It’s a shock to see the Nissan NP200 for the first time. Not because it’s odd-looking – quite the contrary – but because when you see it you realise that it’s true: the Nissan 1400 really has been consigned to history, finally, irrevocably.
Oh, they’d been saying it would happen for years, and not without good reason. Increasing competition from the likes of Ford’s Bantam and Opel’s Corsa were definitely hurting the Nissan pick-up in the sales stakes, and if they hadn’t been, well then the phenomenon of the Nissan 1400 on the South African market would have been even closer to fiction than it is.
From 1971 to mid-2008 the Nissan half-ton was built and sold in South Africa, making its 37-year stint the longest production run of any vehicle ever built here. By comparison, the Volkswagen Beetle was ‘only’ in production for 27 years, from 1951 to 1978. What’s more, 275 000 bakkies later, the little Nissan remained essentially unchanged during all those years. It was one constant in a world that seemed to re-invent itself while the little rear-drive, pushrod four-cylinder just kept on truckling.
The writer owned an early 1200 in the days when they were Datsun badged – the switch to the Nissan name only came in 1983 – and two decades after that appliance-white workhorse was sent to the scrap metal merchant, driving one of the run-out models in 2008 was not a heck of a lot different.
The memories came flooding back as I cranked that distinctive starter motor on the Heritage version, of which 150 were built to honour the little, err, champ. That shrill meshing of hard-metal pinion teeth on the flywheel’s ring gear produced a sound that changed not at all in 37 years of production. The few changes that were made included an increase in capacity to 1400cc in 1980, along with disc brakes for the front wheels. At this time the dash also received the same instrument binnacle as the old 1200 GX sedan, replacing the horizontal speedo layout. The next big change came in the late 1980s when the cabin was enlarged in height, and a five-speed gearbox was offered. After that, well, they fitted more plush seats, added a few stripes, coined the ‘Champ’ name for some versions, configured pressed-steel mag-lookalike wheels for it, and evolved the grille to a square light configuration in later decades. What made the Nissan 1400 a sought-after device is that it was the last of the rear-wheel-drive pick-ups in the half-ton class, which many bakkie types still trusted. Its mechanicals had been so well-sorted over the years that they just went on and on, and they were cheaper to repair than almost anything else.
They also went like rocket ships. Although a 40-something kW peak power output in the 21st century doesn’t sound that impressive, their light overall weight meant they hauled away from the stoplight like a drag machine in waiting, a fact not lost on many actual drag racers, who began using them as quarter-mile weapons.
Today there are so many turbocharged Nissan 1400s running around, some with very sophisticated 16-valve large capacity engines slotted under the bonnet, that if one pulls up alongside and looks at all suspicious due to fat tyres and a fresh air duct cut into the grille, the prudent thing to do is to start admiring the scenery, and pull away with minimal revs, even if you are driving an RS4 or an M3. So, the NP200 has a lot to live up to. Will it be a worthy team player, capable of carving a reputation of its own in the next few decades? On first acquaintance, the answer is yes, and that judgment follows as soon as you ease in behind the wheel. There’s the rub, or lack of it, rather, because you realise just how cramped the old 1400’s cabin was by comparison. The NP200 – the ‘N’ stands for Nissan, the ‘P’ for pick-up and the 200 bit is apparently an internal Nissan designation – enjoys massive cabin space by half-ton class standards. As indicated by the addition of quarter windows behind the doors, there’s real-world stowage space behind the seats, and enough adjustment to accommodate large men (or women) up to around 1.9 metres in height.
The dash, of course, looks nothing like the previous models. It’s of the moulded one-piece modern variety, finished in a reasonably durable-looking plastic covering, and it has a rev-counter as standard. The steering column isn’t adjustable, but the seats are multi-adjustable, and it’s easy to get comfy, no matter what your build. This is a front-wheel-drive Nissan pick-up now and the next thing you notice is that the gearbox has quite positive gear selection, with none of the rubberiness that afflicted early front-wheel-drive layouts. The standard ‘box is a five-speeder, and as the NP200 is available at launch only in one model, the 1.6 litre eight-valve, there are no other powertrain options to consider at this stage, although a 16-valve petrol and a diesel are apparently being scripted for a 2009 introduction. The next big step forward that 1400 owners will appreciate, once they’ve set aside their suspicions about the newcomer, is that the steering is power-assisted. Yes, there has been progress in the last 37 years. First gear is very short, and so is second, and you find yourself slotting into third, fourth and fifth in quick succession. The 64kW engine doesn’t feel ultra-refined as it’s a little bit thrashy when you wind it up, but punchy it definitely is. I reckon it’s a reasonable ‘spiritual’ successor to the old pushrod mill, and workday users who are going to load this to the hilt will appreciate the short first two ratios.
And they will load it big time. They call these little pick-ups half-tonners, but both Opel with the Corsa and Ford with the Bantam have been pushing the envelope in loadbin areas, getting up to the three-quarter ton payload limits.
The NP200 takes this a step further. Maximum payload is 800kg, the volume of that rubberised load bay is 1.25 cubic metres, and it is 1.8 metres long. All these figures are class-leading, in what should now be known as the three-quarter ton class.
The new NP200 has dispensed not only with a rear axle and a propshaft, given that it is front-wheel-drive, but its simple beam axle is mounted on coil springs, so it’s goodbye to cart springs at the rear too. The wheelbase of the new Nissan is much longer, and the unladen ride, although not quite car-like, is much better than the little toughie it replaces.
So too is wind-noise, which was always a factor with the old design. However, the base NP200 1.6 comes sans air-conditioning, the strategy from Nissan obviously being to make a bit of a splash price-wise and launch the vehicle at ultra-competitive levels. With the windows closed on the highway there is little wind noise to speak of at 120 km/h. Interestingly, given the lack of aircon, it is possible to cruise at 100 or so with the driver’s window open and not get buffeted like a supermarket packet in a south-easter.
As far as other modern accoutrements go, it is again obvious that Nissan is not pushing the boundaries too far with what it is offering on the NP200, as far as features go. According to the data we were given a few days before the official launch, the idea was always to come into the market with the new vehicle at below the R90 000 mark – or less than R5000 more than the tag on an outgoing 1400 Champ. This is impressive, as it places the 1.6 litre NP200 right in amongst the 1.3-litre basic-spec competition. Given this market-shake-up achievement, it wouldn’t be fair to expect anything in the way of airbags, ABS brakes and the like. Yes, the NP200 has a big task ahead winning over trad 1400 buyers who believe in rear-wheel drive and north-south engine layouts for a bakkie, the way they believe in the continuing social relevance of braaing as opposed to, say satellite television. But driving the newcomer after re-acquaintance with our old 1400 friend, one has to conclude that the original 1400 was in fact stuck in a time warp. If you spend much of your working life in a pick-up, better you have plenty of cabin space, less wind-noise, a bigger load bay, and place to store your equipment behind the seats. It was time for a change, and it looks like Nissan called it just right.