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A seismic shift has been happening in the world of pick-up trucks lately – previously the sole refuge of the commercial trader, these hardy workhorses have taken a surprising slice of the private market, as regular Joes begin warming to their trademark rugged style and all-around invincibility.

Since then, manufacturers have started catering to these buyers by outfitting their trucks with stylish looks, a slew of state-of-the-art technology and vastly-improved ride and handling.

Nissan introduced the first of these new-age pick-ups with the unveiling of the Nissan NP300 Navara in June 2014 – it boasted first-in-class features such as LED headlights, keyless entry and start, a seven-speed automatic transmission and multi-link rear suspension. It’s an impressive offering to say the least, as we found out during the media drive in Chiang Mai soon after the reveal.

But the Nissan is late to the party in Malaysia – it was only launched here late last year, and in the ensuing period, rivals like the Mitsubishi Triton and facelifted Ford Ranger have been launched both internationally and in our market. It’s on the back foot, then, but is there still time for the NP300 Navara to claw back ground? We drive it both on and off the beaten track on local soil to find out.

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The NP300 Navara may be late, but at least it’s fashionably late. It wears its sharp suit with pride, with a strong stance accentuated by big haunches. Do remember, however, that only the top-spec VL is the looker here with the LED headlights and 18-inch dual-tone alloys; the others make do with regular halogen reflector units and puny 16-inch wheels (single cab and base double cab E variants are stuck with steel wheels).

Stepping inside, the Navara’s cabin is probably the most car-like on the market, with a dashboard that looks to have been taken off a crossover like the X-Trail. The pleasing first impression doesn’t stand up to touch, however – the plastics are hard and scratchy, if solid and sturdy. The leather upholstery on the seats, steering wheel and gearknob does lift the ambience somewhat, but again, it’s limited to the VL variant only.

Elsewhere, local distributor Edaran Tan Chong Motor (ETCM) offers a TCAT Multimedia Navigation system with a 7.0-inch touchscreen as a RM3,922 option, but we wouldn’t really recommend it – it’s a little sluggish in operation and the graphics with the Windows 8-like tiles look a little aftermarket and incongruous next to the truck’s upmarket aspirations.

If you can stand having a tiny five-inch non-touch colour screen, the factory system on the top V and VL models – familiar to those who own either the Teana 2.0XL or 2.5XV – is a better choice in our book, being quicker and easier to use as well as possessing classier graphics.

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Also derived from the Teana, the “zero gravity-inspired” seats, standard on the double cab models, are a real stand-out here – they are very supple and provide so much support that they make light work of long distance driving. Our only complaint here is the steering wheel which, although tilted at a more upright car-like angle than before, doesn’t adjust high enough, making this truck still a bit awkward to drive for taller drivers.

It’s a slightly different story at the rear, as the seats are too upright and just a little too cramped to get truly comfortable. But the rear air-con vents (the only one in the class) feel like a real luxury here, and are a big plus point in our sweltering climate.

In terms of load capacity, the double cab Navara’s 1,503 mm cargo bay length trails the class leaders, coming in behind the Triton’s 1,520 mm and the Ranger’s 1,549 mm beds. The single cab variant, on the other hand, comes with a no-nonsense 2,348 mm bed, as well as a first-in-class bed step for easier access to cargo.

Under the bonnet sits the familiar YD25DDTi 2.5 litre four-pot diesel with common-rail direct-injection and a variable geometry turbocharger. Derived from the previous D40 Navara, it gets a revised cylinder head to push out 190 PS at 3,600 rpm and 450 Nm of torque at 2,000 rpm – that’s 16 PS and 47 Nm more than its predecessor. Nissan claims an improvement in fuel efficiency of around 11%.

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But (you can start to see a trend here, can’t you?) these outputs are only for the top VL; the rest get just 163 PS and 403 Nm, 11 PS less than before. At the very least, the V and VL models share the same Infiniti-sourced seven-speed torque converter automatic transmission with manual override – the single cab and double cab E variants are available solely with a six-speed manual, while the SE gets the auto as an option. All come with part-time 4×4 as standard, selectable via a rotary knob on-the-fly at speeds of up to 100 km/h.

