For the past few years the Detroit vehicle manufacturers have been sustained by healthy sales of large pickups and SUVs. Demand matched supply in these segments, and margins were substantial, both due in large part to the lack of serious foreign competition.
Toyotas large pickup even in its second generation proved a minor threat. The Tundra, despite class-leading refinement, remains a half-size too small (at least until the new-for-2004 crew cab), and, with its largest engine a 245-horsepower 4.7-liter V8, has often been perceived as underpowered. A few years back Toyota introduced the Sequoia, a full-size SUV based on this pickup, but it has been held back by a premium price and an underperforming (if smooth) powertrain. Some have suggested that Toyota intentionally held back on these products to give Detroit some breathing room and so avoid a political backlash.
Companies on the ropes have no such qualms, and a few years back Nissan was on the ropes. In need of big profits to keep the company afloat, Nissan decided to go all-out after the most profitable segment in the American market, large trucks. For the 2004 model year it is introducing first a large SUV and then a large pickup. Both are truly large, larger even than their competitors from Detroit. The SUV, for instance, is an inch longer than the Ford Expedition and rides on a wheelbase that is four inches longer. (Toyotas Sequoia is three inches shorter than the Nissan.) The only engine in Nissans big trucks is a 305-horsepower, 5.6-liter DOHC V8. Among directly competing vehicles only the 5.7-liter Hemi in the Dodge Ram and Durango is more powerful, with 335 horsepower in the latter. Even more notable, the Nissan engine kicks out 385 foot-pounds of torque, the most available in a volume production light-duty truck. A few years back I reviewed the Toyota Sequoia. Impressed by its refinement, I concluded that Detroit had reason to be worried. Well, it seems that Detroit didnt have to be so worried about that one. But what about this one? I test drove Nissans large SUV, the awkwardly- and confusingly-named Pathfinder Armada, to find out.
Lets do what Nissan is bound to in a few years and simply call it the Armada, okay?
Update: Make that a few months. Nissan announced on January 31st that they're dropping the Pathfinder part of the name.
Nissan Armada Reliability
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Not only is the Armada large, but it is styled to look even larger. Much of the massive front end is swathed in chrome. The fenders bulge upward and outward. The roofline arcs up over the first two rows before flattening out over the rear of the vehicle. The overall effect, intended and achieved, is that the Armada comes across as a brute of a vehicle. Like the Hummer H2, just dialed back a touch, its not meant to be pretty. Its meant to be scary.
Inside the theme is much the same. The instrument panel is massive both vertically and horizontally, and its styling if anything increases the appearance of bulk. All of the controls are large, no doubt so they can be operated with gloves on (a standard pickup requirement) but also to reinforce the impression that this is one serious machine. Some of the interior styling, like that in the Hummer H2, borders on quirky and cartoonish. The way the temperature gauge is inset within the other secondary gauges is a bit much, for example.
One design choice Im especially not sure about: the window switches rest on a horizontal surface at the base of the windows. Are they vulnerable to water here? Time will tell. They are easy to reach and operate.
More questionable are the choices of materials. The various knobs on the instrument panel look nice enough, but feel extremely cheap. More even than in past Nissans materials quality sets a new low for the segment. The cloth interior of the Armada in the showroom looked awful. The leather within the SUV I drove looked and felt better. An unusual woven leather is used on the center panels of the seats. It fits the intended image of the truck.
Beyond the look and feel of the Armadas materials, one trim piece, the seat release surround atop the left second-row seat, actually came loose in my hand, and I could not securely snap it back into place. Fresh-off-the-truck $40,000 vehicles should not fall apart in the showroom. Buyer beware.
This is an extremely roomy vehicle. At least when upholstered in leather, the front seats are plush yet appropriately supportive and quite comfortable. As in all large trucks, you sit way up above the hood and even further above the road, providing a commanding view out. (Though the Armadas huge dash and extra-thick A-pillars restrict the sense of visibility somewhat. Both might set new records for size.) Standard running boards aid getting in and out.
