First Drive: 2016 Nissan Titan XD

Tucson, Arizona – Billowing red sand in our wake, we plow down the embankment and rumble along a dusty road hacked into the arid Arizona back-country. Towering saguaro cactus line the roadside like sentinels as we bounce over rolling desert in the rusty foothills of the McDowell Mountain Range.

It's a bold move by Nissan – who have spent six years in development, testing and refining before finally unveiling the Titan XD.

It's a great day to flog a tough truck off the tarmac, in the quest to see if it lives up to its hype. And this one, the Nissan Titan XD, has generated a lot of buzz. It's the very first of its kind – a heavy duty truck that comes in a light duty package.

It's a bold move by Nissan – who have spent six years in development, testing and refining before finally unveiling the Titan XD. Until now, there was no overlap between the truck segments and customers were often forced to choose between a truck that was too much for their needs, or not enough. Nissan called that gap the "white space" between segments, and they're convinced that the Titan XD is the truck to fill it.

The truck market is huge in North America, and carving out even a small portion of it will be lucrative for the Japanese brand. Traditionally, we tend to favour home-grown pickups, and buyers are fiercely loyal to their particular brands.

For thousands of buyers, the contractors, the campers, the farmers – there hasn't been a truck that truly fits their needs. Many of these end up in a half-ton for its greater maneuverability and ride quality, but occasionally find it's not quite truck enough for the big jobs. The big, brawny heavy duty trucks are simply too large to use as daily drivers for most folk, and their beefed up chassis and suspension don't deliver a very comfortable ride.

It's not a matter of simply throwing a diesel under the hood and calling it a day. While Ram was the first to introduce a diesel-powered light duty pickup, the Titan XD takes it much further. Half-ton trucks are now posting tow ratings exceeding 4,535 kg (10,000 lb) – numbers once seen only in the three-quarter ton segment – but they don’t have the solid frame, suspension and braking components of their larger counterparts. This is important. A truck may have the power to tow over its recommended tow rating but lacks the overall stability – and a load that's become unsettled due to the chassis flex of its tow vehicle could have disastrous consequences. Not to mention that hauling a 5,443-kg (12,000-lb) camper down a mountain pass is no time to find out that your suspension and braking components aren't up to the job.

Here's where the Titan comes in. It features a unique chassis that’s based on the NV2500 cargo van, using a fully boxed steel ladder frame that’s been reinforced for torsional rigidity and stiffness. It doesn't share a single nut nor bolt with the conventional gasoline Titan that will follow it to market.

It rides on beefed-up suspension bits consisting of a double-wishbone and coilover setup with stabilizer bar up front, and leaf springs with twin-tube shocks and a 3.5-inch solid rear axle. A 10.5-inch rear differential, available with an optional electronic locker, has a 3:92 final gear ratio. Ventilated disc brakes are at each corner and instead of electric-assisted steering, there’s a hydraulic recirculating ball system with parallel rod links.

Of course, most of the buzz is centred around the Titan XD's powertrain. It's the product of a symbiotic relationship between Nissan and Cummins, one of the world's most respected builders of diesel engines since 1919. The 5.0L V8 features a lightweight and compacted graphite iron block, aluminum heads and composite valve covers. It has an output of 310 horsepower, but more importantly, a "triple-nickel" 555 lb-ft of torque at 1,600 rpm; that’s almost 40 percent more torque than the gas-powered Titan. The flat torque curve is mostly the result of a new Holset two-stage turbocharger system, making its debut here in the Titan. While there are technically two turbos involved, it's not a traditional twin-turbo setup in which there's one on each bank, with the first one continuously feeding the second. Instead, they function as a sequential unit, with one initiating startup and a rotary valve diverting exhaust gases to the second, then to both, then finally cutting off the first so that the second turbo is carrying the load. It sounds complicated, but it virtually eliminates turbo lag and provides the immediate power delivery smoothness while towing.

The problem with diesels is that they're typically known for their clatter. The contractor or landowner who's shelled out big bucks for his own fully loaded pickup with every luxury package doesn't want it to sound like one of his work trucks. The 5.0-litre’s block was designed to reduce noise, vibration and harshness, but another Cummins innovation results in the virtual elimination of any typical diesel noise: a new injection system created especially for this engine fires small bursts – five per cycle – during combustion so that the piston travel through the cylinder wall is smoother and less abrupt. The fuel pump is also sequenced with the combustion cycle, which covers up any noise produced by the pump.

