NISSAN this week gave the motoring media a taste of the new V8-engined Patrol on Australian soil, transporting a left-hand drive version of the big off-roader from its stand at the Sydney motor show to the Mount Cotton Training Services centre south of Brisbane.
The car was flown in from the Middle East, where it is already on sale; the new Patrol is due in Australia in 2011, finally offering a replacement for the current shape that arrived here in 1998.
It looked large on the stand at the Sydney motor show, but on the road and parked beside other four-wheel-drive models in the Nissan line-up - including the current Patrol - it becomes positively huge.
Open the driver's door, and you could easily confuse the patrol for a Lexus. There's swathes of wood trim, plush carpets, and double-stitched leather covers most of the remaining surfaces.
This vehicle is also packed with technology, featuring gear such as active cruise control that helps the Patrol automatically stay a set distance from the car in front, a surround view camera system, and a clever Land Rover-style push-button system that can let the driver simply look outside the window and match the off-roader's electronic brain with the road conditions.
Surprisingly, though, while there are snow, rock and sand settings, there is no mud setting available.
We're given two short opportunities to drive the Patrol, firstly over a short off-road circuit that involves tight turns between trees (unfortunately one driver misjudged one tight turn and dinged the front guard - and Nissan has absolutely no replacement parts for this one-off vehicle) and then over a quite technical road circuit full of driver's nightmares, including off-camber corners and hairpins that tighten.
On the off-road circuit, the Patrol is a technical tour-de-force. The hydraulic suspension system with its four-wheel independent set-up works surprisingly well, smoothing out the first mogul as though it was a flat piece of road. It's a lot better than the old Patrol, which only uses an independent front suspension system that tends to struggle with articulation once the road surface gets a bit rough. In low range, the Patrol is able to easily creep over the steep, rutted climbs and descents. There's only one point where the Patrol needs to take two bites at a corner where the previous-generation Patrol we drove around the circuit earlier had no such problem.
Switching to the on-road circuit shows up how well the so-called "Hydraulic Body Motion Control" active suspension system can hide the Patrol's heft.
Acceleration from the 5.6-litre V8 is smooth and gradual rather than fierce, and the seven-speed gearbox shared with soon-to-be-released V6 diesel versions of the Navara and Pathfinder is quite refined, slurring gently between gears under a heavy throttle.
Around corners, the Patrol remains quite flat and composed, and deliberate attempts to unsettle it by tugging at the steering wheel at speed don't end in disaster. Because it's a one-off car for Nissan Australia, I'm not keen to push it anywhere near its dynamic limits, so that test will have to wait for another opportunity with fewer consequences.
Early impressions are that this new Patrol will at least bring the game up to Toyota's dominant LandCruiser 200 Series when it arrives in 2012.
However, as we've seen through the global credit crunch, two years can be a long time in the car-making world.
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