International Trade Deal: Saharan Sand Dunes, Camels, and Three Nissan Global 4x4 Vehicles

    Saharan sand dunes, camels, and three Nissan vehicles you can’t get in America (and one you can)

    Sean P. HolmanPhotographer, WriterCourtesy of NissanPhotographer

    It’s not every day that we can cross off two items from our lengthy off-road bucket list in one fell swoop, but it does happen from time to time. In this case, it was an invite from our friends at Nissan to drive some international trucks and SUVs that we don’t get exposed to here in the States, sweetened with the promise of hitting the same iconic Saharan sand dunes that one might run across racing the Dakar Rally.

    We made our way around the world to the incredible country of Morocco. Specifically, to the city of Errachidia, which is in the southeastern Atlas Mountain region, not far from the Algerian border. Errachidia is a significant population center of just under 100,000 people spread out over a fairly desolate region of eastern Morocco. Less than a day’s drive from the spectacular Sahara desert, this turned out to be a great jumping-off point on our “Go Anywhere” adventure to experience products from Nissan’s Light Commercial Vehicles (LCV) portfolio.

    Upon our arrival at the Moulay Ali Cherif Airport, we were greeted with a selection of capable body-on-frame 4x4s assembled by Nissan’s LCV division, each representing a different area of the world they do business in. America’s sole representative was the Titan PRO-4X, and it was joined by the Chinese-market Terra, the Middle Eastern Patrol, and the European version of the popular Navara midsize pickup, which is sold in just about every market of the world but our own. Throughout the trip, we rotated through each of the vehicles to get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses.

    From the Errachidia airport, we took the long way to the town of Erfoud and based ourselves out of the famous Xaluca hotel, a hot spot for adventurous tourists eager to access the northwestern Sahara dune complex. Our first taste of Morocco consisted of gorgeous scenery, unending desert plains, and even some notable structures built by famed German artist Hannesjörg Voth. If you are looking for some side reading or need a place to venture off the beaten path next time you find yourself in Morocco, look up Voth’s Himmelstreppe (Stairway to Heaven) and Stadt des Orion (City of Orion), where you will find an interesting story worth the read.

    The second day took us to the Sahara desert—specifically, to Erg Chebbi. On our way we took in a movie site, lunch at an oasis, and endless herds of camels, which incidentally smell like horses and sometimes have a tourist perched upon their backs. This was really the highlight of the trip, as we had a chance to test all of the vehicles in the massive dune complex and get a feel for each of their strengths while bounding through endless mountains of sand.

    Our final day of adventuring took us back to the airport, but not before more exploration through washes and river-strewn plains, thanks to some unseasonable rainfall. Mud and water crossings with fast-moving water rounded out our adventure and put an exclamation point on an amazing trip in a part of the world we’ve always wanted to travel. Read on for our thoughts on each rig.

    Titan PRO-4X

    You will likely be most familiar with the U.S.-spec Titan PRO-4X, which has a 5.6L Endurance V-8 with 390 hp and 394 lb-ft of torque, mated to the seven-speed JATCO automatic. The PRO-4X adds Bilstein shocks, General Grabber tires, electronic rear locker, full skidplating, and 18-inch wheels. The leather interior is upscale without being gaudy, and it is functional and comfortable. We appreciated all the space inside the crew cab, and of course Nissan’s trademark Zero Gravity seats were amazing for long days behind the wheel.

    We have to admit that it was fun to watch the Europeans marvel at the scale of a real American pickup, and the size of the Titan was almost comical in the tight roads and streets of Morocco. When everyone else was gushing at the brawny V-8 and “massive” truck, it reminded us how lucky we are to have vehicles like this in America and made us a bit proud to say, “Yeah, that one is ours.”

    As expected, the Titan performed flawlessly in the desert and was actually a lot of fun in this setting, renewing our positive vibes about where the Titan sits in our market. It was a solid performer, easily overcoming the Baja-like terrain with its high ground clearance, Bilstein shocks, and all-terrain tires. Showing off in the washes with the V-8 supplying 2WD roosts might have been our “ugly American” moment, but to be honest, it was just too much fun and we couldn’t help ourselves. In the dunes, the heavy Titan used its horsepower and rear locker to its advantage, but it wasn’t quite as nimble as the lighter vehicles, causing us to be more cautious where we stopped to ensure we could get going again without sinking in the sand. With the proper skill, the Titan was a fun tool to wield; however, in the hands of the inexperienced among us, it was also a lot of truck to handle.

