by Gabe Beita Kiser
It just had to be a lucky coincidence that Nissan picked Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, to release the newest edition of its Armada. When I arrived on scene ready to send Mother Nature scurrying with 5.6-liters of fury and a round four-wheel-drive selector knob, I found that the Earth was fighting back. Ash was raining down on the armada of Armadas Nissan had sent for us to test, and even the typically blue skies had an orange tint, all of which was caused by wild fires raging near our hotel.
The setting couldn’t have been a better metaphor for how things were going for Nissan’s aging truck and SUV lineup. Everyone knows that the SUV segment is hot. According to Nissan, it isn’t only the crossovers and minivan lookalikes that are selling like hotcakes, it’s the full size family haulers too. By that logic, it’s a bit surprising that a new Armada hadn’t come sooner. The earliest ancestor of the SUV sprouted as a mutation of the Pathfinder and established itself as an independent species as far back as 2003. A mild refresh hit dealership lots five years later and ever since, Nissan has been content with letting the behemoth go stale. Thus far, only 5,251 Armadas have been sold in 2016, a 27% drop in sales from the same period of time last year.
In other words, if Nissan didn’t put the current Armada out of its misery, the public was more than happy to do the job. Before hitting the drawing board, product planners sat down to build a truck for their ideal buyer. If you’re in your early 40s, have kids, make $135,000 per year, and have a college degree hanging on your wall, then Nissan would love it if you tuned in right about now. In case you haven’t noticed, the new Armada bears little resemblance to the old model. That’s because it’s no longer shares a platform with the Titan pickup truck. Instead, Carlos Ghosn’s team of engineers decided to use the proven and respected Nissan Patrol platform as the bones for the new Armada.
To adapt American expectations to the rugged Patrol platform, engineers placed an emphasis on merging comfort and roominess to the stout, capable off-roader. During the pre-drive presentation, Nissan’s product planning manager threw around words like “quality” and “toughness,” together with “family” and “capability,” to drive the point home. The result is something that looks like a huge departure from the Armada of the past. Instead of a bulging roofline in the midsection, this Armada has an organic but staunch flow to it. The design looks much better than its full-size SUV competitors because it retains the traditional boxy and muscular shape while incorporating smooth lines.
Nissan didn’t transplant the confident smirk of the previous Armada onto the Patrol too well, but the rest of the car is executed elegantly. None of this serves to hide the fact that visually, it looks to be the same size as the Titanic. In reality its wheelbase has shrunk by 2.1 inches, but length has been extended 1.2 inches over its predecessor. We’d expect part of that growth to be due to the fact that this Armada’s frame is 40 mm wider than the previous model’s, but that only translates to a 0.6 inch extension of the hips and doesn’t tell the whole story. A quick glance inside solves the mystery of the mass because the Armada may as well be a concert hall. Opt for the 13-speaker Bose sound system and it will become a concert hall with seating for eight.
With best in class second row headroom and legroom (40 inches and 41 inches respectively) as well as optional rear captain’s chairs separated by a center console, this SUV is a viable alternative to a limousine. Buttons link driver and front passenger demands to motorized seats that comply with repositiong whims by moving in one of six directions. The rear lift gate is of course automated, as are the folding 60/40 third row bench seats. Heating comes standard on the front seats as well as the steering wheel and can be had with the rear captain’s chairs as well. Opt for that package and you may as well spend the extra dough to get the rear entertainment system that puts two screens behind the front seat headrests and a remote in the rear center console.
Like a limousine, the ride isn’t bad either thanks to that wider frame, which serves to make this model 20% stiffer than its predecessor. When placed on double wishbone suspension with rear auto leveling capacity, it translates to a silk smooth glide that gives the Armada a luxury feel. Aiding that is Nissan’s heavily touted “library level” of interior noise brought about by the stiffer chassis, a refined engine idle, and by swapping out the windshield and front door windows for acoustic glass. The result is miraculous. I had experienced it previously in the Infiniti QX80 and only realized how quiet it was when I later drove a $130,000 BMW 7 Series that was chattier than both Patrol variants.
