2017 Nissan Armada a new lease on life


For four years straight, from the start of 2011 to the end of 2014, the national average price of a gallon of gas in the U.S. ranged from three to four bucks per gallon, according to GasBuddy.com. Combine this trend with Nissan's need to meet rising corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, and it is easy to understand why the company was ready to let the slow-selling Armada full-size SUV die at the end of its lengthy run.

Then, everything changed. Gas prices plummeted. Unemployment kept falling. Incomes began rising. And Americans suffering from short-term memory loss were suddenly falling back in love with big-ass SUVs.

Nissan scrambled. It was too late to design and engineer something to put on the new Titan half-ton truck platform slated for production in 2016. Not that it would if it could, as cheap gas and a healthier economy could prove to be fleeting. Still, sales of profit-rich sport-utes were rising and Nissan certainly wanted some of that action. What could the company do?

As it turns out, Nissan decided to run the same playbook it did when it launched a new Infiniti QX56 for 2011. The company took the Nissan Patrol, a globally available SUV never sold in the U.S., spruced it up for American consumption, and slapped an "Armada" nameplate on the towering tailgate.

Problem solved.

While driving this 2017 Nissan Armada Platinum around Los Angeles during the week of Thanksgiving, lots of Infiniti QX80 owners took notice. Sharing the Patrol's platform and architecture with the Infiniti, the Armada looks much like the QX80, especially when viewed in profile.

Up front, everything forward of the windshield is unique to the Armada. The look is classic Nissan thanks to a grille and lighting arrangement that the company first used on the original 2004 Titan truck and then expanded to the Frontier and Pathfinder. Sure, the V-shaped grille is more pronounced here, but the bold chrome grille uprights, faux skid plate, and broad wraparound headlights represent a well-worn design theme.

Around back, the massive bumper cover looks too big even for an SUV the Armada's size. Large taillights, a chamfered liftgate, and a unique rear window help to further differentiate the Nissan from its upscale Infiniti sibling.

Inside, differences between the Armada and the QX80 are more difficult to discern. The dashboard, controls and materials are lifted nearly intact from the Infiniti, save for an analog clock, but the Infiniti benefits from nicer finishes and fancier instrumentation.

Infiniti also offers premium semi-aniline leather for the QX80, a much softer grade than the thick, tough cowhides in my Armada Platinum test model. Nevertheless, the Armada proved quite comfortable over 850 miles of driving during a hectic holiday week.

Drivers sit way up high and tall in the Armada's saddle. Even a Chevy Tahoe seems shorter and smaller from behind the wheel of Nissan's big rig. Naturally, then, climbing into or out of the Armada is a total pain in the ass, especially in parking lots and garages where space is tight.

Broad and flat, the Armada Platinum's front seats are heated and ventilated, and the steering wheel is heated. A wide, plush center console armrest slides forward for added comfort, too, and the door-mounted armrests are densely padded. It would be nice, however, if the upper door panels were both softer and wider for resting arms during lengthy Interstate slogs.

Similar to the front seats, the second-row captain's chairs are as featureless as central Nebraska. They lack thigh support, they can't slide forward to help improve comfort for third-row occupants, and foot space under the front seats is tighter than might be expected. A 3-passenger bench seat is standard. A huge storage console separates the optional captain's chairs.

Entering the third-row seat is easy, thanks to power tilting second-row chairs. Adults won't be happy for very long, though, and my teenaged kids loudly groused about comfort levels following a two-hour jaunt across most of metro L.A. A Ford Expedition, which has a lower interior floor and more legroom, is a more comfortable conveyance if you're planning to shuttle six or seven people on a regular basis.

I spent a ton of time driving the Armada, and not once did I need to crack open the owner's manual. Almost everything is located where you might expect to find it, and works the way you think it should work.

There are flaws, such as the cumbersome voice recognition technology for programming the navigation system with a destination, but for the most part even the loaded Armada Platinum is easy to operate. Best of all, interaction with the touchscreen display is kept to a minimum.

Just three aspects of the interior layout proved to be a regular source of irritation. Highest on that short list are the seat heating and ventilation knobs, tiny little dials with teensy markings. The chrome accents make it hard to see the activation light during the day, and at night the activation light glows orange whether you've selected ventilation or heating. It should be blue to signal ventilation, and both knobs should be larger.

Next, the washer jets seem to be weak for such a big vehicle. They spray just halfway up the windshield, three arcing streams of fluid that appear to lack the squirting power necessary to rid the glass of bugs, mud, or road salt.

Finally, I never did get used to the orange nighttime illumination used for secondary controls. It reduces distraction, yes, but it also makes it harder to find and use the right button or knob.

For a vehicle with what feels like monstrous dimensions, the Nissan Armada is lacking in terms of practical storage and cargo space.

Inside, there are few spots in which to stash the detritus of daily life. Keys, cell phones, gum, sunglass cases, and other items wind up in the cupholders more often than not, mainly because these items are easily lost within the big center console storage bins and the glove box is simply inconvenient. When you've got every seat filled with people wanting something or another from the Starbucks drive-thru window, cupholders full of junk are not a good thing.

Behind the third-row seat, 16.5 cubic feet of cargo space awaits, which is a 12-pack or two more than an Altima sedan. The difference, of course is that it is really hard to stack stuff to the Armada's roof without having it fall out and onto the ground when you open the liftgate, whereas packing an Altima's trunk full of stuff does not result in the same problem. Since you can't use all of that space, it is realistically half that, a fairly narrow shelf good for no more than a row of grocery bags, or a few backpacks, or other small items of similar size.

Fold the third-row seat down, and 49.9 cubic-feet of cargo space beckons. This is a sizable amount, but also reduces passenger capacity to five people in a vehicle that weighs nearly three tons (four if you've opted for the captain's chairs). Maximum space measures 95.4 cubic-feet if you fold the second-row seats down.

