click above image to view more high-res pics of the Nissan Armada LE
The word 'armada' has its origin in Spanish, and roughly translates to "I've got guns." Nissan aptly named its biggest 'ute the Armada; it fits because the SUV is the size of a small naval vessel and it's equipped with serious firepower. Our test car's size earned it the nickname Ramada during its stay. We parked it next to a HUMMER H2 for comparison's sake and the Armada started trading schoolyard taunts. As playground scuffles go, the Armada didn't give much up to the pseudo-military Tahoe in drag.
Since the Armada is Titan-based, the automaker's 9/10-scale pickup and this big utility vehicle share a countenance. It's a strong, truckish face, successfully rock-hewn and ready for work. Our tester was dressed up in a handsome dark metallic blue with big ol' shiny rims marring what could have been a classy look. In fact, the brightwork would look great in a satin finish instead of chrome. The limo tint on the rear windows adds a touch of BAMF to the look, and lessens your passengers' feelings of being on display. The humpy roofline above the cargo area also adds a bit of character, as well as headroom. It's nice to see inventive styling, and the Armada carries off its roofline well.
With tow hooks in front and a Class-II hitch, our test Armada was outfitted for work, too. When you hook it up to stuff, the engine is capable of towing 9,000 pounds. The 5.6-liter V8 delivers 385 pound-feet of torque, and its song is the finest background music in the cabin, ever present at the perfect level. If the going gets rough, there's an honest-to-goodness four wheel drive system a mere twist of the knob away to aid in clawing your way through slimy muck. It's a good truck for working, but when you move inside and check out all the equipment aimed at taming kiddies and keeping you coddled, it's obvious that contractors and ironworkers aren't the target customer.
The powertrain is the best aspect of the Armada. The brawny V8 makes great noises, and the 385 pound-feet of torque is all present and accounted for by 3,400 RPM. There's always oomph on tap, and horsepower tops out at 317 at 5,200 RPM. We enjoyed the rumbly exhaust note and slick shifting five-speed transmission. Running with traffic was easy, and pulling away from the pack is just a twitch of the ankle away. Although the engine has the ability to seemingly shed mass, you are always aware of the Armada's size. There's never a problem calling up power and squirting around like a smaller vehicle, especially since people will actually get out of the way of this thing. The demeanor is reminiscent of 5.0 Mustangs, and keeping your boot off the floor once you feel that shove for the first time is tough. The drug-like horsepower doesn't help fuel economy, though. We got 14 MPG in mixed driving, which meant replenishing the 28-gallon tank often.
The price you pay for the athleticism is a ride verging on rough. The Armada drives with the tremulous comportment only a body-on-frame truck can. We bounced around topsides quite a bit, but the stiff knees equate to a monster truck capable of a few fancy dance steps. Handling limits are higher than most people's common sense alarm, so you lose your nerve before the Armada does. There's a nice heft to the steering, which helps keep the Armada locked down on the highway, though it is a bit slow. However, when you're dealing with this much mass and a high center of gravity, fast steering isn't the best idea. The turning circle is surpisingly tight, helping us outmaneuver much smaller front-wheel-drive vehicles in tight spots. Large mirrors warm the dark recesses of our shrivelled little hearts every time we back in somewhere, and the Armada had some fine rear-view glass. A sonar system and rear view camera also help you avoid backing over Janie's trike (or worse), or into the nose of that car snuggled up to your rear bumper.
What greets you upon opening the Armada's doors are appointments befitting a 35 kilobuck vehicle. Indeed, SE trim level Armadas do start at $35,000 with cloth and 2WD. At the $50,000 our tester pushed, an interior like the Armada's QX56 cousin is closer to our expectations. The narrow-gauge seats had great bolstering and lumbar support, but we had a hard time getting the bottom cushion positioned comfortably. The seats also made us want to stretch and walk around after just an hour in the saddle. Some found them quite comfortable, even though they're slightly dwarfed by the surroundings, like a folding chair in the center of a ballroom. The materials in the interior are passable, akin to the Dodge Ram or Toyota Tundra's interior fitment. GM and Ford interiors in this segment are Bentleys by comparison. Rubbery feeling door panels and a general air of "hose it out" is fine for the Titan, but leaves the Armada wanting. There's also a lot of hard plastic, and the center stack trim harks back to that zenith of style, the Citation II. There's a lot of work-truck in this interior for a vehicle ringing up at 49 large.
