Nissan 4×4 buyer’s guide

Nissan has a wide range of 4x4s but most models always tend to stay under the shadow of Toyota, both being pure-blooded Japanese designs. This is unfortunate because some models are in many ways superior. I believe styling shortcomings have been Nissan’s downfall, in many cases much less than its engineering.


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Patrol SW

The current Patrol is fourth in a generation of Nissan’s dual purpose 4×4 station-wagons. Since the beginning they have had a reputation for reliability and strength. Early Patrols were called ‘Safari’ in some countries, immensely tough but suffering a little through lack of ground clearance between the front and rear axles. All have part-time four-wheel drive and the suspension is basic leaf springs all round with live axles.
The second generation Patrol, introduced in 1994, was the biggest vehicle in its class. Coil springs were introduced while the live axles were maintained together with part-time 4WD and a rear axle diff lock was introduced. Its over abundance of chrome and almost grotesque styling found it few friends.
Introduced in 2000 the 3rd generation Patrol is a refinement in every respect, particularly cosmetically, and now the vehicle has broad appeal. To evaluate its performance it should be compared to the Toyota Land Cruiser 80 and 105-series where it is closely matched off-road but on-road it falls short in a number of ways, the most significant being the ride. The suspension has the tendency to feel a little brittle as if the tyres are over-inflated, although this has been improved with later models. After market springs and shocks solves the Patrol ride issues completely. On-road the turbo-diesel engine has plenty of power and hauls this large vehicle along at respectable cruising speeds, performing about half way between the Land Cruiser’s 4,5 petrol and 4,2 diesel engines. The big-petrol engined Patrol feels very similar to the similar-engined Land Cruiser and its tsunami-like fuel consumption is a match too. One thing the Patrol does have over the diesel Cruiser GX though, is its diesel engine which is turbo-charged and powerful.
Seating, ergonomics and space utilization are an improvement over its predecessor and in terms of extras it is good value. Due mainly to the requirements of the UN, the all-round solid axles and coil springs, an unquestioned advantage in the rough, are retained. I am not sure why more serious off-roaders don’t ride the Patrol: it is immensely strong, ugly (but then so is a Land Cruiser) practical and totally at home on rough road expeditions.

nissan 4x4 buyers guide

1951 Nissan Patrol



nissan patrol

he perfect example of a good vehicle spoilt by a styling department drinking way too much coffee.

4x4 nissan buyers guide

Less coffee. 2003

nissan patrol

2007 model, one of the few hard-core 4x4s that gets better with every version.

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Patrol Pickup
At first glance, this seems a great idea: The roomy, comfortable cab of the Patrol spliced to a rudimentary and utilitarian pick-up rear end. The cab is just like the basic Patrol with plain, vinyl seats, basic instrumentation; ideal for the farmer and miner or off-road explorer. It looks as if it is trying to capture the Land Cruiser pick-up market share, but it hasn’t a hope until it offers more; like more comfort and air-bags. Even so, not much need be said about the Patrol’s excellent reputation. The engine is a non-turbo-charged 4.2-litre diesel mated to a two-speed transfer box. Underneath there is a rear limited slip diff, front coil springs and unfortunately, rear leaf springs that turns the Patrol’s car-like ride into that of an ordinary pick-up, which is a real pity. No locking differentials are offered. Axle articulation is good and solid axles all-around means that its a very robust off-roader, ideal for modification and personalising. It’s not selling particularly well in South Africa, due I am sure to its total lack of refinement.

Nissan safari

The predecessor to the Patrol pickup was a vehicle sometimes called a Safari and at others, Patrol.




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On first seeing the Terrano, particularly the short wheelbase version, one can be excused for making comparisons with vehicles like the Freelander or RAV4. But this is wrong, because the Terrano is a true off-roader. It has part-time four-wheel drive, low range but without any axle diff locks and its approach, break-over and departure angles are good. Wheel travel is fair and the suspension is on the stiff side. I pushed the suspension by driving over an axle twister a little too fast and it didn’t complain a bit. The interior is pleasant; the high driving position is just right and packing space is generous, even in the SWB version. On the downside the Terrano is a light duty vehicle and those used for rough trips soon develop a hundred annoying rattles and the vehicle soon feels like its falling to bits. The Terrano is no longer built.


nissan buyers guide

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Pathfinder is a large, boxy station-wagon and should be compared with Prado, Discovery and Pajero. It competes well in all theaters of operation until it hits any traction-limiting surface, particularly if the surface undulates a lot, where falls short by quite a bit. The overseas press has rarely taken a liking to the Pathfinder, stating that its ride is vague among other things, but here I have to disagree. The South African spec Pathfinder, especially on the long run, is a real pleasure, the 3.0 turbo-diesel pulling well and without excessive fuel use. It carries a load reasonably well, but sags its rear end long before the max payload is reached. It’s well equipped for long distance travel with cruise-control and really comfortable seating, plenty of room in the back and a square-shaped load-bay ideal for packing lots of stuff. The dashboard lets down the interior in a big way, the switches and vents are flimsy and feel like they might come off in your hands. But where the Pathfinder is a real disappointment is when it ventures off-road; it just hasn’t got enough clearance, and on undulating terrain doesn’t keep what little it has. In this regard it is way behind its competitors. There is an additional, some may consider trivial reason why personally I would never want to own a Pathfinder: During my week-long test a number of us impaled our skulls on the absurdly-designed and probably overlooked, sharp, v-shaped edges of the upper tailgate. It is more than just an annoying design oversight… its a very painful and annoying design oversight.