The second row, which is split 40/20/40 in three pieces, is also roomy and comfortable. (A pair of captains chairs are standard; this split bench is a no-cost option.) This is a very wide vehicle, and three adults should fit easily. This seat tumbles forward to provide a wide access path to the third row.
The third row is not quite so pleasant. Despite the Expedition-like independent rear suspension the floor is high back there, so unlike in the Expedition but much like in the other, live-axle large SUVS the seat is mounted not far off it. Adults get no thigh support. Compared to the competition, this seat is much better than the Tahoes abysmal third row, likely a bit better than that in the Sequoia, perhaps equal to that in the new-for-2004 Dodge Durango, but decidedly inferior to that in the Ford Expedition. For the Expedition Ford adopted an independent rear suspension. This allowed the floor to be lowered about half-a-foot. If you want a third row that is comfortable for adults, the Ford is the only SUV that will do.
Automatic climate control was notably absent from the truck I drove despite its $41,000 price. This seemed an odd omission given the standard 265-watt, ten-speaker Bose stereo and rear A/C.
Ample storage compartments are located throughout the interior, most notably in the center console. Without the optional sunroof and DVD entertainment system there are half a dozen storage compartments in the roof console. Most are sized for sunglasses. Does anyone have this many?
Nissan recognized that people simply do not want to remove seats from their trucks to maximize cargo room. In the Armada every seat but the drivers (including the front row passengers) can be folded to create a flat load floor. No headrests need be removed. To eliminate the gaps between the folded seats, flaps are attached to the second-row seatbacks. (An increasingly common tactic in this sort of vehicle.)
With all seats up there is enough room behind the third row for a large grocery run (20 cubic feet, about the same as the competition). With only the third row folded there appears enough space back there to haul, well, just about anything that might need hauling. The width of the cargo area is especially impressive. Fold the second row as well and theres likely more space than in the living rooms of some of the Japanese engineers who worked on the vehicle. (What must they have thought?) Campers can probably set up their tent inside the truck. On paper maximum cargo volume is lowest in the class at 97 cubic feet (the Expedition offers 111, the Sequoia 128 if its second row is unbolted and removed), but this number does not accurately represent the capacity of the Armada. Car & Driver
provides a number of real-world stats, the most helpful of which is likely the largest sheet of plywood that will fit. The Armada can hold an 84-by-49-inch sheet, just a bit under the Expeditions 86 by 49.5 and well over the Sequoias 74 by 48. Ultimately they all hold a great deal, but only the Armada, Expedition, and new Durango do not require that seats be removed, and only the Nissan adds a fold-flat front passenger seat (though I would not be surprised if this feature is available on most cars and trucks within a few years). One weakness: The load floor is high, as it must be given the off-road-worthy ground clearance and folding seats.
On the Road
Large trucks have surged in popularity in large part because the latest versions feel smaller than they are from behind the wheel. GMs large SUVs are especially accomplished in this regard, with a light, even nimble feel. The Armada, in contrast, feels every bit as large as it is. This was evident within ten yards, and the impression only intensified throughout my test drive. Over uneven surfaces the Armada lunges and bounds, in marked contrast to its competition. Body control is poor. If I did not know better I would have thought the rear wheels were suspended by a live axle. The steering likely matches the class average in terms of weighting and feel (both are short of the car norm), but it cannot make up for the crude moves of the chassis. One positive aspect of the chassis: lean in turns is minimal for such a tall, heavy vehicle. Grip is at least average, enabled by huge 265/70R18 tires.
GMs SUVs have a far more compliant ride. The Ford Expedition rides more firmly than the GM trucks, and can feel a bit busy at low speeds over uneven pavement, but its all-independent suspension provides excellent body control and overall composure. The Toyota Sequoia and new Dodge Durango fall somewhere between the GM and Ford products in character. This leaves the Armada a late-arriving relic of a bygone age when trucks handled and rode like trucks. The chassis of the large Nissan is at least a generation behind Detroit, an odd place for a Japanese manufacturer to be.