On the open road, you can definitely feel the drop in output – whereas the VL effortlessly surges ahead (if not quite as effortlessly as the more powerful Ranger 3.2L), the V model tested here takes a little bit more time to get up to speed, with a slightly laggier power delivery at low revs.

The tardiness is compounded by the automatic gearbox, which is hesitant to kickdown – even though the shifts themselves are smooth and swift – and tends to stick to higher ratios in the interest of better fuel efficiency. While the more powerful variant drives around this through its surfeit of torque, the lower-spec models don’t get the facility to do so; the result is that, in this configuration, the Navara simply feels sluggish.

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It also puts out a rather loud engine note at speed – despite having seven ratios to play with, it doesn’t quite settle down in top gear – although does become nicely muted at idle and at low revs. Wind and tyre noise is well-isolated, too, even at high speeds, but it’s still not as hushed as the Ranger.

In a departure for the segment, all double cab models come with multi-link live rear axle with coil springs, a move that promises SUV levels of ride and handling. Despite this, payload is still rated at around a tonne depending on the model, while towing capacity comes in at up to 3.5 tonnes. The more cargo-ready single cab variant sticks to the beefier, more durable leaf spring suspension.

The result is that, with the coil springs, the Navara soaks up undulations relatively well, but it doesn’t feel quite as much of a revelation in its class as Nissan would lead you to believe. At low speeds, the compliance is first-rate, but get up to speed and it actually feels a little too soft to feel properly comfortable, and the body still shimmies about over sharper ruts. What’s more, the rear sinks considerably under heavy loads – not really what you want on a carry-everything pick-up truck.

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The fact of the matter is that the Navara still doesn’t quite have enough control over body movements for it to really stand out against the best of the rest. So while it does have a ride that approaches those of truck-based SUVs, an X-Trail the NP300 still isn’t.

It’s much the same story when it comes to handling, as well. Hustle it through a series of corners and you can feel the potential in the chassis – there’s good grip, decent body control, and it definitely feels a lot more stable and sure-footed than the previous Navara. But it’s just not quite there with the best of them.

The soft suspension makes it roll a little bit, of course, but the main issue here is the steering. The slow rack needs a lot of turns to make any discernible change in direction; this, together with the vague, imprecise action, conspire to make the Navara feel a lot less nimble than it actually is, which is a shame.

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There are other areas where the steering ruins things, too. Despite being electro-hydraulically assisted, the tiller feels much too heavy at low speeds, and it makes the NP300 a slightly cumbersome beast to manoeuvre around town, even though the 12.4 m turning circle is smaller than its predecessor’s. That’s just too bad, as the Nissan’s slim pillars (slimmer than those on the D40) offer a great view out, supported by the rear-view camera that is fitted as standard on the V and VL models.

Last but not least, let’s talk about safety. Dual airbags are standard across the range – par for the course for the segment, but lags behind the top Ranger WildTrak’s six – and while SE, V and VL models come with ABS with EBD and brake assist, stability control, Active Brake Limited Slip (ABLS), Hill Start Assist (HSA) and Hill Descent Control (HDC), the base single cab and double cab E variants don’t even feature ABS.

When all is said and done, the new Nissan NP300 Navara is a sterling entry to the lifestyle pick-up market, despite the slight blemishes that blot its report card. It looks arguably the best in the segment (although you really need the range-topping VL to showcase the Nissan at its best) and feels the most car-like inside, with modern styling, solid build quality and by far the most comfortable seats ever to be fitted on a truck.

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Downsides? Well, the ride, although certainly very good, isn’t quite all Nissan makes it out to be, and the wooly steering makes the Navara feel a bit too much like a traditional pick-up than its new clothes suggest. So, not a revolution, then, but you know what they say: “shoot for the moon – even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” And the NP300 is definitely still a star among its peers.

Sure, there are cheaper pick-ups model-for-model, but the wealth of talent in the new Navara more than makes up for the gulf in price; yet, it’s still affordable enough to distance itself from the technically superior but rather overpriced Ranger. All things considered, it’s the best pick-up on the market.

The only decision for those in the market, then, concerns the variant to go for. And for us – if you can stomach the premium, of course – the more powerful engine and vastly better looks of the VL are well worth the extra outlay over the V. Whichever one you choose, however, it’s safe to say that the NP300 Navara is the new Mother Trucker in town. No doubts about that.