Nissan Navara Rally Raid

Test venue: Shropshire

Nissan Europe NV returned to the gruelling Paris-Dakar Rally in 2000 by supporting the exploits of three cars built by Normandy-based Team Dessoude in the 21-day African classic. The team achieved moderate success in the T1 class with Stéphane Peterhansel the following year, but the Japanese company's plan was a full factory team and this emerged for the first time in 2003, when Finland's Ari Vatanen joined South Africa's Giniel de Villiers in a pair of South African-built Nissan Navara Pick-Ups.

The cars lacked development and struggled to beat the Mitsubishis, but Nissan made a corporate decision to back a full programme of events in a revised Pick-Up and a new version went on to win the 2003 Rally of Morocco with De Villiers at the wheel.

Team management shifted from South Africa to Europe and Frenchman Gilles Martineau replaced Alec Poole as head of the new operation, which planned to take the 2004 Dakar Rally by storm. De Villiers and Vatanen were joined by the 1995 World Rally Champion Colin McRae, himself a winner of 25 WRC rallies, and the scene was set for the Navara Pick-Up to perform at the highest level against world class opposition.

The car was competitive when it was reliable. McRae set a couple of fastest stage times, but the Pick-Up lacked development and suffered numerous transmission difficulties. Vatanen and McRae lost masses of time in deepest Mauritania and Vatanen's ordeal ended when he clouted a tree late on. McRae and De Villiers (seventh) reached the finish and their exploits received numerous newspaper column inches and television footage across the globe. It had not been the result which Nissan had expected, but the company decided to introduce a Rally-Raid version of the Navara Pick-Up on the back of the Dakar 'success'.

Mitsubishi's L200 is the biggest selling Pick-Up in the UK market, but the Nissan Pick-Up is a well sorted and desirable workhorse. Models start with the entry level 4x2 Single Cab and include the 4x4 Single Cab, King Cab 4x4 and Double Cab 4x4. As they are classed as commercial vehicles, all models are eligible for VAT refunds and generous income tax exemptions.

The Rally-Raid 4x4 Double Cab I tested around Shropshire and rural Leicestershire in mid-July is powered by Nissan's torquey M-Fire 2.5-litre, turbocharged and intercooled diesel engine. It delivers a mere 133 bhp, but the massive 304 Nm of torque as low down as 2000 rpm gives you instant acceleration and power in all driving conditions. The Rally-Raid will happily press on across the country at illegal speeds, but it does run out of steam around 90 mph and feels strained above this level.

One of my complaints about the early Pick-Up I tested around Commonwealth Games time in August 2002 was the choppy suspension and uncomfortable ride for front-seat and rear seat passengers. It is impossible to alleviate much of this in a commercial vehicle of this nature, but the revised suspension on the Rally-Raid is at home on bumpy roads and offers quite a refined drive on dual-carriageways and A-roads in dry conditions.

Don't push the Pick-Up too hard on a wet or greasy road without switching to the '4H' four-wheel drive option. The relatively long wheelbase and lack of weight in the rear end gives the Pick-Up an almost pendulum-like feel to it. The tail will happily step out of line on a greasy traffic roundabout and caution is the order of the day in damp conditions. The turning circle is poor, as you would expect from a four-wheel drive vehicle of its type, but it has got considerable off-road prowess and towing ability (3000 kgs) when the need arises.

The new Rally-Raid model is available in three colours - black, silver and the Dakar Rally-type flame red, which adorned the test car I drove. Coupled with the Colombia, NISMO and BF Goodrich decals, it does look like a competition car on the road to the unknowing onlooker. Although to those in the know it is perfectly obvious that this four-cylinder model is miles apart from the V6 petrol-engined beast with tyre deflation systems, modified shell and complex transmission, which McRae thrashed across the Sahara in January.

Rally-Raid for the road is fitted with 16-inch alloy wheels, wider 262-section tyres, tinted rear glass and a CD autochanger. It is equipped with a stylish silver and black trim and exterior motorsport logos. There's no doubting that Navara Rally-Raid is an eye-catching piece of kit and it drives extremely well, but it is as close to the original Dakar Rally Pick-Up, as a Peugeot 205 GTI was to the Peugeot 205 T16 in the mid-1980s.

The revised Navara is covered by all Nissan's usual warranties and falls into insurance group 12. You can also opt for a myriad of bolt-on extras, although the standard specification is impressive, with power-assisted steering, air conditioning, limited-slip differential, ABS and electric windows fitted as standard. On-the-road prices for the Single Cab 4x2 start at £11,000, rising to £16,290 for the 4x4 Rally-Raid and £17,990 for the range-topping 4x4 Outlaw.


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