IT’S DAUNTING looking up at the vast mass of reddened Sahara sand that swoops and swirls towards the vibrant blue backdrop, but the car we’re driving, a newcomer called the Nissan Terra, doesn’t seem to be sharing same trepidation.

While its old-school 2.5-litre diesel engine is grunting hard with all 450Nm banding together to trudge through the shifting granules, there’s little to suggest the Terra is struggling.

The standard 18-inch highway Bridgestone Duelers have been lowered to 18psi, but otherwise our Terra is stock standard, its flashy chrome highlights indicative that this one we’re in is top of the range, leather and all. Our target for this drive is somewhere higher than we are now, the seemingly endless expanse of barren sand a stunning backdrop for lovers of off-roading.

Our convoy includes a quartet of Nissans, including the AT32 variant of the Navara, the familiar Y62 Patrol and the Americaonly Titan; but it’s the Terra we’re most interested in, as the seven-seat 4x4 high on Nissan Australia’s want list.

Since 2017, when the Y61 Patrol took its last dusty gasp, Nissan has been without a diesel 4x4 wagon designed to tackle the tough stuff. Considering the near-60-year history of Nissan off-roaders in Australia – most of them Patrols – it’s a sad state, the Nissan faithful keen to see a return to form.

Sure, the 5.6-litre V8 of the Y62 Patrol is a terrific off-road alternative – and one making light work of the Sahara Desert dunes alongside us – but its 140-litre fuel tank and sharp pricing simply isn’t enough to tempt the Land Cruiser faithful from their diesels. This leaves the Terra with some big expectations. Sharing its underpinnings and most of its front styling with the Navara ute, the Terra in many ways fills the wheel tracks of previous generation Pathfinders, a car softened for the masses. The modern Pathy is more city streets and school runs, courtesy of its car-based architecture – little surprise then Nissan Australia is keen on the Terra. The prospect of a seven-seat diesel riding on a ladder frame chassis clearly holds big appeal.

“Terra is a vehicle that we think would work well in Australia,” said Nissan in a prepared statement. “However, a launch in Australia is still under investigation.”

That language is already a retreat from the early prospects of the Terra heading Down Under; when it was revealed early in 2018 it was pegged as a car for Asian markets. Australia was not on the radar, at least until execs from Nissan Australia started pleading their case. Now it seems more a matter of when, not if – even if the ‘when’ is likely to be 2020 or beyond.

That said, the chief product specialist for Nissan off-roaders and utes, Pedro Deanda, acknowledges there are challenges and higher customer requirements in Australia, something the company learnt in sending the original (undercooked) Navara D23 Down Under in 2015.

“Australia is not the biggest market in terms of volume; in terms of customer demands, it’s clearly a leading market,” Deanda said.

Perched on top of one of the myriad dunes provides a chance to explore the interior of the Terra, something that highlights some of those challenges. There’s some clever thinking with things such as the rear-vision camera which adopts the latest Patrol’s camera and screen, providing an uninterrupted view of whatever is behind. That the camera (the second rear-facing camera; there’s a second one lower in the tailgate) sits in the sweep of the rear windscreen wiper means mud, water or dust won’t get in the way of that rear view.

The middle-row seating that can be flipped at the press of a button is also a neat touch for families. However, the seatbelts would need updating before they came to Australia; there is a lap-only belt in the centre and not enough child-seat tether points. They’re minor things; common production issues faced by many cars sold in Australia, the Toyota Hilux included. The omission of autonomous emergency braking – now required for a modern five-star ANCAP rating – is also something easily fixed and on Nissan’s radar.

Then there’s the engine. The 2.5 doesn’t meet current Australian emissions standard or the customer expectations in this class, with refinement falling short. Deanda says the Navara’s 2.3 can easily be adopted, something that would get the benefits of our higher quality diesel. That’s a relief, because the 2.5 is a vocal engine that rumbles away beneath the bonnet and increases in intensity as throttle is fed. Still, it gives a very good idea of performance, its 140kW/450Nm outputs identical to those of the Navara’s twin-turbo 2.3. While it works fine during our sandy adventures, you wouldn’t want any less.

Away from the dunes the engine is more relaxed, its generous torque doing the hard work and ensuring easy progress hooked up to a seven-speed auto, one that shifts cleanly and decisively, albeit without some of the thinking-ahead smarts of more advanced self-shifters. As with the Navara there are coil springs all around, an inherent firmness to the tuning that endows confidence crunching into creeks and crevices.

It’s a surprisingly suitable test track. Vast chunks of eastern Morocco aren’t dissimilar to the Australian outback, some of the rocky plains reminiscent of the Oodnadatta or Strzelecki tracks, the creek crossings and muddy splurges commensurate with what you may encounter in the bush.

With speeds hovering around 60km/h or higher the Terra comfortably trudges along, its dampers capably controlling the never-ending bumps and jolts. It’s no magic carpet ride, but it’s well controlled and in keeping with expectations. There are also no qualms with getting serious, some steel underbody protection and 225mm of clearance making for easy progress. A rear diff lock helps with traction in more serious off-roading; although, the traction control also helped in the slippery patches we encountered. There’s a full-sized spare tucked under the tail.

The Terra borrows the part-time lowrange 4WD system from the Navara, its rotary selector making easy on-the-fly shifts to 4H. While full-time 4WD would be handy, its simpler setup at least gives an idea of where the Terra would most likely slot into the market – the Toyota Fortuner and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport obvious rivals.

An educated guess would have pricing starting around $45K. For that you’d be getting a wagon that is more focused on where it can go than how it pampers.

Inside, the roof lining has a cheap mouse hair-like material, the plastics atop the dash hard and unwelcoming. However, the basics are there, including the Navara’s dash-top binnacle complete with 12V power; and it’s all functional, with good storage areas and a central touchscreen incorporating Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Vents in the roof feed air to the back two rows, a separate A/C controller allowing settings from the rear. Those in the middle row can slide the 60/40 split-fold seats forward and back, and legroom is generous.

At 4885mm long and 1865mm wide, the Terra is 90mm longer and 10mm wider than a Fortuner. Despite its truncated and generic rump, it’s closer in exterior dimensions to a Ford Everest, which helps with that interior space. Those in the third row won’t be stretching out, the tight legroom best left to kids who may not appreciate the rising rear window that impedes side vision.

Ultimately, though, it’s the ability to run it as a five-seater and load it up for the big adventure that makes the Terra more 4x4 appealing – and within reach. The prospects of it helping grow Nissan’s off-road attack in Australia are certainly firming, which all bodes well for returning a competent and capable frame-based diesel seven-seater to the Nissan stables.