In recent years the humble pick-up has acquired a rather glamorous image for itself. Attracted by the personal tax advantages — still worth having despite the recent changes — many company car drivers have ditched their SUVs in favour of a double cab festooned with every extra you can think of and then some. It's all a world away from the Morris Marina pick-ups you used to see trundling around years ago.
As a consequence pick-up makers have increasingly concentrated on the high-specification end of the market and rather ignored the requirements of customers who need a vehicle they intend to use as a workhorse rather than as a substitute for a Chelsea Tractor.
There are signs that this stance is changing, however; maybe the economic climate has something to do with it. While not ignoring the requirements of the well-heeled, manufacturers are starting to promote pick-ups that arrive in more basic trim and are aimed at building site foremen rather than stockbrokers.
Having concentrated on double cab 4x4s in recent years, Isuzu is about to launch an Isuzu Rodeo Single Cab 4x2 in the UK. Not to be outdone, Nissan has just introduced its minimal-frills NP300 to complement the, more upmarket, Navara.
A very modest evolution of the old D22 pick-up, NP300 is up for grabs as a 4x2 Single Cab, and as a 4x4 Double Cab, King Cab and Single Cab. We elected to sample the last-named model.
No matter which derivative you pick, power comes courtesy of the four-cylinder 16-valve common rail 2.5-litre diesel developed from the previous model. Top power of 133hp kicks in at 3,600rpm while peak torque of 304Nm bites at 2,000rpm, and the engine is married to a five-speed manual gearbox. CO2 emissions total 241g/km.
A limited slip diff is fitted and you use a lever next to the gearstick to engage four-wheel drive. It also allows you to select a set of low-ratio gears when in 4x4 mode should that be necessary. The front suspension employs an independent double wishbone set-up while a rigid rear axle and leaf springs help support the rear of the vehicle. Our demonstrator's 16in steel wheels were shod with Dunlop Grand Trek 205 R16 C tyres.
Power-assisted recirculating ball steering is fitted offering a 12.0m turning circle kerb-to-kerb and a 12.8m turning circle wall-to-wall. ABS comes as standard along with ventilated disc brakes at the front and drum brakes at the back.
Grossing at 2,860kg our test NP300 could handle a 1,135kg payload and tow a braked trailer with a, most impressive, all-up weight of 2,800kg. It would be rather more impressive if the vehicle could be fitted with a digital tachograph. Unfortunately at present it cannot, which means that anybody who wants to make maximum use of its quoted towing capacity on the public highway may be breaking the law.
Access to the cargo bed is by means of a drop-down tailgate secured by over-end catches at either end. It can be locked horizontally to accommodate over-length loads or dropped down completely if you release the restraining chains. The better to frustrate signwriters, the Nissan name is embossed on it for drivers travelling behind to see.
Behind the cab you'll find a full-width load restraint frame, but without ladder stops. There are no load tie-down points inside the load bay, but five rope hooks are mounted on the outside upper edge of each sidewall. The edge also incorporates a lip to which the hooks to be found on the ends of load restraint straps could in theory be attached. It's unclear how much strain it will take, however, so its use in this way is probably best avoided.
Sitting on a separate ladder chassis, the capacious cargo box offers a maximum load length of 2,235mm. Maximum width is 1,465mm narrowing to 1,060mm between the wheel boxes, while maximum height is 430mm. Unladen rear loading height is 805mm.
We're not overly impressed with the working environment offered by the NP300's cab. It comes with a three-man bench seat that has to be slid forward in its entirety if the driver needs to get a bit closer to the pedals, never mind the discomfort this may cause to travelling companions. Combine a short driver with two tall passengers and the latter are liable to end up with their knees in their mouths.
The seat back cannot be adjusted for rake — a situation that is utterly unacceptable — and the middle seating position appears to have been designed for hobbits and dwarves. There is no legroom whatsoever for the centre occupant unless he can somehow manage to splay his legs either side of the transmission tunnel.
