Smoke and soot cling to my skin from the raging 40,000 acres of wildfire just over the next ridge near beautiful Monterey, California. The sun smolders overhead as horses whinny nervously as I pull up and park my new, leather-filled Nissan Armada and set up for a photo shoot. My brow furrows from a stinging cocktail of perspiration, ash, and determination. Just over that ridge, 3,000 firefighters putting their lives on the line. I need to get these photos. This could get interesting.
The Armada is a massive thing, redesigned from the ground-up atop the underpinnings of Nissan’s long-serving Land Cruiser-fighter called the Patrol. And while the Armada may be softer and more luxurious than its accomplished cousin, the soot-dusted SUV seems at home in a hairy situation. The Armada has struggled for years to attract buyers, so everything from the front fascia, to the drivetrain, to the interior have been redesigned. Still, amid the chaos, I wonder if the Nissan has what it takes to be a success.
The new Armada has an outstanding plush leather interior, and while the Platinum version I drove was loaded to the gills, the $44,400 base SV model could be just as well-received when people see what it has to offer. Internally, the Armada is smaller than it used to be, but after time in every seat, I discovered that even the third row gave my 6-foot frame enough head and legroom. Seats either fold out of the way with the tug of a latch or the push of a button, accent colors and materials are near-Infiniti grade, and every model comes standard with a kicking, 13-speaker Bose audio system.
The redesigned Armada also features a stronger 5.6-liter Endurance V8 in it that sports best-in class 390 horsepower (up from 317), as well as four more foot-pounds of torque, so it can tow a segment-leading 8,500 pounds with its standard tow hitch. Now paired with a flawless seven-speed gearbox, the nearly 3-ton Armada has the ability to sail silently on to 14/19 miles per gallon if you baby the throttle just right. And I do mean “silently.” Even with the hammer down and Bridgestone Dueler tires screaming in protest, the acoustic glass on this SUV kept the cabin serenely quiet.
The Platinum model has features like heated/ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, captain’s chairs and a removable center console, best-in-class head and legroom in the fold-flat second row bench, and standard Nissan navigation and weather. It’s filled with virtually every safety feature Nissan offers, thanks to its comprehensive “Safety Shield Package.” There’s also a moving object warning system and an around view camera monitor that allows drivers to select various views. So whether you’re dodging shopping carts or gnarled tree stumps, spotting hidden dangers in the Armada is now easier than ever.
The Armada may not have all the off-road prowess of the go-anywhere Patrol, but it’s far tougher than you might expect. Nissan sent us on a tight but diverse off-road track, and although the majority of buyers will never use it like this, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Armada handled itself. Sure, it doesn’t come with Kevlar tires, multiple locking differentials, or a ride height that keeps the side boards scuff-free, but those driving cameras do help, and its thicker side frames make the chassis 20% stiffer. Having double wishbone suspension at all four corners and twin-tube shocks doesn’t hurt either.
But for all of its lofty luxury, solid tech, and refocused off-road underpinnings, the redesigned Armada has problems that can’t be ignored, starting with its styling. It’s not offensive, but its rounded lines, bulging bumpers, and protruding tail lamps won’t win many new converts either. Inside, things are a little better thanks to Nissan’s nice leather, soft-touch materials, and color combinations, but faux wood and some cheap plastic look gaudy compared to the rosewood and aluminum touches you find in the new Mazda CX-9.
There are disappointments in the tech department as well, with the dated driver information display being the first offender. Compared to the sleek, full-color graphics found in its GM-built competitors, Nissan’s setup looks and performs like a decade old vehicle instead of a new model. There’s also only one USB port in the entire cabin and it’s up front, there are no LED interior lamps, and the navi system just isn’t on par with some of its competitors. It’s also impossible to get the Armada with a panoramic moonroof, even fully-loaded.
Other major misses include a power driver’s seat that won’t lower very far (making for an uncomfortable driving experience if you’re short in stature), and when the third row is in use, storage space is curbed due to shallow undertray bins. And it differentiates itself from the Patrol – and much of its competition – by lacking disconnecting sway bars, and multiple traction modes for sand, mud, and other tough terrain.
Yet despite its many shortcomings, I still found myself liking the Armada. After all, it plowed effortlessly over trails, around sweeping canyon corners, and up inclines to that ash covered corral where I conducted my photo shoot. It’s pleasant to drive, and is far more nimble than its 3-ton frame would have you think. Everything from the over-sized sway bars to auto-leveling rear suspension keeps things in check. At the end of the day, this is a great, tough road trip car, with all of the amenities attached. And as I traversed back down the mountainside, I felt confident in it.
If there’s one takeaway from driving the all-new 2017 Nissan Armada, it’s that it offers more than meets the eye, and it’s only going to get better with each update and refresh. What we see today is far from the end for Nissan’s full-size SUV; instead, it feels like the beginning of a new chapter for a brand that prides itself on creating “innovations that excite.”