You don't expect unsolicited candour from a car company executive when you're discussing one of his company's products.
There's always a certain amount of jingoistic rah-rahing when car industry people talk about the models in their ranges. Sometimes you wonder how much of the boosting is to convince themselves that a new model really is the major advance they're saying it is. A sort of self-brainwashing, if you like.
The exchange that spurred this rumination occurred at the recent launch of Nissan's new Primera. That's a car on which the jury is out for me. Not its looks. I don't mind them and they're only to be expected from a company in which the French (in this case Renault) have such a stake. Just look at the photos of the new Renault Megane on the cover and elsewhere in this issue to see how radical French designers can be. No my reservations about the Primera after brief drives of the sedan and wagon have more to do with its rather uninvolving steering and its no-manual override CVT transmission. Those drives were on streaming wet roads and were relatively brief. The jury will remain out till we sample a new Primera for a week.
It was those wet roads that triggered the discussion between me and a Nissan executive. The subject was the new 2.5-litre turbodiesel Navara 2WD ute.
"What are you driving?" he'd asked, doubtless seeking an off-the-cuff comment on a rival's product.
"Your 2WD Navara. It's 'lovely' on these wet roads."
"Yeah zzziiip, zzziiip," he says, imitating the sound of rear tyres scrabbling for grip on wet roads as the tail end steps out under acceleration while turning out of an intersection.
"(The 2.5 turbodiesel has) got plenty of power," he says. "Not like the old 2.7-litre motor." That engine, he suggested, didn't have enough get up and go to break the wheels loose or get the ute quickly up to speeds that might threaten rear wheel grip on wet tarmac.
And the power, really, is the first thing you notice about the new Navara.
The new Nissan is powerful, accelerating strongly and cruising comfortably at speed.
In fact, you can have a lot of fun beating ostensibly more powerful and sportier vehicles away from traffic lights. It gets right up their drivers' noses to be outrun in the sprint to 50km/h by a tradesman's workhorse.
The diesel's smooth and effortless power delivery could get you into trouble, though. Not through breaking the rear wheels' grip, but through inadvertently breaking the speed limit. And breaking the limit inadvertently or in a daydream cuts no more ice with the traffic police than if you'd gone out and done it deliberately.
The diesel keeps producing so seamless and unobtrusive a surge of power than you can get quite a jolt when you glance at the speedo and discover that you're well into ticket territory when you thought you were bopping along at 100 klicks.
That's how constant and strong the engine's power delivery is. Not that the motor is anything other than typically Japanese diesel at idle speed or under hard acceleration.
At idle it's an old rattler, rivalling Isuzu's raucous diesel. Under full throttle it hollers and snarls and barks to let you know it's working hard.
And that's the big difference between it and the much more refined 3.0-litre turbodiesel four in the Navara 4x4.
The 2WD's 2488cc double overhead camshaft four cylinder develops a healthy 100kW at 4000rpm and a chunky 304Nm of peak torque at 2000 revs. And it's that blend of power and torque that gives the 1580kg Navara Double Cab such strong performance and makes it very easy to get the tail end sidestepping on a wet road.
Basic handling? Well it's a truck so it's not going to corner like a car. And it's got a leaf-sprung solid rear axle set up more for carrying heavy loads than for keeping the tyres glued to the road under heavy cornering loads. That means that with the cargo tray unladen the Navara's rear wheels are a little prone to hopping sideways if you try to pour 308Nm through them accelerating hard out of a corner. They do the same in the wet but on a slick road it's much more exciting (or unnerving, depending on your fear threshold).
Treat the rear end with respect, though, and you can travel cross country briskly in the Navara 2WD. In fast, open, corners it will track well without any hint of rear-end breakaway even at high speeds. In tighter going there's a tendency to wag the tail under hard acceleration out of corners. The key to fast cornering on winding roads is smooth steering inputs, a relatively low entry speed and getting the truck going pretty well straight ahead before you nail the throttle.
As the Nissan executive says later in our discussion, with a rear-wheel drive ute you need to think about your driving. Unlike a modern near-foolproof front-wheel drive car, a Japanese rear-wheel drive ute needs to be driven. It does very little of the work for you. Power steering aside, modern Japanese utes behave much like rear-wheel drive cars used to behave when designers relied more on drivers to exercise skill and judgement than concentrated on making cars that did much of the work for you and offered near vice-free handling. He and I agreed that a stint at the wheel of a rear-drive ute every now and then would bring most of us back to a realisation that good driving really is about skill and judgement.
The power-assisted steering is reasonably light and gives reasonable feel. It is, however, a little vague about the straight-ahead and you can turn the wheel a degree or two in both directions before it has any effect on the front wheels.
Brakes are efficient, the headlights cast plenty of beam and the windscreen wipers - tested to the point of irritation by the foul Auckland weather during the test period - cleared the screen admirably.
The gearshift is chunky but not heavy and noise levels are moderate, though the cabin is much noisier than the 3.0-litre 4WD version's, largely because of the more raucous engine.
Ride is firm, but except for roads where bump follows bump or when negotiating speed humps (when the rear end comes down with a jarring thump) it's bearable.
Getting into and out of the Navara 2WD ute is little different from a car. Ground clearance is 180mm compared with the 4WD version's 215mm.
You still sit a little higher than in a car, so you get a more panoramic view of the road ahead.
The seating position is good and there's good front and rear seat passenger room.
Like most Japanese utes, though, the rear doors could open wider.
Standard equipment in the Venturer 2WD Double Cab includes velour upholstery, carpeting, four-spoke soft-feel steering wheel (similar to the one in the new Nissan Primera), tilt-adjustable steering column, air-conditioning, power-operated windows, central door-locking, passenger-assist grips, centre console, lidded dash-top storage bin, cupholders, twin-speaker Compact Disc sound system, driver's airbag, tinted glass, and a rear foglight.
It has a chromed grille, body-coloured front bumper, and 15-inch diameter 6.5-inch wide alloy wheels shod with 195/R15 tyres.
Nominal payload is 980kg, and the load tray is 1395mm long, 1390mm wide and 435mm deep.
The ute is 5090mm long, 1690mm wide, 1620mm high and has a 2950mm wheelbase.
It's nicely-styled, well-built, feels rugged enough to go anywhere and do most things you might ask of it, yet is comfortable enough to double as day-to-day family transport for five.
The Navara Venturer 2WD is built in Japan and the version sold here is to European spec - hence the indicator stalk mounted on the left rather than right-hand side of the steering column.
The truck sells for $40,695.
AutoPoint road test team: words and pictures by Mike Stock.