A humble, uncomplaining, unglamorous workhorse if ever there was one, Nissan’s forward-control, rear-wheel drive Cabstar has been given a makeover.
Now known as the NT400 Cabstar (the initials stand for Nissan Truck), it comes with a restyled cab with a new front grille and revised clear-glass headlamp clusters. Other changes include the introduction of a new engine variant, an increased payload capacity, new equipment and longer service intervals.
Available as a bare, ready-to-be-bodied, single-cab chassis – new connectors and wiring harnesses are in place to make bodying easier – it is also supplied as a ready-to-go-to-work tipper, dropside and box van. Gross weights range from 2.8 to 4.5 tonnes and you can order it as a double-cab chassis too.
The old top-of-the-range 3.0-litre diesel has been scrapped in favour of a slightly less powerful but 45kg lighter 145hp version of the 2.5-litre carried over from the previous model. The same engine can also be specified at 121hp and 136hp.
Short, medium and long-wheelbase variants are marketed, and we opted for a 35.14 medium-wheelbase (2.9m) dropside at 136hp.
Forward control is where the driver sits above rather than behind the engine and has traditionally been associated with poor cab access, but this isn’t an issue for the NT400 because all you need to do is grab the handle on the A-pillar, put your right foot on the handily positioned step, swing up over the wheel arch and plonk yourself onto the driver’s seat. It’s not the most elegant of movements, but it is not a particularly awkward or difficult exercise either.
Once behind the wheel you get to enjoy good vision ahead and down the vehicle’s flanks thanks to the big exterior rear-view mirrors, while sitting at the front of the little truck is a particular advantage when waiting at a T-junction because it is so easy to see approaching traffic. Vision directly rearwards through the three-seater cab’s back window is compromised, however, by the body’s punched-steel bulkhead.
Although the driver’s seat is not height-adjustable, the steering column is, and there is a lot more oddment storage space than there appears to be at first sight. Admittedly, there are no pockets in the doors, but there is a useful lidded bin in the centre of the dashboard, not one but two glove boxes (although neither is lockable), and a shelf above the windscreen on the driver’s side. In addition, there is a slot for an A4 clipboard above the instrument panel, five shelves and cubbyholes of varying sizes in the middle of the fascia (one of which will accommodate a digital tachograph if required) and a cup-holder at each extremity of the dashboard. Twist the holder, and if the cab heater is on then your tea or coffee will be blasted with hot air to keep it warm. If your NT400 happens to be fitted with air-conditioning, though, and you have a can of soft drink in the holder, then it can be doused with icy air to keep the contents cool. There are more small shelves on the back wall of the cab and to the rear of the handbrake lever.
Fold down the back of the inboard passenger seat and it turns into a useful desk, complete with a clip to hold paperwork in place. Opening the desk lid reveals a shallow compartment for invoices, delivery notes and so on underneath. The seat itself
only offers restricted legroom, and the occupant is held in place by an airliner-style lap strap rather than a proper lap-and-diagonal belt. While it is just about okay for short local journeys, it is not really suitable for a long-distance run.
Featuring a phenolic-coated anti-slip plywood floor supported by metal cross-bearers, the NT400’s high-quality dropside body made by bodybuilder Scattolini’s Spanish operation comes with alloy sides plus an alloy tailgate. Both the sides and the tailgate are easy to release. The latter can be dropped down so that it sits horizontally, or lowered completely if you unhook the supporting cables. That gives easier access to the cargo bed thanks to the handy fold-down step mounted on the tailgate’s inner face.
There are eight retractable load tie-down rings – four in each of the side raves – while the aforementioned punched-steel bulkhead should help protect the cab from damage if an unsecured load slides forward.
Maximum load length is 3660mm, maximum width is 1840mm, maximum depth is 400mm, and the rear loading height is 907mm. Gross payload is a very healthy 1571kg, and the NT400 can haul a braked trailer grossing at a hefty 3500kg.
The NT400’s four-cylinder 16-valve common-rail direct-injection turbocharged and intercooled diesel produces maximum power at 3600rpm. Top torque of 270Nm bites across a wide 1600–3200rpm plateau and the engine is married to a six-speed manual gearbox. Exhaust gas recirculation and a diesel particulate filter are fitted, and all the driver has to do to prompt the filter to regenerate is press a button in the cab.