Let me make this clear: anyone uncomfortable with driving a bulky vehicle could easily be terrified behind the wheel of the Armada.
Aside from the chassis issues, noise levels in the Armada are higher than in most competitors. Worse, with all windows up a boomy resonance pervaded the interior of the truck at roughly 40 miles-per-hour. The salesperson claimed this was because of the newness of the door seals, and cracked a window to eliminate it. This of course made the interior even noisier, and should not be necessary. Ive driven many vehicles with new door seals, but the only one Ive noted similar boominess in is Pontiacs Aztek. I find it hard to believe that these two vehicles lead in the industry in the performance of their door seals. At any rate, how long will it take them to be not so tight?
The Armadas dynamic strength is clearly its powertrain. The big DOHC V8, abetted by five ratios in the slushbox (one more than those in GMs and Fords large SUVs), moves the Nissans 5400-pound mass with ease at all speeds I cared to go. Floor the accelerator and the Armada accelerates more quickly than any vehicle this size has a right to. Both the engine and transmission respond readily to throttle inputs. The only downside here, and it will not be a downside at all for many, is that the engine despite its leading-edge DOHC configuration sounds very much like a classic OHV Detroit truck V8, which is to say like one of GMs truck V8s. Here as well it seems Nissan wanted the Armada to seem every bit a genuine full-size truck.
I did not have the opportunity to measure fuel economy, but do not feel Im going out on a limb by predicting that 15 seems a stretch. Exercise the engine much and fuel economy in the single digits should be within reach.
I also did not test the Armada off-road. The four-wheel-drive system, like most competitors, notably includes an auto mode where the front wheels are engaged as necessary. I tested this by flooring the throttle as I exited turns. The stability control system kicked in a few times (and I lacked the guts to disable it), but even so the powertrain smoothly transferred the engines massive torque to the pavement and I rocketed out of turns. As this would not have been possible driving the rear wheels only, I must assume that the four-wheel-drive system expeditiously transferred a good portion of the engines torque to the front. Stability powering out of turns was one of the trucks dynamic strong points.
The Armada comes standard with a raft of safety features, including stability control and curtain airbags for all three rows. The LE includes rear obstacle detection, a good thing to have with such a large vehicle.
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The Armadas strong points are a powerful V8, flat cornering, and a spacious, versatile interior. Because of these strengths I would not be surprised if it wins a comparison test or two within the enthusiast magazines. (Car and Driver's
recent review seemed especially inclined in this direction.) Unfortunately the Armada also has some major weaknesses in materials quality, third row comfort, and chassis composure. In my view the latter more than outweigh the former in a large SUV, so I cannot recommend this vehicle. On paper the big Nissan seemed capable of destroying Detroit, but on the road it seems much less of a threat. Id look primarily at the Ford and the Dodge, and maybe the Toyota as well for those who will only buy a Japanese vehicle or who highly prioritize refinement.
As much as I have issues with Ford lately (the engine in my Contour required replacement at 66,000 miles), the Expedition seems the best of the bunch to me, with an almost equally versatile interior, much more comfortable third row, higher quality interior materials, and far superior chassis. Nissan also incurred the extra expense of an independent rear suspension, but somehow failed to realize nearly the same level of benefits from it.
The new Dodge Durango is nearly three inches narrower than the others, and nearly half a foot narrower inside (its fender flares are not good for packaging efficiency), and thus it feels significantly more manageable. It matches the Nissan in engine performance, blows past it in chassis composure, and nearly matches it in interior room and versatility. The Dodges main weaknesses are cheap-looking interior trim and a narrower interior, and the latter is in some ways a benefit. By early next year I expect very good pricing on this new vehicle. For now it's too close to the Ford in price, and thus attractive mostly to those who crave fast acceleration in their big truck.
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