Poor old piggy-in-the-middle is held in place solely by a lap-strap, and while the driver and the outboard passenger benefit from headrests, he doesn't. The net result is that he's likely to bang the back of his head against the rear window if the driver has to brake heavily. That's downright dangerous.
With a narrow bin and a small, shallow, tray in each door, a lidded but not lockable glovebox and a little shelf for change on the facia, oddment storage space is at a premium. Two small pull-out compartments turned out to be ashtrays; somewhat redundant features given the widespread ban on workplace smoking. What is more, we heartily dislike the old-fashioned, awkward-to-use, umbrella-type handbrake lever. Give us a traditional floor-mounted handbrake lever any day of the week; and while NP300 is solidly-built overall, some of the interior plastic trim looks a little cheap.
For the record the King Cab and Double Cab (available September) derivatives dispense with the front bench and come with two separate seats, along with a conventional floor-mounted handbrake lever.
So what's good about the cab? It's easy to clean out thanks to its vinyl floor covering — a boon given the amount of mud that's liable to be trampled into it — and although you cannot alter the seat's height, you can at least alter the height of the steering column. All-round vision is impressive, and one feature we really like is a switch on the dashboard that you flick to increase the engine's idling speed.
It helps the vehicle to warm up more quickly on a cold morning; not good for CO2 emissions perhaps, but very practical. Also standard are driver and outboard passenger airbags, electric windows and a decent radio/CD player, and we like the blue, white and red dials.
Our demonstrator came with a £550 comfort pack (all prices quoted here exclude VAT). It includes electrically adjustable and heated exterior mirrors and a very effective manual air conditioning system.
Nobody will buy an NP300 if they're nursing ambitions to win the traffic lights grand prix. While it holds its own quite nicely once you've wound it up to motorway speed, the Nissan is rather slow away from rest and its mid-range acceleration cannot be classed as inspiring.
Nissan argues that the pick-up's recirculating ball steering is especially good for an off-roader because it helps isolate the driver from any shocks transmitted through the steering wheel that he might otherwise experience while bouncing across rough terrain. Maybe so; but NP300's steering is alas vague and uncertain on ordinary roads and does the handling no favours at all.
On the positive side, however, NP300 is reasonably manoeuvrable at low speeds for a 4x4 and the unladen ride is nowhere near as choppy as we feared it would be. The gearchange is reasonably precise — although we could do with a slightly lighter clutch pedal — and engine noise levels are better suppressed than we anticipated. We had no quarrels with the brakes other than with the aforementioned under-the-dashboard handbrake lever.
Fuel consumption is about par for the course. Our demonstrator averaged 30mpg while in our hands.
Off-road the NP300 is a gutsy performer, happily ploughing across muddy Fenland fields and along rutted farm tracks streaming with water. Good to see that the wheelarches are well-defended against minor damage by extensions — good too to see front fog lamps — but we'd like to see side rubbing strips fitted plus some protection for the vulnerable-looking sills. Sump and fuel tank guards are supplied as standard.
Protected by remote central locking, our test vehicle was finished in metallic paint for an extra £275. A three-year/60,000-mile warranty is provided along with six-year anti-corrosion and three-year paint guarantees and the pick-up requires servicing every 18,000 miles; a usefully long interval between visits to the garage.
While Nissan's attempt to offer a pick-up intended to appeal to builders and fencing contractors rather than financial consultants who want one because it is tax-efficient is laudable, we're unconvinced that the NP300 is the right tool for the job. While it has a roomy cargo area, a respectable payload capacity and a long service interval it hasn't evolved sufficiently, if at all, from its predecessor to be a welcome offering in 2008. The fact that at present a digital tachograph cannot be fitted to the vehicle means full legal use cannot be made of its generous towing capacity and the cab interior suffers from some serious limitations. The vehicle's on-the-road behaviour leaves something to be desired too although to be fair it's quite a competent off-road performer. To be frank, we'd far rather see Nissan introduce a single cab 4x4 Navara than persist with a pick-up like the NP300. Now that would be a vehicle worth getting to grips with.