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Third-generation Navara boasts cheaper running costs and promises crossover-like refinement thanks to a coil sprung rear axle

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This is the latest in a long line of Nissan pick-ups, from a family tree that stretches back 80 years. Things move quickly in the motoring world though, and a class-leading vehicle can soon find itself an also-ran in just a few short months.

Ten years is therefore the motoring equivalent of an age, but despite this, that’s exactly how long the second generation of Nissan Navara had been on sale in the UK.

Would an SUV be as good off-road or be able to haul quite so much cargo? That’s very unlikely, especially for this money

As good as it was, time waits for no man (or 4x4). So with impeccable timing, Nissan has brought its third-generation Navara, the NP300 to the forefront. Considering that there are refreshed versions of the Ford Ranger, Toyota Hilux, Volkswagen Amarok and Mitsubishi L200 all entering the market, the Nissan has some stiff competition. However, this fight for supremacy is only set to intensify with the Renault Alaskan (based on the Navara) and Fiat's Fullback (based on the L200) both priming themselves to enter the battle, while Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot and Citroën are all watching on from the horizon.

Therefore it’s a good thing that Nissan has been thorough with the NP300, then. Although the chassis and 4WD system are modified versions of those found on the second-generation Navara, everything else is new. The engine has predictably been downsized and now comes in at 2.3 litres, a reduction of around 200cc.

Two outputs are available: 158bhp and 187bhp. You might expect Nissan to have simply cranked the boost up to get the additional power, but they’ve been a little more thorough than that, bolting on an extra turbo to create extra grunt. Naturally, both engines feature economy and emissions improvements, too.

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The big news is that the Double Cab ditches the old-school leaf sprung rear end of the previous generation. In its place is an all-new five-link set-up with coil springs that promises greater ride comfort and improved handling. Despite this change, it can still carry over a tonne in the bed and tow 3.5 tonnes.

While King-Cab models still soldier on with cart springs, these will account for less than 10% of projected sales and are likely to be bought purely as workhorses. As the Double Cab is the one that will appeal to private buyers, potentially as an alternative to an SUV, that’s the model we’re looking at here.

We're not going to beat around the bush, the NP300 Navara has the best ride comfort of any unladen pick-up we’ve experienced, although the latest generation Toyota Hilux has run it close. Where the previous-generation Navara (and other leaf-sprung competitors) would become bouncy and unsettled, the new model feels much more like a conventional SUV.

Even over sizeable bumps the rear end soaked up the initial hit before settling back down again almost immediately. Any pogo action you might have expected is notable only by its absence, which makes for much more comfortable progress over a variety of surfaces.

Handling is also much improved. You can carry a surprising amount of speed around bends while even rapid direction changes are completed without fuss. You’d never call it fun - slow steering and the laws of physics see to that - but it really does feel like a very stable vehicle and much better than you’d expect from a pick-up.

Despite this, the NP300 is still more than capable off-road. The Double Cab is 4WD only and comes complete with a low range ’box, hill descent control and excellent axle articulation. If you want to get really serious, a rear diff-lock is on the options list, too. Up a steep and rocky trail, the Navara didn’t even break into a sweat.

While it is a significant step forward over the old model, there are still reminders that the Navara is, in essence, a working vehicle. The rear suspension is a massive improvement, but there’s no getting away from the fact there’s a heavy-duty live axle attached to a ladder frame chassis.

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Go over a vicious bump on one side and you can feel the rear wheels are connected, and you do get the odd shimmy from the body. Ultimately, a conventional SUV with a monocoque structure and less unsprung weight will ride and handle better. It wouldn’t be able to carry over a tonne in the back, though.

Nissan is claiming the interior has been inspired by its crossovers. At first glance, our top-spec Tekna test model appears similar to a Nissan Qashqai or Nissan X-Trail, there are four other trims to choose from including the entry-level Visia, Acenta, Acenta + and N-Connecta. There’s attractive piano black trim, a sprinkling of metal effect detailing plus a touchscreen infotainment system with navigation and around-view monitor – particularly handy on something this big.

The entry-level Visia models come equipped with steel wheels, air conditioning and a six-way manually adjustable driver's seat, while upgrading to Acenta gets you alloy wheels, a range of chrome details, and keyless entry and go. Acenta+ models get 18in alloys, side steps, dual-zone climate control, a reversing camera, and heated, electrically folding mirrors included in the package, while the N-Connecta trim gains a 7.0in touchscreen Nissan Connect infotainment system with sat nav, DAB , Bluetooth streaming capability and smartphone integration. 

The range-topping Tekna spec gets most in the way of luxury appeal in the shape of roof rails, LED headlights, front heated seats, leather upholstery, rear parking sensors, a 360-degree camera and electrically adjustable driver's seat.

Further inspection reveals that although it looks crossover-like, it’s still a commercial vehicle at heart. The leather steering wheel and gear lever are nice enough, but those expecting a sea of soft-touch plastics should look elsewhere. Everything is solid and will no doubt be tough as old boots, but the plastics are all hard to the touch.

This workmanlike quality extends to the engine. You are always aware that there’s a fairly big diesel mill up front, and it gets particularly thrashy above 3000rpm. Performance is respectable with either engine output – it’s no ball of fire, but it’s always able to keep pace with traffic.

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Given the choice, we’d opt for the 187bhp unit simply because you don’t have to work it quite as hard. From a driving perspective, we’d also be tempted by the automatic gearbox; it can be a little sluggish from a standing start and the odd shift could be smoother, but it’s better than the long-throw and occasionally vague manual ’box.

Wearing our sensible trousers, it’s worth knowing that the seven-speed automatic does increase CO2 levels from 169g/km to 183g/km, while economy tumbles from 44.1mpg to 40.3mpg. It should also be noted that the 187bhp lump is the only option should you want an auto or one of the top tier trim levels.

The Navara is far more comfortable than its competition, looks good in the metal (to these eyes at least) and yet is still able to carry or tow big loads, therefore if you are in the market for a pick-up it is the one to go for. But is it a direct competitor to an SUV? That’s a tricky question to answer.

There’s no doubt an SUV would offer cheaper running costs, better rear seat accommodation, should handle even better and probably have a higher level of perceived quality inside.

Not that this will matter that much to many people who are likely to buy a Navara, though; the idea of a do-everything lifestyle vehicle is the appeal here. That the Nissan doesn’t drive exactly like a crossover is no real issue; by narrowing the gap between pick-up and SUV, the Navara has become one of the best pick-ups out there. 

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Nissan Navara NP300 First drives