Nissan's going to hate this, but when I'm driving around in its Navara STX 550 ute, I keep thinking of a Ford. Not even the new Ford Ranger, but one from back in the noughties when the company introduced its F-250 pickup here.
The F-250 was one of the most American of utes; big, brawny, excessive for many New Zealand needs and, at the time, priced around $100,000.
It's the effortless performance of the dainty-by-comparison STX 550 that conjures memories of the Big American. The F-250's turbo V8 diesel produced 684Nm of torque at 1800rpm, the torquiest ute I've ever driven in New Zealand. The STX 550's turbo V6 diesel produces 550Nm at 1750rpm, making it the second-torquiest ute I've driven here.
The big Ford produced 175kW of power, while the mighty Navara is only 5kW off that mark, making it New Zealand's most powerful diesel ute. And while the Ford sent its drive forward and aft through a now old-fashioned four-speed auto, the Nissan uses a seven-speed tiptronic-type auto that helps it achieve 9.3 litres per 100km overall.
Neither the Ford nor the STX 550 - now the New Zealand ute torque champ - needs all that twisty force. The Navara STX 450, which produces 100Nm less, handles even the hardest jobs perfectly easily.
So why bother? In Nissan's case, because it can. The engine was developed by the Nissan-Renault alliance for various larger Renaults and some Infinitis, the Nissan luxury equivalent of Lexus.
I'm thinking the stump-pulling torque is just a side advantage for the Navara. The main thing the V9X engine has done for the light truck is provide a luxurious top-model option. Because it was designed for expensive cars, the engine's general refinement and quietness is outstanding. With some fiddling in the engine bay and transmission, Nissan has produced the limousine of utes.
I took the STX 550 on a run from Auckland to Northland and back, empty one way, 500kg of firewood coming back, over a mix of rural, provincial and main roads. It handled every surface, every twist, every bump like a limo - well, as close as a ute with leaf springs at the back can get.
Unfortunately, though, there are some things the mighty 550 doesn't do. Towing is still 3000kg, braked - the same as all 4WD Navaras. I don't know what the Japanese are thinking sometimes when they tow-rate their utes, but surely the three-tonne limit must disappoint New Zealand dealers? It also can't keep its weight down, listing at 2177kg, a 148kg penalty over the four-cylinder STX 450. However, payload is 833kg, a small 57kg improvement over the 450 auto.
It's going to be a little better off-road thanks to overall low gearing of 40.2:1 compared to the STX 450's 35.73:1.
The ute costs $67,990, auto only, to head the Navara lineup that has been somewhat revised - partly to put more distance between the 550 and the 450, which costs $59,490 in auto.
Apart from discreet "550" and V6 badges, you can tell the big torquer by privacy glass on the rear half of the cabin, and front fog lights. Inside, the driver gets seat height and lumbar adjustment, and there's useful rear under-seat storage.
STX gets stuffed...
... with more stuff. All models have a new sound system with a USB port and audio streaming, wireless MP3 operation, iPod menu control and the ability to synchronise phonebooks. The ute's power-fold door mirrors gain combined indicator and puddle lights.
Other comforts include dual-zone climate-control air and cruise control, power windows and remote control keyless entry. Six airbags might be useful if things go terribly wrong.
The bottom line:
Turbo V6 diesel Navara goes Ford ... er, forward, to become the limo of Kiwi utes.