A good drive but far from stealthy

 

 

There’s a moment when I hate this Nissan Stealth. I’m standing halfway up a rough, rocky koppie in Groenkloof Nature Reserve, just south of Pretoria. The reserve’s 4×4 track has an optional route at this point: go around the koppie or go up it. At this point it feels as if you’re going through it — that’s how much bakkie wheels have clawed at the earth and ripped up bits of rock and sand.

An overly battered Isuzu twin cab is thrashing its way up the winding path through the koppie. Its big wheels grasp and then chuck away rock, as its engine pulls them up. It’s a manual, and stops halfway to go into low range and then batters to the top.

At the bottom of the koppie, the sun glints off my test Nissan Navara Stealth. In a parking lot, it towers above other cars, one of that new — Americanesque — generation of bakkies that require you to climb up and into the cab. But out here it looks small. Out of place.

The Stealth is Nissan’s “look at me” iteration of the Navara, its high-end bakkie. Grey paint and orange stripes, as well as a chunky roll bar on the back of the twin cab, are part of the company’s attempt to make people also want to buy this car for looks (the standard Navara is dull).

I have no doubt that the Stealth would get up the koppie. The 2.3-litre turbo diesel engine under the bonnet, and the ladder frame chassis, make this a serious off-roader. There’s no active terrain management system or clever drive. Instead, you click a button to the side to stick it in low range and you go. This car can go just about anywhere — if you know how to drive anywhere.

But the shiny extra bits are the problem. Those sideboards that help you climb up into the cabin rip off at the touch of a rock. Sitting inside is also a problem on rough terrain. The seat is set up for driving comfortably on a road. To better see where the wheels are going, I have to raise the chair to the point where my hair is rubbing against the roof — and I am precisely average height. But this means your legs are at an uncomfortable angle, making it difficult to feather the accelerator. Not that you can feather it. Crawling over the rocky section of the 4×4 course, the engine idles too low, so you are constantly revving it and then braking to slow momentum.

Constant momentum, at a crawl, was impossible. That’s a problem when too much speed means your sidewalls get torn up by rogue rocks and rough roots.

So I don’t go up the koppie.

And this is the problem with the Stealth, and all its twin cab peers in the R650 000-odd price range. They are brilliant pieces of machinery, even with their individual idiosyncrasies and flaws. But they have to cater for the weekend warrior — for someone who wants the car to look good when they clamber out of it next to the coffee shop where their envious friends are waiting. Basically, someone who should rather buy an SUV.

The only reason to pick a bakkie is for the open-load capacity, and these cars are being bought by people that might just put a mountain bike in the back. Thanks to its height, the Stealth’s wheel arches are sunk in the back so the load capacity is deep. It also comes with a charging port for a cooler, and a cleat system for locking down anything that you do put in the back.

With the weekend warrior buyer in mind, the Stealth ticks all the lifestyle boxes. The Navara range was the first big brand to put in rear coil suspension, straight out of an SUV. That makes driving long distances on tar roads rendered rough by corruption a comfortable experience.

The interior is almost calming, with ambient lighting and leather. On a 4am drive to the airport, the heated seats take the edge off an otherwise chilly morning. Cup holders proliferate in every place you’d think to put your mug.

The orange-stitched seats have excellent side support and — in front — adjust to make a long trip comfortable. In the back, your knees are still forced to lock in the up position, making anything more than a school run tiring. Controls on the steering wheel work the touchscreen navigation and audio system, as well as the crucial cruise control.

Being inside the Stealth is a nice experience. It’s on a par with the inside of a similar Toyota or Ford. The small steering wheel, in town, is easy to navigate through traffic circles and traffic. The engine does, however, over rev when starting off from a standing start, going high before gearing up. This makes for rough transitions between gears at first, before it eases out for better fuel consumption at faster speed.

That fuel consumption isn’t great — it sucks up an average of 10-litres per 100km of city driving. And, for this kind of lifestyle, a big diesel makes no sense. These are engines that create an enormous amount of air pollution, and an increasing number of cities are banning them.

This, however, is a criticism that can be levelled at all the Stealth’s peers. As it stands, this car does what it promises to do — and does it really well. Without those shiny extras like the bargeboard, it will go anywhere, while keeping your coffee cradled and bum warm. 

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the news editor at the Mail & Guardian
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