We are bombing across a dirt track on the northwestern fringe of the Sahara Desert – a reddish, rocky landscape that could be Mars in any science fiction film.
Though not as barren as the soaring Erg Chebbi Dunes we had crossed a day earlier, this is still desolate. The last sign of water is dozens of miles back, even though it’s the rainy season.
Two tiny figures appear through the windshield of our Nissan Terra, a rugged, three-row SUV the automaker doesn’t sell in the U.S.
A barren corner of Morocco
Why out here? There’s no obvious settlement or shelter nearby. We would have noticed after three days of testing Nissan’s truck line in remote Morocco. There are no telltale palm trees anywhere on the horizon.
They are nomads. A woman and a girl, maybe 6, probably her daughter. The woman is in a patchwork caftan. Like this section of the desert northeast of the village of Ksar Jdid, it’s mostly red, only brighter. Her hijab is tan. The girl wears a Western-style dress over brown leggings. Each holds out one hand in a rocking side-by-side motion.
We had seen similar scenes over the previous days in less isolated locales. Always women and children. Never men. They want water. They know Westerners traversing distant desert trails in fancy vehicles carry lots of it.
The Berber nomads in this corner of Morocco, near Algeria, follow their donkeys, goats and camels as the animals graze on sparse vegetation. Forage can be an hour’s walk, often more, from the nearest water. We have seen a few camels. But no men, tents or shelters. They must be here, maybe hidden in the shade of a rock outcrop.
The pair stand at the crossing of two dirt tracks. Maybe traffic is infrequent, but if you can nab a liter or two of water from a passing truck, it’s worth the wait.
As our Terra slows, I hand out one two-liter bottle of water, two Gatorades and a granola bar. The nomads nod their heads in gratitude but make no effort to drink. Our supplies will be a shared resource. We take off on the dirt trail, amazed by humanity’s ability to survive just about anywhere.
“Go anywhere” is the theme of our adventure, hosted by Nissan. The Japanese automaker wants to prove it’s a global player in trucks, which it segments into a light commercial vehicle division. To prove its point, the automaker shipped a sampling of its international trucks to Morocco and gathered a small group of U.S. auto writers deep inside the North African desert for an off-road caravan.
Light trucks are an important and profitable market for Nissan, so much so it wants to grow global sales in the category by 10 percent to more than 1 million annually.
Still, the automaker has much ground to gain on its bigger rivals, especially in the U.S. Nissan’s Frontier is historically one of the better selling midsize trucks, helped by its position as the least expensive pickup in the market. The bigger Titan picked up some traction with a recent redesign but remains buried as the lowest-selling full-size pickup in the region.
The journey started with a charter flight from Madrid to Errachidia. With 90,000 residents, it’s the biggest city in the Drâa-Tafilalet region of Morocco. It was an important crossroads for caravans for centuries, a French garrison town in colonial times.
The airport is a former military base. The only aircraft on the tarmac was a military helicopter, which we were ordered not to photograph. It’s there for King Mohammed VI, who still maintains a palace in the city. The airport building is not much bigger than a McDonald’s. It has no food service, no trinket shop – just one metal detector and a few chairs. Scheduled air traffic arrives every few days.
Nissan’s fleet is waiting in the small parking lot outside the terminal. The automaker organized three caravans that will travel the same route each day, keeping about a mile apart for most of the driving.
Each caravan comprises four vehicles: the Terra, a body on a ladder-frame chassis SUV sold mostly in China and a few emerging markets; the U.S.-built Titan pickup, the biggest vehicle here; the Navara, the company’s global midsize pickup; and the Patrol large SUV that is the global version of the Armada. Chase and follow trucks bookend each group.
We take off through the streets of Errachidia. The first few miles are spent dodging donkey carts, sporadic vehicular traffic, bicyclists and pedestrians in the city before heading out onto one of the few highways we will drive over the next several days.
Today’s destination is Erfoud, a small oasis town with a tourist trade due to its proximity to sand dunes and other prime off-roading destinations.
The Patrol SUV
I am driving Nissan’s Patrol. This is a well-equipped, comfortable SUV that quickly proves its four-wheel-drive chops as we jump off the pavement onto a circuitous dirt route to Erfoud.
The nameplate dates back to 1951, when the original Patrol was designed as an all-terrain military vehicle. Although it shares most components and design with the Armada, it feels more rugged. The 400 horsepower, 5.6-liter gasoline engine demonstrates capability in just about any setting. It has a locking rear differential – a setting that makes off-roading easier – that the Armada lacks. There are some minor styling changes to the front bumper and rear that make it look sleeker and tougher than the Armada. It also has a better name. Armada sounds giant and ponderous. Patrol evokes a vehicle ready for business.
While the area feels remote, we remain within striking distance of civilization. This is the western of edge of the Sahara. True isolation remains to the east, where the desert stretches across Algeria, Libya and Egypt to the Red Sea.
