Cars

How I Conquered Ilocos Norte's Sand Dunes With the New Nissan Navara

We drive Nissan’s new pickup truck on the ultimate off-road track.
IMAGE PJ CAÑA
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It’s five minutes past four on a Wednesday afternoon, and I’m sitting in the last Nissan Navara in a convoy of pickup trucks in the sand dunes of Ilocos Norte. There’s a light breeze outside but shirts stick to people’s backsides as the afternoon sun bears down on the landscape. My knuckles are turning white as I grip the steering wheel and wait for the lead car to say we’re heading out. 

Finally the walkie-talkie crackles and a disembodied voice says, “We’re rolling!”

Photo by PJ Cana.

Safe Trip to Ilocos Norte

Nissan Philippines invited a group of motoring and lifestyle journalists, as well as content creators (aka bloggers and vloggers) to the province up north to road test the newest iteration of its pickup truck. The event was organized in conjunction with the Department of Tourism, with whom the Japanese carmaker forged a partnership to promote domestic tourism amidst the steep decline in travel during the pandemic. 

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Nissan’s insistence on pushing forward with an in-person gathering and an out-of-town excursion is its way of communicating that it’s generally safe to go outside and travel as long as people follow proper health and safety protocols. In this case, every member of the traveling party underwent a swab test and tested negative for the virus, and followed the established guidelines set by national and local governments every step of the way until we reached Laoag City. It takes some getting used to bringing a face mask and face shield each time we stepped outside the hotel room, and wearing them at all times wherever we went, but after months in lockdown, it’s a small price to pay in order to experience the joy of travel once again.

Photo by PJ Cana.

Outside of the opportunity to get to drive the new Navara in real-world conditions, Nissan provided participants with the chance to experience what it has to offer in a punishing off-road track. Almost every other brand will insist that its pickup is built to overcome unbelievable odds, but how many are willing to prove it with a first-person drive through an extremely grueling course through sand dunes?

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“We are not challenging other brands and our competitors,” Nissan Philippines President and Managing Director Atsushi Najima told Esquire Philippines. “What we want to do is to provide full satisfaction to our pickup customers. That’s why we upgraded our product…made our pickup tougher and smarter with advanced technologies.”

Photo by Nissan Philippines.

Clearly Nissan wouldn’t have gone out of its way to demonstrate the capabilities of its new Navara if it didn’t think it could conquer the challenges of Ilocos Norte’s sand dunes. But the idea, perhaps, is that any person—even someone like me not used to driving on any path that isn’t paved—can do it, given the right equipment, or, in this case, the right vehicle.

Photo by PJ Cana.
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Conquering the sand dunes

After a short drive on a paved road, the convoy abruptly turns right into the start of the sand course designed by preeminent driving instructor Georges Ramirez and his team. There is a series of potholes that immediately tests the Navara’s suspension and stability, followed by an uphill drive towards a promontory overlooking a spectacular landscape view of rural Laoag.

Past the U-turn point and just before a steep slope, we were told to turn on the Navara’s Hill Descent control, which, when activated, smartly takes over control as we made our way downhill. Afterwards, we floored the accelerator as the convoy passed a tiny valley and climbed back up towards the main paved road. 

Turns out that was just the start of the course. The next part had the convoy go through an even more punishing series of natural obstacles—bumps, pits, inclines, and steep drops. At this point my only concern was trying to stay on track and keeping pace with the vehicle in front of me so I don’t get lost or left behind. We emerged in a wide flat area of the sand dunes where the next challenge was to go at top speed up a gently sloping hill with loose sand that could trap the vehicle. Finally, we had to abandon all fears as we jumped off a near vertical drop and drive a short distance towards the finish line. 

Photo by PJ Cana.
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It was after I made it back to the starting point where I think I remembered to breathe and the color started coming back to my knuckles. The course was obviously meant to prove that the Navara can overcome extreme terrain, and while its highly unlikely any Navara owner will have to go through anything like what we went through, the point is that when you need your vehicle to perform through nearly any kind of ground condition, it’s good to know that it can, and it will.

Rediscovering Ilocos Norte

The rest of the trip was a chance to discover (and in some cases rediscover) all the things and places that make Ilocos Norte a truly unique tourism destination: visiting the saltmakers of Pasuquin; sampling the products of the dragon fruit farms of Burgos; admiring the delicate handiwork of the loom weavers of Paoay; and filling up on the empanadas of Batac. Through it all we drove the Navara, which proved more than capable as a vehicle for road trips spontaneous or carefully planned. Some features I personally found useful were Intelligent Forward Collision Warning and Intelligent Emergency Braking (in case you’re going too fast and too near the vehicle in front of you), Lane Departure Warning (for when you start veering off your lane on the road), and the intuitive seven-inch infotainment unit that remembers the point in the song where you stopped and picks up right where you left off when you resume your drive. 

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St. Augustine Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte

Photo by PJ Cana.

With several brands introducing all-new versions of their pickups, the pickup wars have become more intense than ever. But Nissan seems to think it has a winner in its hands with the new Navara.

“2021 might be a recovery year,” Najima said. “We are bringing more innovation to the market so that’s why we want to give more customer satisfaction, and in the end, we are retaining those customers in the Nissan network.

“Hopefully as a result of the (Navara launch), we are getting the highest share, but it’s not our primary objective,” he added. “The objective really is customer satisfaction.” 

While I may not be a customer in the strictest sense of the word, it’s safe to say that my experiences with the new Navara has left me feeling completely satisfied.

The 2021 Nissan Navara comes in eight variants: Nissan Navara EL 4x2 MT, Nissan Navara VE 4x2 MT, Nissan Navara VE 4x2 AT, Nissan Navara VE 4x4 MT, Nissan Navara VL 4x2 AT, Nissan Navara VL 4x4 MT, Nissan Navara VL 4x4 AT, Nissan Navara Pro-4X 4x4 AT. Prices will be revealed at the official launch on March 21.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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