Realizing that people often opt for a light duty pickup because of its superior ride quality, Nissan went to great lengths to ensure that the Titan had the refinement required by a daily driver. On road, it’s a well-mannered vehicle – even when unladen. The level of quiet within the cabin is remarkable for a pickup truck thanks to the use of laminated sandwich glass normally found in luxury sedans, a 45 percent improved level of body sealing, and hydraulic bed-to-frame mounts rather than the typical rubber “hockey pucks” used in many pickup trucks. Even during the off-road portion, where Nissan provided competitors from Ford and GM for comparison, the Titan XD had the best level of refinement within the cabin. Not surprising however, was the absence of the Ram with its superb air suspension. It would have given the Titan XD a run for its money.

The Titan XD clambered over most of the rocky trails fairly easily in 4-Hi, but we dropped it into 4-Lo for some of the steeper portions. For those who take their off-roading seriously, there's a Pro-4x model with Bilstein shocks and skid plates to protect its underside.

At first glance, the Titan XD is similar to the forthcoming gasoline Titan, but it's got a longer, higher nose to accommodate the diesel engine. It's penned by a Canadian designer Randy Rodriguez.

Depending on trim level, there's plenty of options to load up this truck into a pretty cushy daily driver. We loved the Zero Gravity seats – the same space-age stuffing found in the luxurious Maxima – and they're available with quilted leather. There's an optional seven-inch infotainment system with GPS navigation, along with a 12-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system and Nissan’s so-called Around View Monitor, which uses cameras to provide 360 degrees of visibility in an on-screen display reinforced by audible warnings. Rear seats flip up to reveal a lockable storage box.

The crew-cab Titan XD 4x4 has a max tow rating of 5,443 kg (12,300 lb) and a payload of 949 kg (2,093 lb). Most heavy duty trucks can be modified to pull a gooseneck hitch, but the installation comes at extra cost and the protruding ball-hitch compromises the truck's payload. The Titan XD comes with a fully integrated frame-mounted gooseneck hitch with a removable ball so as not to interfere with the bed’s capacity. The hole has a cover for messy loads like mulch or straw. When not being used, the trailer hitch can be stowed in a lockable cargo box beneath the rear seats. Optional locking storage boxes on either side of the rear fenders are removable, unlike the Ram's, which doesn't impinge on its payload.

The Titan is engineered to work hard in a variety of applications. The bed features a spray-in liner, four hard tie-downs and Nissan’s Utili-Track channel system, which allows myriad ways of securing a load. There are numerous lights, including beneath the frame rails, and a 120-volt outlet for anything from coolers to power tools.

A couple of thoughtful new technologies make it easier for the owner to hitch up and go without enlisting a second set of eyes. Backing up, the display screen clearly shows the ball, which makes it much easier to line up with the trailer hitch. And thanks to a new Trailer Light Check system, the owner can simply hook up the electric connection, then walk behind the trailer and press the key fob to have the system run through the lights sequentially.

A mountain pass with a six percent downhill grade was a good test of the Titan XD's towing performance. With a 4,000-kilo (9,000 lb) covered trailer behind us, the rig felt strong and stable. A trailer sway system helps prevent any undue motion. Like the big trucks, the Titan XD boasts an engine brake, not only to save wear and tear on the brakes, but to keep truck and trailer stable. Coupled with Downhill Speed control, when engaged this system keeps the truck at a selected speed, with either a tap on the brakes or the gas to go up or drop down a couple of kilometres.

The Titan XD is never going to challenge Ford's F-150 long reign as the light duty sales champ. But there's enormous profit in the truck segment, and the Titan XD's first claim on the middle ground should prove a lucrative one for Nissan.

Canadian prices won’t be available for a while, but the Titan XD is expected to start around US$40,000 for base crew cab 4x4, up to US$60,000 for the Platinum Reserve. No fuel economy numbers are available as yet and an arrival date in Canada is estimated for early 2016.

Billowing red sand in our wake, we plow down the embankment and rumble along a dusty road hacked into the arid Arizona back-country. 1/26/2016 9:39:25 AM