The popularity of the pick-up in the United Kingdom is a direct result of some advantageous tax laws regarding company cars. All pick-ups are treated as commercial vehicles and are taxed at a flat-rate; with a benefit-in-kind (BIK) figure of £3,170, a basic-rate tax payer would pay £634 a year or just over £52 a month, while a higher-rate tax payer would pay £1,268 or just over £105 a month. Both are likely to be significantly lower than a similarly priced car.
Of course, by the time you get to our age you understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch; the bill in this case is a significantly inferior driving experience. No pickup, no matter how well designed (or marketed), is as nice to drive as even the cheapest car.
When choosing a pick-up, choose carefully
Yet there are still some very good reasons to choose one as your daily driver, nonetheless: their load capacity is unrivalled, with all capable of carrying a metric tonne in the back; most will tow at least three tonnes, with some even rated to a whopping 3,500kgs; and almost all will prove more adept in an off-road situation than most 4x4 cars.
Nor should we discount their aesthetic appeal as they have an image attached to them that some of us quite like.
You do need to choose carefully though. There are pickups that drive very well (for a commercial vehicle, that is) and pickups that drive very badly. The Nissan Navara is one of the former.
You’ll gather from the photographs that I didn’t drive it in the UK. Yes, I know that driving anything in the Sahara Desert – for that was where I was introduced to it – is likely to generate warm and fuzzy feelings. You’ll just have to take my word for it that location aside, driving a Navara is as close to driving a car as any pick-up you can buy today.
A surprising ride
The first surprise is that it rides very well indeed. With a load capacity of just over a tonne, you might reasonably expect the rear suspension to be on the firm side, but where a lot of vehicle manufacturers still fit leaf springs, Nissan has opted for a sophisticated five-link arrangement on its double-cab models that does a remarkably effective job of balancing the need to carry a lot of weight with the fact that most people won’t.
So there is no juddering or axle shudder over poor surfaces or under hard acceleration, and while you are never going to mistake it for even a half-decent SUV or crossover, you aren’t going to find much to complain about either.
I drove it for ten hours at a stretch across roads that were considerably worse than anything you’ll find in the UK (although, in the interests of balance I should point out that some of them were considerably better too…) and ended the day feeling as fresh as when I’d first set out.
A comfy cabin and refined engine
Part of that was due to the cabin, which was almost car-like in its ergonomics, even if the concept of soft-feel surfaces and premium leather still have some way to go before they’re fully embedded. If you keep in mind that this is a commercial vehicle - with all the financial savings that implies – and reset your expectations accordingly, there is little to fault.
The engine is torquey and more refined than it sounds, and the seven-speed automatic gearbox demanded no interventions from me whatsoever, no matter how harsh the conditions underfoot. It might cost a bit more than the manual, but almost everyone will be better off letting the Navara do the thinking.
Perfect for off-roading
If you need something that is genuinely capable in an off-road situation, then the Navara is also one of the better vehicles on the market. We crossed ditches and sticky mud (yes, it did rain while we were there) with impunity, but it was on the sand that it really impressed.
Dune driving is a curious pastime, relying on a broad contact patch, compliant suspension, and instantaneous throttle response to keep you going. Despite driving through surfaces in which a stationary vehicle slowly sunk axle-deep in powdery sand, surprisingly few of us got stuck.
The key is lower tyre pressures (around 14psi, if you’re interested) and lots of power, backed with a much greater level of aggression than any other off-road discipline. Huge fun and a convincing demonstration of the Navara’s credentials.
A few little niggles
Downsides were few, previous caveats aside. I’d have liked a smidge more legroom and a steering wheel that offered a greater range of adjustment. Also, an open pickup might offer all the security you need while driving through the world’s largest desert at 60mph but a slow-speed city crawl with a week’s shopping in the back might demand something more to prevent the light-fingered opportunist taking advantage of your company car tax minimization scheme.
Other than that I could live with one quite happily, but then I do cart a lot of big and heavy stuff around muddy fields. Yet even if I limited my off-roading to the odd grassy car-park and my hauling to a weekly tip run, I could drive one every day too, especially if it was to be my company car and I could afford another couple of grand for a high-end canopy cover to keep my light-fingered brethren at bay.
Power – 158bhp
Torque – 297lb ft
0-62mph – 10.8 seconds
Top speed – 112mph
Kerb weight – 2,006kgs
Official average fuel consumption – 34mpg
Honest John real world fuel consumption – n/a
CO2 emissions – 183g/km
VED class – Band I
Towing capacity (braked) – 3,500kgs
Towing capacity (unbraked) – 750kgs
Warranty – 5 yrs/100,000 miles
Price – £25,320
Price as tested - £30,670
The Navara possibly balances price and ability better than anything else in its class.
The best of the rest
The Toyota Hilux is very good but very big and very expensive.
The Isuzu D-Max, in either standard or AT35 format, is a bit crude but very reliable and very good off-road.
If you enjoy Carlton's inimitable style of writing, you'll love his motoring column - to have each one delivered straight to your door every month, subscribe to Saga Magazine today!
Enjoyed this article? Why not sign up for our Technology and Motoring newsletter?