plant that currently builds the Frontier to build the Navara, and apparently they plan to build the next Frontier there as well. With Trump’s trade war threats and the company already slashing production in the U.S. because of slumping sales though, things feel a little less certain.
Missed opportunities aside, the bottom line is that the Navara is a very solid, very capable midsize truck that might not be worth lusting over but would undoubtedly woo a lot of buyers if it were readily available here. The American pickup die-hards might be inclined to choose the Colorado, Canyon, or “new” Ranger over a Nissan, but small Japanese trucks still clearly have a huge following, and I can’t help but think that many Frontier buyers in 2018 wouldn’t mind a slightly more modern, more capable ride for not much more money.
I know hardcore truck buyers will likely disagree with me on this because the Frontier still represents the old-school, hard-working, cheap honest pickup you can still get with a warranty, but the reality is that most new truck buyers in 2018 are going for higher trim levels and more options.
I liked the Navara quite a bit, and while I’d probably still choose a Colorado or Ranger over one, it definitely wouldn’t be an easy decision. Bringing it to the States years ago, however, seems like it should have been a very easy one.