Tackling the 2023 Spirit of Africa in a Nissan Navara PRO-4X

Published Jun 28, 2023


Bloemfontein - It’s one thing to read the promotional copy on a press release or see happy smiling people extolling the virtues of a product on a television advert but in the real world things can often be different.

And that’s exactly what we did with the recent 19th running of the Spirit of Africa Challenge just outside Bloemfontein in the Nissan Navara.

The “Spirit” has become synonymous with legendary South African motoring ace and legend Sarel van der Merwe and this year was no different.

It’s fitting too that the Navara would be this year’s choice of vehicle because the Rosslyn based manufacturer builds the Navara for local and African consumption.

More than 300 teams competed in the inaugural Nissan Spirit of Africa Challenge which ended on June 5, all vying for a place in the finals to take place on 13-16 July.

To give us an idea of what the teams had to go through, Nissan invited a group of journalists and social media influencers to Bloemfontein to put the Navara through its paces.

We were met at a bitterly cold competition staging area by Sarel who explained the rules of the competition.

For many it was their first event and once Sarel had set out how things work it soon became clear that this was not going to be a jaunt out in the bush.

Essentially there are two kinds of obstacles; speed and technical.

For speed every team starts with 100. There’s a set time to finish with time being added for hitting a pole or a red flag and points subtracted for every second over the allotted time. A pole is five seconds and a red flag 30 seconds.

In the technical sections teams start with 100 points and each obstacle has a time limit. 10 points are deducted for a roll back, 20 points for hitting a pole, 30 points for a red flag and a point for every second over the time limit.

And at 5.26 metres long and just over 2 metres wide, The Nissan Navara double cab PRO-4X 4x4 is not an easy vehicle to squeeze through tight, strategically placed poles as we found out early on in the competition.

Before we lined up for our first test my driving partner from Adventure Afrika hooked his phone up to the eight-inch touchscreen with Nissan Connect so we could have music while we tackled the course.

It worked flawlessly but was soon turned down so that we could focus exclusively on what Sarel had laid out for us.

The first test was towing a large TLB tyre connected by a long cable behind the Navara in a slalom course in the fastest time possible. It’s a bit like towing a skier behind a boat. The sharper you turn the wider the tyre swings behind the bakkie. Our time wasn’t the quickest but it was at least a clear round.

Next up were a couple of speed obstacles over various distances again with strategically placed poles and red flags.

In last year’s event I had won the speed driving challenges so I had an idea of what to expect. On the face of it, it looks like there’s oodles of space to rush through but as you gun the bakkie it gets a whole lot narrower. A word from one of the marshalls to look through the poles and not at the gap proved to be very helpful.

It’s a fine balance between acceleration and braking between sharp turns and straights.

I had turned traction control off, which helped with smooth acceleration out of corners, but after a couple of sprints including a drag race, we were advised to rather keep it activated because we were bordering on getting a warning with the bakkie on the limit of the track restrictions.

It’s safe to say though that we used all of the 140kW and 450Nm of torque provided by the 2.5-litre turbo diesel engine under the bonnet although we didn’t get to use all seven gears in the auto transmission.

The Navara is what we would call a proper 4x4 with normal rear wheel drive for every day commuting, 4H, low range and a rear differential lock.

We did the speed challenges in 4H in which the Navara’s systems monitor conditions and adjusts power between the front and rear axles to maintain maximum traction. In addition, it’s fitted with an Active Brake Limited Slip Differential system which manages power delivery and braking between the front and rear axles and between the left and right of the vehicle.

Perfect for the conditions we found ourselves in.

It also showcased the Navara’s suspension system.

It’s generally accepted that apart from the Ford Raptor with its unique Fox set-up, the Navara’s ride quality for a ladder frame construction is one of the best in the business.

Instead of the customary leaf rear suspension, the Navara has a heavy duty five-link coil rear suspension, similar to an SUV.

In addition the new chassis, improved shock absorber damping and revised mountings compared to the previous generation, makes it the ideal vehicle in every terrain it finds itself in especially for the challenges of the “Spirit”.

A technical obstacle just before lunch saw us switch to low range and occasionally engage the diff lock and when the interim results were put up on the board our names were at the top.

And therein lies the problem, or least that’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

We decided that we would continue to drive like we were, taking each obstacle as it comes and most importantly keep our cool and continue to enjoy the event.

So all of a sudden the pressure was on, all eyes were turned to us and we fell into the trap of being too cautious.

At least we didn’t hit a red flag but our times weren’t great which cost us precious points.

We should have thrown caution to the wind like eventual winners Blessing Mtshakazi from Kumbi-M on Cars and driving partner Jack Jr from The Car Lott that flew through from fourth to bump us into second place.

When the sheep on the spit had been consumed and the sun set, it was clear that like the continent, the Spirit of Africa is very much alive and the Nissan Navara double cab PRO-4X 4x4 proved to be the perfect partner.

IOL Motoring

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