nissan pathfinder buyers guide

nissan navara


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Hardbody Pick-Ups

In the early eighties Nissan launched the Tracker, a 4×4 derivative of their 4×2 pick-up. The Tracker was very much a conversion, a vehicle that performed reasonably well but fell way behind purpose-built 4×4 pick-ups such as the Hilux. In 1989 Nissan’s new Sani became the most popular Nissan 4×4, a station-wagon built partly of fibreglass, and based on the newly released Hardbody body and chassis. Hardbodys have part-time four-wheel drive, manual free-wheel front hubs and were built with two petrol engine options including a 3-litre V6.
All Hardbodys have a solid rear axle on leaf springs and independent front double wishbone torsion bar suspension. In late 1995 the front suspension was given a major revision with the addition of dual front coil springs and shock absorbers designed primarily to improve performance in rough conditions, a layout which was a big improvement
The 2007 line-up comprised 3,3-litre V6 petrol, 3.0-litre turbo-diesel, 2,4-litre petrol and 2,7-litre petrol. Nissan’s engines have an excellent reputation for reliability and of these the 3.0 turbo-diesel is the best choice for a long distance cruiser into the outback.

My question is, why are Nissan falling so far behind all the other manufacturers? Take a look at them all: Ford, Isuzu and Toyota are building class leading pick-ups while Nissan continues selling a dated, almost old fashioned design with dated styling and performance, years behind the market. If I was looking for a pickup, Nissan is one of the last places I would shop.

nissan tracker

1984 Nissan Tracker


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The Nissan Sani originated in South Africa in 1983 as a result of Chris Holden’s dream to build a locally produced affordable four-wheel drive station-wagon. The first vehicles were rather rudimentary, the prototype built in a 3×6-metre garage. In 1986 James Bently joined Holden and together they created what is now a well known marque with a large group of contented followers. The Sani was built by Sani Industries in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal, where initially production stood at about five units per month. By the late eighties it had reached 25 per month at which time Nissan, on whose chassis the Sani is built, bought a large shareholding in the company and then invested in an entirely new factory.
In 1989 the shape began to change and a new three-door model based on the Hardbody made its debut. Two years later a five-door version was released, powered by Nissan’s 3-litre V6 engine. The increased power available to the Sani boosted its sales further. Soon after that, further body styles were introduced, including a double-cab, double-cab Executive and the familiar 5-door Executive.
The original Sani chassis was based on the Nissan Tracker, Nissan’s first pick-up-based four-wheel drive. Later Sanis were based on Nissan’s four-wheel drive Hardbody pick-up.
The last model was the third generation Sani, better than earlier models in almost all respects including off-road performance due mainly to its double-front shock absorber set-up. Good, well maintained Sanis have become a rarity and good ones sell for high prices.

the first nissan sani

The first Sani was based on a Tracker chassis



Sani2-door SaniDCab Lesotho96_0004 Lesotho96_0007

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The Navara looks bold and beautiful on the outside but under the skin it is a light duty pickup, not even close to the heavy-duty class of the Patrol pick-up. It has a class-leading cab for both roominess and plainness – the inside is dull and this is why so many Navaras find their way to specialists to have the interior spruced up. The 4.0 V6, 198 kW/385 Nm of torque engine option is so quick it is attracting the petrol-heads. The second engine option is the new generation common-rail turbo-diesel. The Navara has a lot going for it and it is summed up by saying that it is one of the biggest and roomiest pickups around, with a load bay that is really big and deep. Low-range gearing is activated with a switch, ABS, air-bags and brake-assist are standard – unusual for a pick-up. And so is the cruise-control, the first to appear in a double-cab.

Summary… big, roomy, trying to be stylish but not really making it, and don’t expect it to haul heavy loads over rough ground as it’s just not built tough. But it makes a great tow vehicle.

Navara1 Navara2

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One of the better SUVs when in comes to a combined on and off-road SUV, Nissan’s baby’s off-road performance is one of the best in this class, performing well in sand and handling well on gravel. It impressed me in quite difficult sand conditions and on-road it’s comfortable, pleasant to drive but without any fireworks. Clearance is above average and that is why it is in the short-list of SUVs appearing in this guide. A feather in the X-Trail’s cap is that in independent tests, it has proved to be a very economical vehicle to operate. Engine options include 2,5-litre petrol and a 2,2-litre turbo-diesel the latter being a little noisy but extremely frugal. The petrol is the better option for towing but the diesel is one of the best performing in this category.

But I have to say this. With the Subaru Forester at close to the same price, why would anyone with any sense buy an X-Trail?

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