Trucks

Nissan’s Navara, Terra and Patrol are made for Morocco

Putting three of Nissan’s off-roaders through their paces in the desert.

Nissan

I'm no stranger to off-roading in Morocco, having competed in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles three times. I raced an Isuzu D-Max for two years and a Land Rover Defender for one. But I always envied the competitors who ran the rally in a Nissan Navara pickup. It might look like the Frontier that we get in the US, but in fact, the Navara has a few tricks up its sleeve.

The Nissan Patrol makes short work of the Moroccan plains.

Nissan

Nissan recently brought me to Morocco for a chance to finally experience the Navara's goodness. But the Japanese actually makes quite a few rugged vehicles that aren't offered on US shores. The Patrol and Terra SUVs are also worthy off-road contenders, and happily, Nissan's brought one of each along for the ride, as well.

Meet the trucks

The specific Navara that Nissan brought along is an AT32 trim. Built in conjunction with Icelandic aftermarket supplier Arctic Trucks, the AT32 can be had with a choice of two diesel engines, a five-link rear suspension, a three-quarter-inch lift kit, a front differential locker and a snorkel. Sure, the US-spec Frontier is a fine little worker that can plow through light sand, but the AT32 is far and away a more hardcore truck.

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The five-link suspension gives the Navara better ground clearance and more flex, so popping over rocks isn't a problem at all. Recent rains have left the one-dry washes -- or "oueds," as they're called locally -- flowing with fast-moving water. The AT32 fords through it with no drama, its 32-inch off-road tires handling even the thickest mud.

The biggest of Nissan's off-road brutes is the Patrol, basically a more rough-and-ready version of the Armada we get in the US. With full-time four-wheel drive, the Patrol has drive modes for rock, snow and sand, as well as an auto setting and a locking rear differential. The Patrol has independent front and rear suspensions, which means it isn't quite as aggressive as the Navara. But the Patrol pretty much matches the pickup's approach and departure angles, at 34 and 26 degrees, respectively. The big, 5.6-liter V8 under the hood snorts out 400 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque, enough for me to throw up giant sand roosts in a dry wash (which prompts a light scolding by my Nissan guide).

Full-size SUVs aren't usually my bag, but there's something to be said for off-roading in comfort with tons of room for friends and gear. Even the third-row reclining seats in the Patrol are large enough for adults to enjoy.

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That said, I much prefer the size of the smaller Terra, Nissan's newest body-on-frame SUV. Built for the Asian market, think of the Terra as a modern throwback to the early Pathfinder. As with the Navara, the Terra features a solid locking rear axle with a five-link suspension, giving it more capability than its 8 inches of ground clearance might suggest. It's super comfy inside, too, with Nissan's Zero Gravity seats cradling my hindquarters in the desert.

Beautiful, treacherous terrain

My excursion with Nissan takes me through many of the same locations as the Gazelle Rally, starting on the south side of the Atlas Mountains in a town called Erfoud. A bustling little burg, Erfoud serves as a hub for tourists exploring the adjacent rocky plains and the large Erg Chebbi dunes to the south, near the Algerian border.

Most of my off-road drive time is spent on the dirt paths that criss-cross the Moroccan plains. But the real test comes later, when I head down toward the town of Merzouga. Local beliefs say that God created the Erg Chebbi dunes as a punishment for someone turning away a tired traveler. Exactly who that someone was is unknown, but that jerk is supposedly responsible for dunes rising as high as 500 feet off the desert floor, stretching 13 miles over the surrounding plains.

The dunes of Erg Chebbi dwarf the Nissan vehicles.

Nissan

In the Gazelle Rally, the goal is to drive in as straight a line as possible, heading from checkpoint to checkpoint. The winning team is the one with fewest kilometers on its odometer at the end of the nine-day rally. This makes dune driving tough, since you have to drive straight up it, without really knowing what's on the other side. Proper throttle control is key; lift too soon and you'll likely get high-centered, lift too late and you'll likely catch air. My memories of Erg Chebbi involve me slowly hopping from dune to dune, praying I could find the checkpoints and get the hell out before getting stuck.

This time around, I can just relax and enjoy the drive. The late-afternoon sunlight turns the dunes a beautiful rose color. I spy a camel caravan in the distance, headed out to spend the night in a bedouin camp. This, I think, is the relaxed Morocco I missed while competing in the rally.

Getting dirty

Tires deflated for improved traction, I head out into the soft sand.

Much to my surprise, I like the Terra best here. The 2.5-liter diesel engine spools up in a jiffy, putting its 331 pound-feet of torque into the sand allowing me to easily dig through. The Terra gets up on top of the terrain quickly and never gets bogged down. I can pretty much surf from dune to dune, the Terra behaving exactly as I want it to. It's fun, and inspires a lot of confidence out here in the desert. I feel like I could go across Erg Chebbi and back in record time.

The Navarra AT32 comes in a close second-place out on the dunes. The 2.3-liter diesel engine puts out the same power as the Terra, but its twin-turbocharged setup isn't quite as quick to spool, meaning it takes a little longer to get to full-on boogie. You have to keep your foot deeper in the throttle to get the Navarra up and on top of the sand. However, with its better suspension geometry and ground clearance, the Navarra can pop over the dunes Gazelles-style easier than the Terra.

The Patrol makes short work of the dunes, as long as I use a heavy right foot to cancel out its serious weight. When climbing steep hills, momentum is key. Keep your foot deep in it and don't lift, even when all you can see out the windshield is sky. The Patrol's V8 gets the job done easily, but its sheer size makes it feel cumbersome in this desert setting.

Leaving the dunes and heading back to Erfoud, I think about the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles and how badly I want to come back to Morocco, just one more time. I want to turn my personal-best, fifth-plate finish into a podium win.

I wonder if Nissan will let me borrow that Navara AT32...