These figures put the Armada on par with the popular Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon twins, but they fall short of the Ford Expedition. Again, because the Expedition has a lower interior floor, that translates to greater space for people and cargo.

Speaking of the Expedition, it can also tow more weight than the Armada. The Nissan's maximum tow rating is 8,500 pounds, about the same as the Chevy and GMC but 700 pounds less than the Ford.

Every 2017 Armada is equipped with a standard 8-inch touchscreen infotainment with navigation, and features a 13-speaker Bose premium sound system. Neither is particularly sophisticated, the navigation system incapable of natural voice recognition and the latter delivering decent sound quality but no better.

Worse, though, is the distinct lack of USB ports in a vehicle designed to carry a modern American family. You get one for the front seat occupants, and that's it unless you pony up some extra cash. A 4G LTE Wi-Fi connection is also extra, and while the Platinum model's standard dual-screen rear-seat entertainment system is really easy to use it would not play any of our Blu-Ray discs.

Helping to make up for these shortcomings, the Armada's stereo and climate controls are completely divorced from the display screen, including buttons for the radio station pre-sets. This dramatically simplifies use of those systems, making it easy to adjust volume, station and temperature without looking away from the road.

My test vehicle also had a 360-degree surround view camera system, providing a top-down viewpoint, front and rear camera views and even curbside views. This, along with the front and rear parking sensors, definitely made the massive Armada easier to park.

Safety is important when it comes to vehicles likely to carry the people you love most. While the Armada has not been subjected to crash testing, and though its design and engineering date back to 2010 when the current version of the Patrol left drawing boards for assembly lines, the fact is that my Armada Platinum with 4-wheel drive weighed 5,941 pounds. It would absolutely demolish your average Nissan Versa in a collision.

Hopefully, the Armada's full slate of available driver assistance and collision avoidance technologies will prevent an accident from occurring in the first place. Optional for the SL and standard for the Platinum, the menu includes adaptive cruise control with full-speed-range operation, predictive forward collision warning that can see two vehicles ahead to react faster when necessary, automatic front and rear emergency braking and a blind spot warning system. A lane departure warning and prevention system is exclusive to the Platinum model, along with a blind spot intervention technology.

You can shut the lane departure system off, but it re-activates each time the Armada is re-started. Occasionally, the system emits a false warning, but the warnings are subtle and given the Armada's girth it is better to keep it on than to turn it off.

The forward collision warning system is also nicely behaved, and while the blind spot warning light illuminates on the interior trim instead of on the mirror, it does flash the light and emit an aural alert if you try to change lanes when it is unsafe to do so.

Equipped with a stout 5.6-liter V-8 engine, the near 3-ton Armada has the power to get out of its own way. It generates 390 horsepower and 394 lb.-ft. of torque, and sounds great when the SUV is accelerating.

Naturally, the Armada guzzles gas. Though the 7-speed automatic transmission behaves as though it is calibrated to conserve as much fuel as it can, often delaying downshifts unless you push hard enough on the accelerator to make it clear to the powertrain that you've got somewhere to be, choosing this full-size Nissan SUV is no way to save money or reduce fuel stops.

According to the EPA, my test vehicle should have returned 13 mpg in the city, 18 mpg on the highway, and 15 mpg in combined driving. I averaged 15.7 mpg during a week heavy with both highway driving and a full-load of passengers.

Based on a vehicle designed to go almost anywhere at almost any time, the 2017 Armada is an off-roading tool adapted for on-road use. It sits high off the pavement, boasts 9.2 inches of ground clearance, and feels every bit its size and weight, it truck-tough underpinnings transmitting the more significant failings of infrastructure straight up through the structure, seats and steering column.

As a result, this is not a vehicle in which you want to make sudden moves, especially at highway speeds. The steering is slow and sloppy, but provides a good sense of heft and the turning radius is remarkably tight, a trait that came in handy while negotiating space-constrained Los Angeles parking lots. The brakes are powerful and effective, nothing more than a slight dead spot at the top of pedal travel requiring extra attention from the driver.

Despite a sophisticated double-wishbone independent suspension both front and rear, complete with automatic rear leveling, the Nissan Armada rides like a truck until you stuff it full of people, and then it wafts and wallows over dips and crowns. After crossing one local intersection with a drainage dip on the far side, the Armada's rear-end bounced enough to put my 19-year-old's head into the SUV's roof. She was sitting in the third-row seat, and naturally she was looking at her phone, likely texting her boyfriend. The bounce, brief departure from the seat cushion, and sudden contact with the headliner scared enough to inspire a brief bout of tears.

With time, you come to understand the Armada's capabilities and limitations, but this is a vehicle that always requires your attention. It also feels like it will survive a significant amount of long-term abuse. I must admit, though, that I did not take the Armada off-roading, and so I cannot comment upon its 4-wheel-drive system or its capability on trails.

What we have in the 2017 Nissan Armada is a stopgap solution, a quick fix to a problem, that problem being that all of a sudden Americans want full-size SUVs again. It might be new to the U.S., but it is based on a vehicle that is now seven years old, and in many respects it feels that way.

At the same time, perhaps because it has been wearing an Infiniti badge for the better part of the past decade, the Armada seems more upscale than its mainstream Nissan grille might suggest. In standard trim, it is also the most affordable vehicle in its segment, and because it comes with plenty of equipment it is also a good value.

That's the Armada's sweet spot. It looks upscale, but is priced mainstream. Still, if you don't absolutely need 8,500 pounds of towing capacity or the legendary off-roading capabilities of the Patrol on which it is based, you're probably better off buying a Nissan Pathfinder, instead.

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