Chassis and steering
Independent suspension is installed at the front while rigid axle plus parabolic leaf springs with an anti-roll bar help support the rear. The NT400’s 15-inch steel wheels were fitted with Continental Vanco 2 195/70 R15C tyres. Twin rear wheels were fitted to the model we tested, with a spare wheel positioned underneath the body and a removable heavy-duty plastic wheel chock mounted on the offside chassis rail.
Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering offers a 11.9m turning circle wall to wall, shrinking to 10.9m kerb-to-kerb.
The Nissan boasts a slick gear change and surprisingly good handling for a vehicle of its configuration. Push it into a bend and it hangs on remarkably well thanks in part to its direct, responsive steering. It is impressively manoeuvrable at low speeds too – a useful characteristic when trying to weave around a congested building site.
Unfortunately, the NT400 suffers from a poor unladen ride, crashing and bouncing over every pothole. Heave 20 or so 25kg bags of sand into the back, which is what we did, and things improve markedly, but without them you hop about all over the place.
As you accelerate away from rest your progress is accompanied by a loud whoosh from the inlet manifold. First gear is low and it is a bit of a step up to second, but thereafter the gears seem sensibly spaced.
The vehicle pulls strongly at low speeds, which is what you want in a van that will be used primarily on local work and is likely to be laden for most of the time, which, of course, means many users will not view the dire unladen ride as a major drawback. The little truck struggles a bit at motorway speeds and you have to work hard with the gear stick to keep it at 70mph, but it is not designed as a fast intercity cruiser; it is far more likely to be found hauling gravel from a builders’ merchant to a building site a few miles down the road.
An MP3-compatible radio/CD player is part of a newly introduced package that includes a USB, iPod and aux-in connection, and Bluetooth connectivity. Integrated turn indicator repeaters distinguish the NT400’s big exterior mirrors, which in our case were electrically heated and adjustable. The specification also included electric windows and a heated driver’s seat with two levels of intensity. A new multi-functional display gives instant and average fuel consumption among other pieces of information.
Buying and running
The NT400’s tiltable cab gives exemplary all-round access to the engine, while a service is required every two years/25,000 miles. Somewhat oddly, the windscreen washer filler point is positioned next to the step up to the cab on the driver’s side. The brake fluid top-up point is right at the end of the dashboard, again on the driver’s side, but you will have to tilt the cab if you want to dip the oil.
The van is protected by a hefty front bumper and a three-year/100,000-mile warranty, while Nissan quotes an official combined fuel consumption figure of 31.0mpg – we averaged around 30mpg – with CO2 output set at 238g/km.
The NT400 Cabstar is equipped with ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution. A limited slip rear differential was installed too, as were front fog lights. Disc brakes are fitted all round to all NT400s; in our case ventilated with a diameter of 231mm at the front, and solid with a diameter of 238mm at the back
A driver’s airbag comes as standard along with remote central locking, and the cab’s doors can be locked from the driver’s seat using a switch on the dashboard.
The original Cabstar was launched in 1968 and wore a Datsun badge, although the concept was basically the same as that of the current model: a no-nonsense forward-control workhorse.
The NT400’s immediate predecessor debuted in the UK in early 2007 with a cab aimed more at the European market, a pair of 2.5-litre diesels engineered specifically for the Cabstar, and a 3.0-litre diesel carried over from the previous line-up but reworked and with its output increased from 125hp to 150hp. The newcomer was the first vehicle to make use of a new global ladder frame chassis platform developed by Nissan for light duty trucks. The 2007 iteration of the Cabstar was also sold through Renault Truck dealers as the Maxity, although volumes were never huge.
What Van? rather liked the Cabstar.
“It has always been a sturdy workhorse, but Nissan has now managed to make it a great deal more civilised and refined,” we wrote back in October 2008. “A job well done.”
A dependable builder’s workhorse that will trundle around uncomplainingly for years, and really only let down by its uncomfortable unladen ride.