Test Drive: 2019 Nissan Terra VL

After my short trip to Japan that I detailed in the past few posts I headed off to the Philippines to spend a couple of weeks with my family. While I was there I decided it was high time for me to take a drive in the new Nissan Terra. 

Unless you've traveled to Southeast Asia or China lately (hopefully not so lately that you're now busy spreading that nasty coronavirus to your friends and family) you've probably never heard of the Terra. It's basically Nissan's entry into the mid-size three-row body-on-frame SUV category that's still hugely popular in Asia (and is very awkward to type out), versus here in the US where unibody construction has taken over every SUV category smaller than behemoths like the Chevy Suburban or Nissan Armada.

Although SUVs and pickups are now seemingly the dominant specie of the automotive ecosystem here in the States, most SUVs (and even some pickups like the Honda Ridgeline) have abandoned the body-on-frame construction that they traditionally have had. In case you're a bit lost on what that means, a body-on-frame vehicle has a separate chassis made up of frame rails that supports the body on top of it. This is the traditional design for trucks - as well as old cars before the 30s. 

Unibody construction on the other hand, means the body incorporates the chassis into a single unit. It has the advantages of being lighter for better fuel economy, allows more passenger space, it's usually easier to manufacture, and may be safer for occupants since crumple zones are easier to engineer into the design.

Here in the States unibody construction has taken over since most SUV drivers just want the look but not the fuel economy or ride penalties of a real off-roader. In Asia however where roads can range from buttery-smooth to "Did somebody just unload a cluster bomb here?", and it's not unusual to have to deal with mud, floods, and the occasional volcanic eruption, there's a tangible benefit to the greater ruggedness of a body-on-frame vehicle. That's why in 2018, 6 of the top 10 selling vehicles in the Philippines were some sort of body-on-frame design.

For many Asian buyers, diesel mid-size SUVs are the sweet spot and the perennial best-sellers have been the Toyota Fortuner and Mitsubishi Montero Sport. Other carmakers have tried to unseat those two with other body-on-frame entries like the Ford Everest or Chevy Trailblazer but for the longest time Nissan didn't have anything to compete with in this very popular segment.

The Navara pickup truck I test drove in 2017 has been Nissan's best-selling vehicle in the Philippines for some time so when rumors surfaced that they were making a mid-size SUV based on it there was a lot of anticipation. Rumor became reality in 2018 when the Terra was finally released.

One look at the Terra and you can immediately see how much carries over from the Navara. The basic front end styling is the same but with tweaks to the grille, headlights, and front bumper. Overall, the styling is pretty much exactly what you would expect from an SUV-ified Navara, which isn't a bad thing since the pickup had just the right mix of macho and modern sleekness without looking overstyled or done by committee. The Terra manages to maintain that same handsome look that should prove popular with buyers.

The dash carries over from the Navara but with automatic dual-zone climate control, a leather-trimmed steering wheel, and a GPS-equipped infotainment system in this top-spec VL trim level to reflect the Terra's status as a more upscale people hauler than a workhorse cargo hauler.

The infotainment system is nothing amazing by current American standards but in Asia it's more than up-to-par with the competition and as you can see it offers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support built-in, something a lot of US Nissan's didn't even offer until this year. The screen also gives the added benefit of offering Nissan's excellent Around-View Monitor system to help keep you from smooshing other cars, random passersby, or your wife as you try to maneuver into a typical tight Asian parking space.

Oh, although the eight-inch touchscreen monitor is also offered in the middle VE trim sadly it comes with only a reverse camera instead of full around-view, and the lowest EL trim has to make do with a much-smaller non-touchscreen display, so you'll have to pony up for the big-money VL if you want to minimize the chances of an unforeseen and violent divorce.

The dash has the same configuration as the Navara's with large, very legible gauges and a handy central color display but it's not the larger and even-handier version seen in other Nissan's like the Altima or Murano that can also display navigation cues and other useful info. Push-button start is standard for the VL and VE but missing in the bottom EL.

Overall, the interior and dash of the Terra are acceptable for the market but there's still too much hard plastic and cheaper-looking bits to wow anybody. It's still very much a product of the older cut-rate Nissan interior design philosophy rather than the much improved examples seen in the new Versa and Sentra just released in the US. It's great from a functional standpoint but aesthetically it feels a step behind the times.

In the VL, leather seating comes standard while the two lower trims get cloth. One interesting doodad the Terra includes are the "1-Touch Remote Fold and Tumble second row seats" you can see in the first picture.

That feature is activated from these switches behind the shifter. Just press the corresponding switch and either half of the second row will automatically flip up, allowing easy access to the third row. Sadly this feature only works if no one is actually seated in that section of the second row and you therefore can't use it to give your annoying nephew a satisfying faceplant into the front seatback for cutting loose with yet another smelly fart. 

The third row folds manually (how 18th century!) and forms a fairly flat loadbed thanks to the slightly raised cargo compartment floor. I didn't get to sit in the third row to check the legroom but a visual guesstimate indicated ample space for the kids and people-you-hate that will typically be punished by riding back there. Loved ones should be allowed to luxuriate in the first row "zero-gravity" seats or the cushy second row unless you're a barbarian, sadist, or payday loan operator.

While only the VL gets the dual-zone auto climate control, all three trims get separate rear AC controls to better weather the oppressive heat of a typical Manila summer. Fun fact: many Filipinos (including my own family) still hold Nissan near-and-dear to their heart because of one thing - superb air-conditioning. Back in the '80s and '90s, Nissan built a reputation in the Philippines for reliable AC that stayed frosty for years and in all weather conditions. That might seem like a weird thing to obsess about for Americans used to four-season climates but the Philippines is a tropical country where it's often intolerably hot and oppressively muggy. When you live in a place where everywhere feels like you just stepped into the steam room at your local gym - with all your clothes still on - you'd be obsessed with having good AC as well.