Still, the surroundings are bleak and uninhabited, like vast sections of North Africa. Visibility extends for miles with only dirt and the occasional shrub accenting the landscape. That’s why a tower rising from the sand brings the caravan to a halt. It’s Stairway to Heaven, one of three structures constructed by German artist Hannesjörg Voth.
It’s in the middle of nowhere, out of view of most of the world. Built in 1987, the tower, shaped like a right triangle, stretches 50 feet tall.
We pass two other Voth installations, the Golden Spiral, a nautilus shell-like structure, and The City of Orion, whose towers are arranged in the pattern of the well-known constellation. The structures provide a brief respite from the desolation. We continue back onto the dirt trail to Erfoud, where we will spend the night.
The Navara Midsize Pickup
Day Two begins in the Nissan Navara. The route is a 115-mile, figure-eight drive through a variety of terrains that ends with classic Saharan sand dunes. We see camels, nomad tent villages and miles and miles of hardscrabble interrupted by an infrequent but graceful argan, a tree that survives on the borders of this part of the Sahara.
This Navara is the 12th generation of Nissan’s midsize pickup. Consider it a modern version of the current, aging Frontier, which has not seen a redesign 14 years after its U.S. launch. Nissan executives are cagey when asked why they haven’t replaced the Frontier with the modern Navara. The default answer is that one is a global product and the other is built for U.S. consumers.
This masks an important economic calculation. After 14 years, the current Frontier may be among Nissan’s most profitable vehicles. The automaker has long recovered its design cost, the expense of assembly equipment and the tooling to stamp the body panels. Nissan would have to build the Navara in the U.S. to avoid a 25 percent tariff on imported trucks. That would require the company to spend heavily on adapting the global truck to meet U.S. regulations and retooling the Frontier assembly line in Canton, Miss. Nissan must believe it’s better business to keep milking the Frontier as long as it can.
Nissan has announced plans to eventually build a new-generation Frontier at Canton. It’s already working on the new truck but hasn’t discussed specific timing. Expect the company to use the new Frontier as the platform for the next generation Navara as a way to unify its midsize pickup offerings and take advantage of greater sales volumes.
The drive takes us across a variety of terrain: soft sand, an occasional creek fed by seasonal rains, muddy track and packed dirt. One stopping point is the Gara Medouar, a crater-like formation used by the Portuguese as a holding pen for African slaves as part of colonial human trafficking.
The Navara seems built for the desert. It has a fuel-efficient, twin-turbo diesel engine that delivers up to 187 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque, more than enough to conquer the Sahara’s hardscape and dunes.
The Terra Seven-Seater
My day ends back in the Terra SUV navigating the Erg Chebbi Dunes. There’s a trick to driving dunes. You want momentum going up but should ease off at the top for the descent. You don’t want to go over too fast because you really don’t know what’s below. The sand is soft and the dunes steep. It’s easy to slip, slide and panic if you are a novice. I am a novice. I buried the rear wheels of the Terra so deep I needed help and a shovel to free the truck. Blame driver error.
The SUV fits up to seven occupants. It’s less refined than Nissan’s three-row Pathfinder, but a lot more fun. The ladder frame provides a rigidity that makes the Terra a dream off pavement. It also has enough creature comforts to make it a fine daily driver. It has advanced safety features such as blind-spot alert, lane-departure warning and a hill descent-control system. I find myself stopped at the top of a ridge unable to see over the hood while teetering over a drop. I turn on hill descent and trust the robot. The Terra crawls down the hill. A mountain goat couldn’t do better.
The Terra comes equipped for the job. The four-cylinder gas engine puts out 180 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. It has almost 9 inches of ground clearance. The Pathfinder, which comes only with a six-cylinder engine, has more horsepower – 284 – but less torque – 259 pound-feet – and just 7 inches of ground clearance.
The Titan Full-Size Pickup
Day Three was the shortest drive, about 65 miles across a mix of dirt and paved roads, much of it in the Titan. The route passes by large date palm groves and numerous kasbahs – angular citadels often built from brick – that protected tribal leaders and wealthy families from attack. At times the Titan’s length and width hindered its ability to follow the tracks of the smaller vehicles in sections of soft sand. But when it came to rain-swollen creeks, it excelled.
Despite the Nissan name, this is a full-size American pickup. It’s built in the U.S. and comes in the configurations domestic truck buyers like best. Yet Nissan struggles to sell even 50,000 per year. None of the Japanese nameplates have figured out how to effectively compete with the U.S. brands in this segment.
It’s no surprise that Nissan wants to make a statement about its trucks. The Japanese automaker established its brand by selling sedans, and more recently fuel-efficient, reliable passenger cars. But in the U.S. sales of crossovers, SUVs and pickups – all vehicles the industry categorizes as light trucks –account for about 70 percent of the market. SUVs and crossovers also are increasingly popular in China, the Middle East and many emerging markets. To compete in that world, automakers will have to prove that their vehicles can go anywhere – even to remote reaches of the Sahara.