It's not like the ride is perfect though. This is still an old school body-on-frame chassis, so expect some rubbery and jiggly shudders throughout when the road gets unfriendly. Despite the variable valve timing system and direct injection fuel delivery, the engine feels old school too. As bad as it sounds, I mean that in a good way. It delivers a flatter torque curve than its predecessor and more importantly its best-selling competitor, the Chevy Tahoe, but it’s still a large gas-guzzling 5.6-liter V8. When placed inside the QX80, the EPA pegs it at 14 mpg city but my lead foot averaged 8 mpg in stop and go traffic. What it does deliver is power, 390 hp and 394 lb-ft of torque to be exact, or enough to give it a best-in-class towing capacity of 8,500 pounds.
The gearbox is up to snuff with an automatic transmission fluid warming system that keeps the gear oil from snaking its way into the cooler upon start up and only allows access when the computer deems it hot enough. This helps the seven-speed auto get within range of the normal operating temperature quicker to extend the unit’s life and keep it running efficiently. Given the access to a higher number of gears, the seven forward speeds are optimized for hard acceleration from standstill and once up and running shift high to sip fuel with prudence. Nissan’s pre-planned driving routes didn’t feature any around town routes, but when I drove the QX80 on busy, aggressive, and crowded streets, the application was a bit unrefined.
On back country roads, the highway, and on the small obstacle-laden off-road course that Nissan had so kindly set up for us, the drivetrain did well to manage the mass. Like racing, off-roading used to be a pure sport unencumbered by technological gizmos that wanted to do the job for you. But as a full-size family hauler, the Armada must feature these goodies since the target audience is more likely to pile kids, spouse, and dog in for a weekend camping trip than go toe to toe with a Wrangler at Moab. As such, Nissan’s Around View monitoring system comes in handy. The large hood blocks any downward viewing and competes for a driver’s attention with the horizon, so when a steep hill emerges, a push of the camera button fixes things.
Need to see where the front passenger’s wheel is headed? Simply select it on the touch screen monitor and viola, crisis averted. The 360-degree cameras are part of Nissan’s All-Around Safety Shield package and are essentially an electronic array of systems intended to keep even the worst of drivers from hurting anyone when behind the wheel of a 2.5-ton SUV. Lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, intelligent cruise control, forward collision prevention/mitigation, and a moving object detection system are there to fill in for lapses in driver attention with warnings or physical intervention. Having these systems at a driver’s fingertips definitely provides a feeling of relaxation when it comes to on-road driving.
Off road, the SUV relies on electronics to dole out power to the appropriate wheels but it’s the Patrol chassis that allows for travel over disconcertingly steep hills and for handstands when axle articulation runs out. We suspect that many owners will relegate the Armada to around-town transportation duty and will only brush up against a dirt road on camping trips. Given that Nissan stuck slick gas-saving tires on the Armada, we suspect it thinks the same, but it’s nice to know the capability is there when needed. In the US, full-size competitors are the Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon, Ford Expedition, and the Toyota Sequoia, but elsewhere in the world the Patrol goes against the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Land Rover Range Rover.
This means that once the city manners are eliminated, the Armada should be able to commit to some serious off-roading. In terms of price the it should stay cheaper than the competition, like its predecessor. The base 2WD version starts at $45,395 after you add the $995 destination and handling charge, but we have yet to find out how high the top trims will go. This is considerably more than the $38,510 that the previous base Armada commanded, but this steep pricing hike only serves to reinforce our theory that the Xterra is making a return sooner rather than later. A base QX80 starts at $63,250, so we can forecast that the new Armada shouldn’t cross the $60,000 mark once fully loaded.
For brand-loyal Americans, the Armada may not convince them to ditch the Chevy Tahoe or Ford Expedition. But we think Nissan will find new and loyal customers in those buyers who like to explore all of the options. For car lovers like myself (not necessarily the target demographic for this SUV) who are heavily biased towards the Land Cruiser, the Armada begs the question: Why not buy its closest competitor for half the price? We'd love to compare the two, but for the time being we’ll have to wait until mid-August for the Armada to hit dealerships. After all, what’s a few more weeks of wait time for a new SUV that’s been running late going on a few years now?