When Nissan created the original Nissan Armada, its first full-size sport-utility vehicle, it did so in the traditional way, using the platform of its full-size pickup. That pickup, the Titan, had been introduced in 2003, and Nissan’s big ute, the Pathfinder Armada, arrived that same year, as a 2004 model. The Pathfinder label was supposed to leverage the name recognition of the brand’s popular mid-size SUV, but eventually it was jettisoned and the vehicle became simply the Armada.
Following the script written by Ford with the Lincoln Navigator and General Motors with the Cadillac Escalade, a luxury-brand version, the Infiniti QX56, soon followed. Dolled up with extra chrome and leather, it managed to be even gaudier than the Armada—an SUV as imagined by the Toll Brothers. In the McMansion era, that aesthetic was hardly out of step, but sales never came close to those of the Navigator/Escalade bogey. Infiniti switched gears, dropping the Titan-derived behemoth and instead recruiting the international-market Nissan Patrol for Infiniti SUV duty. Leather-lined and re-engineered for a more pampered, pavement-oriented life, the Patrol-based QX56 arrived for the 2011 model year, shortly thereafter becoming the QX80. The Armada, meanwhile, continued on its Titan-based platform.
VIEW 20 PHOTOS
Although there’s now a new Titan pickup from which a new full-size utility could be spun, Nissan decided that worldwide demand for big body-on-frame SUVs—pretty much only North America and the Middle East—didn’t warrant developing two separate vehicles. So the company simply took the Patrol-based QX80 and made an Armada out of it (not so hard, since it started as a Nissan). Thus, the vehicle that began as the Nissan Patrol—and continues as such in the rest of the world—is now our new Nissan Armada.
In truth, the Armada is much closer kin to the QX80. Styling changes versus the Infiniti are evident mostly up front, where the Armada adopts a Nissan-brand face. Oh, and while we might have hoped to see the QX80’s chrome fender trim disappear here, Nissan says the driver’s-side vent is actually functional (as an engine-air intake), so the vents stay.
Peek inside the luxurious cabin, and you might wonder whether there have been any changes at all from the Infiniti. Padded surfaces abound, hard plastic has been all but banished, and the new Armada marks a wholesale upgrade in interior finery over its predecessor. Even the base SV model comes with navigation, a 13-speaker Bose stereo, dual power seats, and a rearview camera; the mid-level SL adds leather, power operation for the third-row seats, a power liftgate, and 20-inch wheels; and the top-spec Platinum trim brings heated and cooled front seats, seat heaters for the second row, dual rear-seat entertainment screens, and a sunroof, among other niceties. The Platinum also gets a full spate of driver-assistance technologies, which are optional on the SL.
The new cabin is luxurious but smaller than before in most dimensions—although some of the previous model’s space was largely wasted, serving only to make the driver feel buried in a vast, plastic cavern. The new Armada doesn’t feel as huge from behind the wheel, and it affords decent sightlines from the driver’s seat. We also like that Nissan wisely supplements the standard touchscreen with plenty of traditional buttons and knobs.
The second row is somewhat narrower than before but still offers generous headroom and legroom. A three-person bench is standard, while the Platinum offers the option of two captain’s chairs with a removable center console. The standard third row is notably more cramped than in the old model, having lost almost four inches of legroom and more than three inches of shoulder room. Nissan continues to optimistically provide three seatbelts, but the cushion is low to the floor, and foot space is tight. It’s also a tough climb to get back there, even though the second-row seat scoots out of the way with the flick of a lever.
VIEW 20 PHOTOS
Cargo space has shrunk as well, which means that it’s an area where the new Armada won’t be winning any bar bets against other big sport-utes. The full-size spare is tucked well up underneath for a better departure angle, making for a cargo floor that’s uncomfortably high for hoisting heavy luggage aboard. You’ll find a more livable third row in the Ford Expedition and more cargo space in some three-row crossovers.
No crossover, however, can match the 8500-pound tow rating applicable to all versions of the Armada; a trailer hitch is standard. And a crossover isn’t likely to be as capable off-road—even though the Armada isn’t quite as hard core in this regard as its foreign-market sibling. While the Patrol features disconnecting anti-roll bars as well as locking front and rear differentials, making it a rival to the Toyota Land Cruiser, those items were left behind on the trip to the States (on both the Nissan and the Infiniti). The Armada does come with a two-speed transfer case, a skid plate under the radiator, and 9.1 inches of ground clearance. We trundled around a short, pre-prepared off-road course with ramps and staggered breakovers steep enough to put a wheel—or two—off the ground, and the vehicle made it through without getting stuck or suffering any expensive scraping sounds.
The new Armada adopts a revised version of Nissan’s 5.6-liter Endurance V-8, which was already under the hood of the Infiniti. With direct injection and variable valve timing, output jumps from 315 to 390 horsepower, and torque swells from 385 to 395 lb-ft. (Those figures are still shaded by the Infiniti’s 400 horses and 413 lb-ft, to maintain the corporate hierarchy.) It’s paired with a seven-speed automatic transmission that provides a wider ratio spread than the previous five-speed—with a lower first gear and a taller top gear.
Unfortunately, the Patrol cum Armada is between 100 and 300 pounds heavier than the old Titan-based model, so fuel economy hasn’t significantly improved, inching up by 1 mpg in the EPA city ratings; highway figures remain the same. More important, though, the 390 horses are up to the task of moving this fancy carriage, and the smooth-shifting seven-speed gearbox isn’t lazy about downshifting. We clocked a 6.2-second sprint to 60 mph in our test of the QX80and estimate that the Armada would be 0.1 second behind—which is plenty quick for a three-ton SUV. The engine note is a murmur, aided by the Armada’s acoustic windshield and front-door glass, so this vehicle is a quiet cruiser.
VIEW 20 PHOTOS
The Armada uses the same four-wheel control-arm suspension as the QX80, with steel springs (the Infiniti’s optional hydraulic body-motion control system is not offered here). We’re told the Infiniti is tuned for a plusher ride, but the Nissan feels pretty soft, too. It smothers bumps, even on 20-inch wheels, and while we noted a bit of floatiness, it’s far from unpleasant overall. Overboosted steering, though, saps driver confidence, because there is no increase in effort as you crank it off-center.
The new Armada isn’t quite the big-box SUV that the American brands offer, and while it’s closer to the international-size Toyota Land Cruiser, it can’t match that vehicle’s off-road heroics. But at an opening bid of $45,395 for an SV with rear-wheel drive, the Armada is nearly $19,000 less expensive than the QX80, and even the Platinum should top out under the Infiniti’s $64,245 starting figure. That’s not as cheap as the outgoing model, but it’s still something of a bargain among big SUVs, especially given the Armada’s newfound refinement—which is nearly on par with the Infiniti version.