    Patrol

    With heritage that dates back to the first Patrol in 1951, today’s Patrol, known in the U.S. as the Nissan Armada and Infinity QX, is coveted around the world for its luxury and capability. Where the international version of the Patrol differs from our Armada is in the advanced Hydraulic Body Motion Control suspension, rear locking diff, and trick sway bar disconnects. The Patrol also has an optional off-road front bumper that provides a better approach angle. And while the Armada suspension is tuned to American on-road tastes, our Middle East–sourced Patrols had all the goodies that make it an exceptional fullsize wheeler.

    While the 5.6L V-8 with 400 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque was every bit as potent as it was in the Titan, the full-time transfer case did a better job of keeping our right foot in check. The double-wishbone four-wheel independent suspension is incredibly good—better than any road-going fully independent setup has a right to be. We were flying down washes, crawling over rocks, and traversing broken streets in absolute leather-lined luxury without a care in the world.

    In the dunes, the Patrol lived up to the hype, eliciting laughter and smiles at just how well such a big SUV handled the terrain, as long as you were aware of its size and heft. In fast washes, the drivetrain was flawless, while the suspension was plush, soaking up sand heaves and ruts. We were honestly jealous that our home-market Armada doesn’t benefit from the same setup.

    Terra

    The best way to describe the Terra is the spiritual successor to our beloved Xterra. Despite packing three rows of seating, it is a midsize body-on-frame SUV with some real chops for wheeling. It packs a two-speed transfer case and electronic rear locker, and the Terras on this trip were equipped with the 2.5L single-scroll four-cylinder turbodiesel good for 188 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque, with a frame based on the Navara that features a five-link coil spring and solid-axle rear suspension.

    Whether on- or off-road, the Terra performed admirably, and was unexpectedly a champ in the sand. With a mix of good floatation, relatively light overall weight, and a torquey diesel, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see this SUV roaming the backcountry with a tent on top. It is a tough and smartly packaged SUV that is nice enough for the market it serves, although the engine NVH and interior materials would need to be slightly improved if it ever made it across the ocean to the U.S.

    Navara Off-Roader AT32

    Saving the best for last, it was the 12th-generation Navara Off-Roader AT32 that stole our hearts in the Moroccan desert. Built in partnership with upfitter Arctic Trucks, the AT32 is roughly analogous to our own Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison, which is done in collaboration with American Expedition Vehicles.

    The AT32 builds upon the Navara’s excellent independent front and five-link coil, solid-axle rear suspension setup with increased ride height, improved shocks, full skidplating, unique wheels, 32-inch tires, front and rear lockers, beefier flares, and a Safari snorkel, all from the showroom floor. Under the hood is Nissan’s exceptional 2.3L twin-turbo four-cylinder diesel putting out 188 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque. Backed by either a six-speed manual, or in our case a seven-speed automatic, the drivetrain was plenty lively for our needs, with less turbo lag than the 2.5L.

    This capable wheeler was a blast to drive, showing no discernable weaknesses over any of the terrains we encountered. It wriggled over rocks, scaled the dunes with reckless abandon, and forded deeper-than-expected rivers that put an emphasis on being equipped with the snorkel and increased ride height. Arctic Trucks and Nissan have succeeded in putting together a capable off-road package that leaves us wanting, or at least feeling that Nissan was hinting at what the next-gen Frontier could be here in America. If it is anything like the Navarra AT32 we tested, we can’t wait.

    Summary

    The takeaway from this adventure is that Nissan is a global powerhouse in trucks, something you might not think of in the land of the Big Three. And that’s a shame, because after 80 years of building trucks, Nissan knows how to bolt ’em together. While we love our Titan, we feel swapping some time in it for a taste of the AT32 was a fair trade, and what we hope was a glimpse of the next-generation U.S.-spec Frontier. We also hope—no, demand—that Nissan adds the off-road goodies from the Patrol to make a more capable Armada. While they are at it, bring back the Xterra, even if it means dropping the “X.”