Automotive buyers are embracing three-row, full-size sport utility vehicles in record numbers as the marketplace continues to expand with updated entries across the segment.
General Motors, the segment leader — by a lot — fiddles with its entrants regularly, giving the Tahoe, Yukon, Suburban and Escalade models plenty of ammo to fight off the upstarts. Ford, the number two player in this class for decades now, will soon offer refreshed Expedition and Navigator models that offer only turbo-V-6 engines — a sharp contrast to the rest of this class.
Toyota, with three models here (including our recent Land Cruiser review), is now looking over its shoulder as Nissan has this new Armada for 2017, while Infiniti’s version — the QX80 — is enjoying some fine-tuning. With Nissan further embracing the Infiniti template — bold styling, big space inside, big power under the hood, plus greater driving aids — consumers are reacting; sales have more than doubled on the new Armada so far this year, while QX80 sales have also jumped.
Fast fact: all of the automakers need, and want, to sell lots of these big trucks. These family wagons produce huge profits, income that is needed to fund alternative-powered “green-cars,” which are still not selling as projected. With development lead times of three to five years necessary for competent product rollouts, yinging-yanging markets create massive production, sales and planning headaches as fuel standards continue to change. Given the current high demand for big trucks — for towing, family travel and general use — automakers can be forgiven for building what the market wants to buy.
From day one of our eight-day experience with the Armada, there were opposing impressions. My notes reflected several comments like “nuances with nuisances” and “contradiction in construction,” yet in sum the Armada left favorable thoughts. It is also the state of development that many criticisms must be measured against the greater advances throughout the industry, so keeping these deductions in check — and perspective — is necessary.
The Armada is 5 inches longer in body length and wheelbase length over the class sales leader, Chevy’s Tahoe — 209 and 121 inches, respectively. The seven-eight-passenger Nissan also weighs 200 pounds more, 5,820, and can tow 200 pounds more trailer, 8,500 to 8,300 pounds. The comparably sized Toyota Sequoia weighs even more and is rated to tow 1,000 pounds less.
Each of these trucks uses a V-8 engine; the Nissan’s revised 5.6-liter V-8 now makes 390 hp —a 73-hp bump in output, while the Toyota’s 5.7-liter engine delivers 381 hp and the Chevy’s 5.3-liter motor makes 355 hp. Crisp, strong power flows from the Armada’s engine bay, backed by a seven-speed automatic and an auto-mode 4X4 drive system that is constantly engaged and instantly switches the truck from rear drive to AWD, with 4WD high- and low-range options on the console dial.
Fuel economy remains a buyer concern in this class, but none of these bruisers can be confused with an economy car. The Nissan gains one mile-per gallon on the EPA highway cycle, 12/18-mpg projected, which moves the Armada past its Toyota-badged rivals. The Chevy eclipses both of the Asian SUVs with a more modern 16/22-mpg rating. Over the course of four fill-ups — the Nissan’s fuel tank needs to be larger, as 300-mile intervals signal the need to refueled — the Armada averaged 16.7 mpg.
That said, no economy car can carry six to eight passengers in reasonable opulence, pull an 8,000-pound boat/tractor/camper trailer, or go off-road like the Armada, so the miles per passenger/per job quotient factors into ownership.
Underway, the Nissan was a model citizen, delivering great feel from the helm, impressive merging and passing power, plus a controlled ride that surprised all who participated in the Armada’s travel. Press the pace, and the ride and handling only improve — a sign of advanced chassis engineering that has not always been a trademark of three-ton wagons. A tiny low-speed turning radius completes a driving package that matches the best offerings in this class.
Visually, it is very easy to see the Infiniti’s design cues in the new Armada. The bold LED driving lights, the sculpted rear panels and the large wheel openings for the 20-inch wheels are all decidedly QX80 statements. Modestly thin running boards help access, and don’t overwhelm the visual stance, while body-colored bumpers and strategic chrome accents make a look-at-me statement.
Inside, the contrasts start to appear. Visually, the cabin is a winner. The center dash has a clean, simple array of controls and buttons plus a large color screen for navigation and entertainment. Buyers will find operation intuitive and sensical — right from the first day. Leather-clad surfaces abound, with stitching accents and wood trim. Dual rear video screens (wireless headphones and remotes) on our Platinum trim tester ($60,490, or $47,800 in base SV 4X4), sunroof, power-folding third row seats, power liftgate, plus heated and cooled front seats all fulfill the desire to achieve maximum efficiency and luxury in a mainstream wagon.
In actual use, the nuisances are revealed. Nissan places some switches low to the left of the steering wheel, forcing the driver to bend around the wheel and focus on a dark panel under the curve of the dash. These really need to move. And Nissan’s won’t unlock any doors when you stop and put the transmission into park; you have to manually unlock doors to exit, or allow people to enter, or, turn the push-button ignition off. Conversely, once up and running, I never heard the seat belt chime after making a stop and an exit/re-entry. You do hear the offending lane-departure warning beeping; some other automakers have decided to employ vibrating seats or vibrating steering wheels to mark this transgression.
During an early morning winter excursion, I also discovered the absence of any rear cargo lamps in the bay or on the liftgate — which seems quite odd given the opportunity for such features.
While the industry is rushing headlong toward autonomous driving, numerous electronic driving aids are being developed along the trip. Many are in Beta version-1, with false readings, in-consistent detections, and all too often, abrupt responses to errant sensings from the various cameras, beams and detectors deployed. The Armada was no exception.
Snowbanks all too often triggered the blind-spot system’s right-side warning light. The Nissan’s dynamic cruise sometimes “read” cars in other lanes and tried to brake, which was similar to the forward-braking system doing the same when vehicles in parallel lanes apparently entered the sensors’ field of view. This is with “clean” sensors — as much as any vehicle can stay clean in Maine in the winter — and proved that operators must remain fully engaged when driving even with the greatest and latest technologies.
One can be forgiven for thinking that these driving aids might actually create more inappropriate and unsafe driving, as operators “trust” these systems to “save them” from errant behavior or other traffic while they peruse their most recent Facebook posts, Snapchat dialogues or text messages. The latest accident data — with sharp increases in both accidents and deaths over the past two years — supports this contention.
The Nissan can’t be condemned for following what both the industry and (supposedly) consumers are asking for, but we need marked improvements from these systems or the freedoms that we now enjoy driving will be erased entirely if we transition to a full-autonomous driving fleet that allows no exceptions to what is programmed into the operation of the vehicle. Contemplate how that will work — in winter, heavy rain or heavy traffic.
The new Armada earns high marks for its driving acumen, its general performance in both dry and snowy conditions, as well as cabin comfort. You might not even notice the nuances experienced here; if so, you’ll love the latest Nissan SUV even more.