Around town, visibility is good, although the way the A-pillars widen at the base can hinder vision in turns. The tilt wheel has detents that are spaced too far apart to avoid the wheel shrouding the two lowest gauges in the instru
ment cluster – a minor gripe. A telescoping column would have been nice, too, but that's mitigated by the power adjustable pedals. Some of the controls that get regular use are quite a reach away, which is endemic of trucks these days. Switchgear feels high quality, though, and operates without undue play or the malaise of impending breakage. True to Nissan ergo tradition, there's plenty of controls to twiddle.
Operating all those buttons and switches is confusing at first. A lot of feedback is provided by the LCD screen in the dash, which isn't intuitive. When looking for some kind of indication that you have indeed turned on the rear defroster or selected to blow heat on your feet, the screen isn't where you initially look. Some feedback from the control – like lighting up to indicate "on" – was what we were expecting. Once we spent a little more time with the Armada, however, we got used to having the LCD drive the interfacing, but it never felt natural. The LCD does hold a wealth of information, and we loved that you could customize preferences for the display, as well as set up the stereo, and monitor tire pressure and fuel economy, among other things. Our test vehicle came with the navigation system, which was easy to use and straightforward to program. In operation, the nav system is a dead ringer for Ford's corporate system, which we love here at Autoblog Towers. Programming the Armada's nav is fiddly only because a little joystick is the input device. A touchscreen LCD would give functionality a boost, especially since so many other functions are also driven through the screen.
Part of what drove up the cost of our tester was the comprehensive equipment level. While Armadas can be had in the high $30,000s, adding niceties bumps the price up quickly. Our LE started at $43,050 with All-Mode 4WD. To that was added the Technology package for a hefty $4,250. That buys a bunch of stuff: those garish 18" chrome rims, rear splash guards (a euphemism for mudflaps), a microfilter for cabin air, the GPS-enabled navigation system, rearview camera and information center for the front LCD, XM or Sirius for the stereo, and the cherry on top is the DVD entertainment system that adds a 7" LCD screen to the roof console. Boiling it down, the Technology Package adds all the junk that will impress your neighbors and keeps your kiddies quiet little slack-jawed automatons on excursions. The DVD system dulls one of the best aspects of the Armada, the view out. It sounds mundane, but the Armada's tall stature and abundance of glass area offers a great vantage point for staring out over the prairie, or down upon the bald head in the convertible next to you.
If you're transporting bambinos and bambinas, the SE and its second-row bench may actually be better suited to your needs. With only two captain's chairs in the second row of the LE, you've only got two seats with LATCH anchors for child seats. Things could get complicated if you need to carry three people, two of whom require LATCH. There will be a lot of taking out and putting in of child seats to access the back row. The rear bench is a good place for kids, but even adults won't complain for short-duration trips. The bench back there is low to the floor, so passengers in the penultimate row get reacquainted with their knees. We were surprised that so much room needed to be kept clear underneath for the Armada's self-levelling independent suspension to do its thing, but this is a body-on-frame truck, after all. Child seats aside, the 2nd row captain's chairs flip and fold easily, offering quick ingress and egress for those in the penalty box, and if you need more cargo space, all the seats easily fold in multiple configurations to help the Armada swallow big stuff. The LE comes equipped with handy tie downs and a net for keeping things from flying around, which we appreciated when loading up this big box at our favorite big box stores.
The Armada's being positioned as a family vehicle, but it's a drastic minivan avoidance technique. The underlying truck structure hinders the space efficiency possible with unitized construction. Dynamically, you're not doing passive safety any favors by wheeling around something so massive, either. It may crush the opposition in an F=MA smackdown, but something more nimble would avoid the tussle altogether. There is a call for vehicles capable of truck work and family hauling simultaneously, and the Armada slots into that segment. Competency in foul weather is also often cited as an SUV strength. We drove the Armada in a nasty snowfall and found it quite easy to attain imprudent velocities. Going is fine, but attempting to turns or stops nets you an object lesson in coefficients of friction. The Armada got us there, but required careful minding.
Overall, we liked the Armada's looks, strong and slick powertrain and cavernous cargo hold. Nissan's mega-ute can be had with a full complement of gear, but we were surprised to see the bottom line on the sticker. There's tons of competition in this segment, and the Armada won't do anything for your green image at the Gymboree, either. Interior materials were also a bit of a letdown, reminding us of the GMT400 trucks. That's great for 1998, but time has marched on. The Armada's a very nice vehicle to drive, as far as trucks go, and it comes with a hitch to lumber around 9,000 pounds of your favorite stuff. The flexible interior configurations came in handy, and the roof rack system is clever and well thought out, as well. If we were pulling a project car back from California, the Armada would be a pleasant ride for that job. For family chores, unibody vehicles offer more flexibility with less heft. There are folks that need vehicles like this, and for their dollar, the Armada has a horse in the race.