by Ian Wright
When it comes to rugged body-on-frame, V8 powered SUVs, the Nissan Armada is still fighting the good fight. For 2021, the big three-row crossover has been given an update to bring it into modernity. It starts with a bump in power in power for the 5.6-liter Endurance V8 to 400 horsepower and 413 lb-ft of torque, enabling Nissan to claim best-in-class standard power outputs against competitor models like the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon. The extra muscle also comes with increased towing capacity, and now the Armada can pull up to 8,500 pounds, yet another best-in-class standard figure. Along with its enhanced capabilities, the 2021 Nissan Armada comes with a rugged looking facelift, including the newly redesigned Nissan badge, and a slew of extra standard technology features like an all-new largest-in-class 12.3-inch touch screen, wireless Apple CarPlay, in-vehicle Wi-Fi, and a comprehensive suite of safety technology.
Nissan is not hiding its intent to bring the Armada out of the shadows of its competition in the large luxury SUV segment. However, what's noticeably absent is extra off-roading equipment available on the Patrol model sold outside the US, such as Hydraulic Body Motion Control suspension, sway bar disconnect, and locking differentials. Those who are hoping for the Armada to start competing with more hardcore off-road models, well, they're going to have to remain patient.
Due to America still being crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Nissan forewent the usual first drive event. Instead, the automaker dropped a Platinum-trimmed model on our doorstep, sanitized it, and left the key so we could explore the vehicle and our local California landscape at leisure.
The 2021 Armada is the first Nissan model to sport the newly designed badge housed in the front in a new V-Motion grille. The new grille has new LED lighting mounted on either side, both falling into Nissan's new design language, and mounted above a new front bumper. The new front bumper also gives the Armada a two-degree better approach angle for when the tracks get bumpy. New front fenders complete the new chiseled and more confident look of the Armada. The rear has also been given a strong work over and features a new protruding bumper and LED taillights. Dark-painted roof rails are also standard and have a 220-pound weight rating. Our test vehicle arrived with Hermosa Blue Pearl paint and the Platinum trim's 22-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, but buyers can select from one of six other hues including Super Black, Brilliant Silver, Mocha Almond Pearl, Gun Metallic, the new-for-2021 Coulis Red Pearl, or Aspen white TriCoat, the only premium paint option.
Nissan's 5.6-Liter Endurance V8 carries over into 2021, but it has been upgraded in line with changes made to the 2021 Titan. Last year, it made 390 hp and 394 lb-ft of torque. Now, it makes 400 horsepower and 413 lb-ft of torque, which isn't a massively significant bump but enough for Nissan to claim the Armada has more power than any rivals with their base engines. It also helps increase the Armada's standard towing capacity to 8,500 pounds in both 2WD and 4WD configurations, beating out the competition's base models. Also available for the towing crowd is a Trailer Brake Controller with a tow hitch receiver and Trailer Sway Control.
Unfortunately, a naturally aspirated V8 means fuel economy isn't optimal. In 2WD form, the 2021 Armada returns 14/19/16 mpg city/highway/combined, while the 4WD model returns 13/18/15 mpg. This gets more expensive if you want to take advantage of the new power figures, as they require premium gas, although the Armada will run happily on regular-octane unleaded gas.
Mechanically, nothing has changed in the Armada's drivetrain other than a little extra power. The seven-speed automatic transmission still has good response times for a large vehicle and, although the big V8 revs lazily, it picks up speed at a decent lick as the revs build. You also get a decent dose of the V8's growl, despite the well-insulated cabin. When it comes to the ride and handling, you have to make allowances because it's a heavy beast and built with off-roading in mind. The steering becomes a little vague at freeway speed, and there's a small dead spot in the on-center steering. None of this is an issue if you're used to driving trucks or body-on-frame SUVs. The ride is fine around town and smooth on a well-maintained freeway. It's equally acceptable on a rough dirt track that would have a car-based SUV shaking its occupants to insanity.
The 4-wheel-drive system kept us moving forward in dry, dusty conditions; even when stopping on a steep hill and mashing the throttle in exactly the way you're taught not to when going off-road. We know the Armada will deal with wet slippery conditions with equal aplomb from previous experience, and it has a lot more axle articulation than its ride height suggests. While there are no options for diff lockers or other off-road specific technology, the 4-wheel-drive Armada comes with high- and low-range transfer cases. The traction control system also has a mode for snow, towing, and hill-start assist.
Something Nissan excels at is big comfortable front seats in its trucks and SUVs, and the Armada continues that tradition. The cabin has room to spare for even the most enthusiastic fast food fan, and between the front seats is a large storage bin that opens from both the front and back. Our test vehicle was outfitted with the captain's chair option for the middle row, making it a seven-seater rather than the standard eight. Either way, the center row is configured; there's a generous 41 inches of legroom on offer. It's a different story for the third row, and the 28.4 inches of legroom ensures it's only of real use for smaller kids.
We're fans of the curvy interior of the Armada and the updates to the infotainment system. However, it is a little jarring to see a huge modern infotainment screen sitting on top of an angular center stack surrounded by the dashboard's soft curves. The standard 12.3-inch is excellent, though; it's quick to respond and full of features.
In-vehicle Wi-Fi is also standard, as is a wireless phone charger, and the addition of wireless Apple CarPlay is a big plus, although you still need to plug in to use Android Auto. Also standard is HD Radio, and SiriusXM is just a subscription away. The Family Entertainment System, comprising dual eight-inch headrest screens, two pairs of wireless headphones, and HDMI input, is only standard on the Platinum Armada.
From a storage perspective, when the third row is folded flat, cargo space is improved from a vaguely useful 16.5 cubic feet to a utilitarian 49.9 cu ft. Drop the center seats, and there's a cavernous 95.4 cubes to use. Along with practical, the interior is quiet, with a new acoustic glass windscreen being the largest contributor to the lack of intrusive noise.
The 2021's exterior styling and interior technology update are noteworthy, but even more so for family buyers is the driver assistance technology also now included across all models in the lineup. It includes Nissan's Safety Shield 360 suite, consisting of automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, high beam assist, and rear automatic braking. On top of that, adaptive cruise control with a full speed range is grouped with forward collision warning and lane intervention is standard, while off the options list, you can enable a surround-view camera and auto-dimming rearview mirror.
This generation of the Nissan Armada is built on an old platform, but it's not as old as some of its contemporaries like the Toyota Sequoia or the much more expensive Land Cruiser. However, they're all still around for a reason - they're robust platforms. While there is no getting over a body-on-frame platform's limitations, the 2021 model year improvements bring the Armada nicely up to date. It fits neatly into a category where it has above average off-road chops, excellent towing capacity, and can haul people and cargo around in comfort and style. It will take a whole new vehicle to compete with Ford's Expedition and the new Chevrolet Tahoe at the top of the segment, but that doesn't mean the Armada should be overlooked as a genuine value proposition to be had.
Nissan hasn't yet announced the pricing of the 2021 Armada, but we don't expect it to rise drastically, if at all, over the 2021's $47,500 starting price. Along with three trim grades at launch, Nissan also promises a new base S model will arrive, bringing even more value to the Armada. For now, the 2021 Armada will come in SV, SL, and the high-end Platinum trim. Each is available to order with 2WD and 4WD drivetrain configurations. Three packages are also available: SV Appearance Package, the Captain's Chairs Seat Package for the SL and Platinum grades, and a Midnight Edition package with black exterior logos, black painted mirrors, black painted roof rails, rear LED lamps with black paint finisher, a black painted grille, and black painted front and rear skid plates.