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2004 Nissan Titan

Tempe, Ariz. – The Nissan test track facility in Arizona is a wonderful place, with every imaginable road surface available, twisted into all sorts of bends, turns and grades, all surrounded by a huge, high-speed banked oval track.

This is where tomorrow's Nissans are raced, crashed, baked, drenched, frozen and to a great extent "Americanized." This is where cultures can clash – sometimes, becoming The Battle of the Titans.

"When the very first running Titan chassis came in from Japan, we started it and the exhaust was almost silent," says Christopher Shannon of Nissan's truck division.

"We'd told the Japanese that we wanted a tuned muffler, but they couldn't understand why anyone would want to hear the engine, so they ignored us – we had to have it redesigned here with an American exhaust company. Some things just don't translate." That's what I was worried about in Detroit this past January, when the automotive press was introduced to the Nissan Titan.

It's the biggest pickup truck to come out of Japan, but we saw a large, beefy American-style truck that sported V8 muscle.

Still, truck buyers will tell you that size alone is not enough.

It has to be practical as well as tough, comfortable without being wimpy and it has to have "the look." Back then, I interviewed Diane Allan, chief designer of the Titan, who was charged with getting "the look." "Of course we looked at current designs, but the bulk of our ideas and inspiration came from spending months on the road with truck owners, at truck rallies and events – anywhere we could find people who embodied truck culture," she said.

Now in Arizona, Nissan staff were using words like "conventional" and "accepted technology" in talking about the Titan mule we would drive (a mule is a hand-built pre-production test model) – albeit not much, as we had only one mule for a dozen journalists.

Today, I'd get to feel the truck, but not alone; Shannon rode along with me and he continually stressed that the interior would all change and that my impressions should be focused on the drivetrain and suspension setup.

I think he was also there to make sure I didn't take any unauthorized pictures, which I innocently did earlier, creating a bit of a scene. Who knew? I was struck by the truck's stance, for Allan's design team has done a good job of matching the truck's power to its looks.

I can see where North American pickup truck culture has won out and where Nissan will benefit in the showroom.

Cruising the oval track, it seemed that if truck builders had a club then, right now, Nissan's first and only job would be to get accepted into that club. I think that's its aim.

Getting into any club means being similar and familiar to the existing members; you want them to be comfortable with you, not scared.

That's where all this "conventional and accepted tech" talk was coming from. Titan wants into the club and the North American Nissan people have convinced Japan that assimilation is the key.

Part of the initiation puzzle is going to be answered by the all-new Endurance 5.6 L DOHC V8 engine, which makes more than 300 horsepower and cranks out 375-plus lb-ft. of torque.

Make no mistake – despite some rumours of engine swaps, this motor is all-new and specifically built for the Titan.

Nissan staff are so happy with this motor that they offered us back-to-back rides in the competition's trucks, encouraging us to compare acceleration between them. Assembled were the '03 Ford F-150 V8, Dodge Ram V8 (Hemi), Chevy Silverado V8 and the Toyota Tundra V8.

We took them out in turn for a romp on the test track and, while the process was hardly scientific and mostly seat of the pants, I think the Titan will hold its own with the Dodge Ram; the Chevy and Ford will trail a little, but the Toyota will get left behind.

The Titan will be available with a towing package to accommodate more than 4,000 kg of towed weight capacity, pulled with a standard five-speed automatic transmission.

While this gearbox does share some common parts with the Q45 setup, most of it is heavier and hardened to deal with the added strains to which truck users subject their vehicles.

On the test track, this transmission pulled hard through the lower end of the powerband and, as it reached higher speeds, the gear ratio got a little longer, too – so much so that at 140 km/h it was turning just 2200 rpm in fifth gear.

When I kicked the accelerator down at this speed, the tranny dropped two gears, jumped, slid into fourth and held it into 160 km/h – and beyond, I'm sure, if I hadn't lifted my foot.

From a towing point of view, the power and torque are available down low and will move the load quickly and safely to highway speed, then the rpm will fall into a very economical cruise mode in fourth and fifth gear.

What remains to be seen is how much "hunting" the tranny will do on hilly terrain.

A Crew Cab Titan mule was hoisted up for all to see and what's amazing about the Titan underbody is that it's not amazing at all. The full steel body rests on a welded enclosed box ladder frame with skidplate protection under the oilpan, transfer case and the gas tank.

The rear axle is Dana-like (says Nissan, because Dana builds them) with leaf spring suspension and inboard shocks. Exhaust, hangers and suspensions are neatly pushed up, leaving the rear differential as the low point of the truck's underside.

What I didn't see was any Japanese techno-wizardry or wild suspension gadgets. The chassis and components are plain, simple and tough.

And, this is the point: be part of the club, first.

Titan will offer all the traction choices and some off-road suspension modes as time goes by. We didn't get to do any off-road driving this time around, which was probably for the best, with the bulk of the interior in the mule still loose.

Ian Forsyth, Nissan Canada's director of marketing, says the current King Cab design and the Crew Cab version we saw here will be dressed and ready for the auto show in New York City this week.

The production line won't start running for another eight months yet, and Titans won't be in showrooms until January at the earliest, where they'll presumably be priced alongside the competition.

And Nissan is already thinking about the next steps that may be offered: heavy-duty upgrades and a possible diesel engine are strong possibilities as the Titan matures and the manufacturing plant in Canton, Miss., ramps up to full production to take on the Big Three.

Howard Elmer, a freelance journalist (powersports @ sympatico.ca), prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by the automaker.

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