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In little more than the time it takes to fly from Delhi to Chennai, and at the same cost, you can land into Bangkok and enter a whole different world. Not the naughty kind that far too many of us associate Thailand with but stuff that sensible people can appreciate. Like the fact that nobody bothers you with what you can or cannot eat. Avoid the maggots and crickets and you will find Michelin-starred street food. The roads are so good half the cars are lowered, stiffened and ride half an inch off the tarmac. The rickshaws, tuk-tuks as they call them, have bloody loud sport exhausts. Their Toyota Corolla taxis have wings and spoilers, and you never have to tell them to turn up the air-con. There is a thriving petrolhead culture with biker hangouts, plenty of race tracks, tuner shops and hipsters astride Royal Enfields. And they love their pickups and 4×4 SUVs. Speaking of SUVs, they’re everywhere in Thailand. The Toyota Hilux and the Fortuner that it is based on are so popular they’re almost like the Marutis back home. Isuzu does the V-Cross and MU-X, both of which we get in India and both of which are assembled from kits sourced from the Thai mother plant. Save for Honda, all the Japanese (and the lone non-Japanese brand, Ford) have a pickup/SUV in their portfolio. And this is the newest of the lot, the Nissan Terra.
Now first things first, if at all the Terra comes to India, it will be at least a year away. Nissan have a lot of work to do in sorting out their Indian act and the journey begins with the Kicks that you will have read about earlier. What makes the Terra a distinct possibility though is that Nissan are re-positioning themselves as an SUV brand (while Datsun attacks the hatchbacks, I assume) and this will fit perfectly in India, going by the roaring success of the Fortuner.
“The Terra is brand spanking new, only two months since its market introduction in Thailand, and the SUV-obsessed market is full of beans over the new Nissan”
Anyway, to Bangkok airport and the Terra proves to be a blessing as I catch up with friends who pack two big suitcases for a weekend by the beach. It is a proper 7-seater, the Terra, and the third row folds flat into the floor liberating enough space for three big suitcases (okay, neither did I pack light). And as we are loading the Terra we field questions from three separate groups of guys inquiring about our SUV. Turns out the Terra is brand spanking new, only two months since its market introduction in Thailand, and the SUV-obsessed market is full of beans over the new Nissan (the third best-selling brand after Toyota and Honda in the region). I even put one of the guys to work, to change the language on the infotainment from Thai to English, and he gives the Terra’s equipment levels two thumbs up. Nissan have obviously got the spec right for this market. As for India some sprucing up will have to be done, which we will come to.
Like the Fortuner, for that is our benchmark, the Terra too is based on a pickup — the Navarra — and the literature makes a big play of genes that have descended from the Patrol. The latter is big in the Middle East but isn’t sold in South East Asia, making the possibility of it coming to India even more remote (even though a whole bunch of us went to drive it in Dubai recently). Anyway the Terra has been designed, engineered and is built in Thailand for the South East Asian markets and runs a rugged ladder-frame chassis with the option of four-wheel drive with low-ratio. The only engine is the 2.3-litre four-cylinder diesel that makes 187.3bhp and 450Nm of torque and on our test vehicle is mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission.
First impressions are of a distinctly pickup-based SUV. Roads in Thailand are super-smooth yet the Terra’s ride is never fully settled or plush. In that respect it is more or less similar to the Fortuner’s road manners, as is also the overall demeanour — very high seating position, commanding view of the road ahead, king of the road feel. Unlike the Fortuner though rear seat passengers in the Terra too have a commanding view of the road ahead with the so-called theatre seating where the seat is positioned higher than usual giving back seat passengers a great view of the road ahead. The obvious downside to this is an enhanced sense of unease and body roll that comes as part of the high centre-of-gravity package. And of course zero visibility in the rear view mirror but there is a unique solution to that — the rear camera projects onto the mirror so you get video feed of the (albeit distorted) view behind you. This also means if the boot is loaded to the roof you still see everything behind the SUV, plus there is bird’s eye view of the SUV making parking a breeze. Other safety features include lane departure and blind spot warning while in the recent ASEAN NCAP crash tests, the Terra scored a full five stars.
“The ladder-frame chassis can hammer over rutted dirt tracks with ease, the ride feels particularly lovely when off the road and the 225mm ground clearance is enormous enough for when the going gets tough”
In complete contrast the infotainment system is surprisingly dated with a Blaupunkt touchscreen stereo that looks and feels ages behind the integrated systems we have become used to these days. And the quality of the interiors, while hard wearing and rugged, don’t feel expensive or plush. Our intent is to rest and recuperate by the beach, not to spend a week on the road, so bags are loaded in and we head off to our beachside AirBnb at Rayong, some 200km from Bangkok. Half way to Rayong we get off the expressway but even the state highways in Thailand are brilliantly surfaced and have very little traffic making progress smooth and in less than three hours we are tucked into bed. Begs the question, why is it that only we cannot make proper roads while the rest of the world seems to have no problem with it?
A weekend of watching the sun, rise and set by the pool and we head off to explore the hinterland, which is all smoothly surfaced tarmac. Why don’t we get a few Thais to run our Public Works Departments? In desperation we turn off into a palm oil plantation to check out the Terra’s off-road ability and I can report it feels solid and indestructible. The ladder-frame chassis can hammer over rutted dirt tracks with ease, the ride feels particularly lovely when off the road and the 225mm ground clearance is enormous enough for when the going gets tough (plus it has a 700mm wading depth). The torque of the motor, that peaks at a very low 1500rpm and stays flat till 2500rpm, makes progress smooth, quick and effortless. The on/off-road pattern 18-inch tyres also gives it very good grip on loose surfaces and the off-road ability is aided by an electronic rear differential along with traction control, hill descent control, hill start assist and an off-road meter that tells you how much the axles are articulating along with the roll and pitch. These ladder-frame SUVs really excel in the rough and tumble of the hinterland and the Terra will be excellent when you head off to the farm or go canvassing for votes in the villages — after all that is what most white Fortuners are used for anyway. And if the going gets really horrible, the Terra has low-ratio on the 4×4 system, something we didn’t have to employ even when we drove it on the sand.
“The on/off-road pattern 18-inch tyres also gives it very good grip on loose surfaces”
Back on the road and you do feel the compromises of the architecture, where the Terra can get bouncy over patchy roads and the handling is vague at best with no feel through the steering and lots of body roll. The engine is also rather noisy, very noisy in fact when really given the beans, and that is despite Nissan’s claims of the Terra having noise reducing acoustic glass. That said the Fortuner is no different and unless we drive the two back to back on the same roads it is impossible to say which is better, or otherwise. What is clear is the Terra — with some sprucing up of the cabin — can take the Fortuner head on, and that makes a clear business case for bringing it to India. If they are smart about it, Nissan will even design an MPV on this platform to take on the Innova, and a proper three-model pickup/SUV/MPV trio will have the potential to transform the brand in India, while leaving the cheaper cars to Datsun and thus clearing out the current confusion in Nissan dealerships. If it can work in Thailand it sure can in India, after all it’s only a short trip across the Bay from Chennai.