I'm happy to report the Terra lived up to that Nissan reputation admirably on my test drive.

One thing in that picture that the VL gets but not the cheaper trim levels is the central entertainment screen you can see folded-up in front of the vents. So kids, if you don't want to be bored on a road trip in a Terra, tell daddy to make sure he works harder.

Unsurprisingly the Terra gets the same YD25DDTi turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine the Navara uses. In the Terra though all trim levels get the higher-output 188 hp/330 lb-ft version that is restricted to the top-of-the-line VL in the Navara, with lower trim levels of the latter having only 160 hp. The Nissan rep with me on the test drive said the Terra gets a slightly different engine calibration for more pep than the Navara but I couldn't really tell a difference. The VL Navara already had a smooth, torquey power delivery though so I had nothing to complain about.

In China the Terra also has a gasoline engine option but with just 180 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque I don't see why you'd want one versus the much better fuel efficiency of the diesel.

At this point I should also mention that, at least in the Philippines, only the top-spec VL Terras are available with four-wheel drive. 4x2 VL's as well as all VE and EL trims are rear-wheel drive only so you can save some bucks if you're all about that crazy drifting action...or maybe not.

For the test drive I got to sample this demo unit decked out with shouty graphics and stick-on aftermarket garnish on the lights and gas tank door. I prefer a bit more subtlety but Filipinos back in the old motherland eat this tacky shit up so the dealership was just playing to the crowd here.

Thankfully that stuff doesn't affect how the Terra drives and it drives quite well indeed. As I mentioned the engine has a nice smooth power delivery and being the same diesel mill that's in our family's Navara VL it should have the same great fuel economy. It certainly wasn't wanting in the cut-and-thrust traffic of Manila, nor did it have trouble getting up to highway speeds.

Ride quality was okay - not as cushy as my Armada here in the States, based as it is on the Infiniti QX80 and Patrol, but not as harsh and jittery over bumps as you'd expect from an SUV based off a pickup platform. Of course, it helps that the Navara uses a multi-link rear suspension instead of the tough but primitive leaf springs many pickups have and Nissan naturally carried that over to the Terra. The body-on-frame design means it won't ever be as plush as a good unibody crossover like offerings here in the States but in exchange it should handle Asia's questionable roads and bad floods much better. 

Braking was up-to-par for the category but one thing I was disappointed to see on the Terra was that the rear brakes were still drums. What is this, the 1970s? The class benchmarks Toyota Fortuner and Mitsubishi Montero Sport come with four-wheel discs and this is not a cheap work truck - in the Philippines mid-size SUVs like the Terra are treated as luxury vehicles and status symbols so this seems like a confounding bit of cost-cutting by Nissan.

Thankfully this was the only real major shortcoming I saw on the Terra. Overall, it's a very competitive package for Nissan and should sell like hotcakes in the Philippines if the success of the Navara is anything to go by since it's been the second best-selling pickup in the country, beaten only by Toyota's famed Hilux.

So what are the odds we'll see this come to the States? We'll probably see our president invite MS-13 gang members over for a congenial game of croquet before that happens. Nissan is trying to pare down its lineup in the US, not add to it, and Americans are too firmly enamored now with "soft-roaders" that the Terra would be a hard sell. I would love for a better-equipped and more developed version to come to the States and replace the pansy-ass Pathfinder we currently have, maybe even reviving the XTerra nameplate too and take on the Toyota 4Runner for the hearts and souls of import-inclined off-road enthusiasts, but that will never happen. This is yet another Nissan we'll have to love from afar.

Speaking of the XTerra name, you may be wondering why they didn't use that fondly remembered moniker for this vehicle. A Nissan rep told me that it was considered but supposedly the sound of "X" is hard to pronounce in Chinese, and with China being a big target market for the Terra the decision was made to go with the non-X-rated version. The Chinese government's regulation of porn is really getting out of hand, I tell ya.

Another thing you may be wondering about is what the financial toll is for this hunk of SUV-ness. Well, at current exchange rates the most basic EL Terra (with a six-speed manual by the way!) will set you back just shy of 30 thousand American greenbacks, while the range-topping VL 4x4 will demand 42 thousand of your hard-earned shekels. 

Having mentioned how a lot of Filipinos adopt "Pimp My Ride" as a life philosophy I wanted to share this "special edition" that was parked outside the dealership. It's called the Navara N-Warrior and it's basically a Navara with a heaping helping of extra rice. Eye-searing orange highlights? Check! Stick-on plastic trim? Of course! Shouty stickers? BETTER BELIEVE IT BRO!

At least it gets some useful add-ons like a front skid plate (although why you would want something meant to get scratched up in use to be painted bright orange is beyond me), a beefy roll bar, a leather interior, and upgraded infotainment and safety systems. Overall, it's very bro-tastic, if you know what I mean. All it needs is a free can of Monster for maximum Kyle.

I'm sure many of these will find a happy home in the Philippines but like James May, I'd rather drive a wee Suzuki Jimny than something that makes it look like I'm making up for a crippling bout of erectile dysfunction.

Grateful acknowledgement to Nissan Mantrade for arranging this test drive.

And with that I'll wrap up another article on Nissans we can't have in the United States. See you in the next blog post, assuming we all survive the coming zombie epidemic!