Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
Recently, Nissan has had more hits than ABBA in the 1970s. It all started with the redesigned Altima, then the 350Z. Now, the new Quest minivan, Titan pickup and its SUV companion, the Pathfinder Armada, threaten to extend that streak even further.
Granted, "Pathfinder Armada" doesn't really roll off the tongue like "Titan" or "Maxima," but Nissan feels the name evokes an image of strength and power. Fair enough besides, "Expedition" was already taken. With Toyota's 2001 introduction of the Tundra-based Sequoia combined with the runaway sales of trucks like the Ford F-150, Chevy Tahoe and Silverado pickup, it's no wonder Nissan decided to start building full-size trucks. The Xterra and Pathfinder are well-respected, bold SUVs that seem to have more attitude than real strength the Pathfinder Armada is exactly the opposite and has more than enough bite to back up its bark.
The first impression one has of the Armada is how surprisingly big it is. The Pathfinder Armada is longer and has a longer wheelbase than the Tahoe, Expedition and Sequoia. Only the Tahoe eclipses the Armada in terms of width and by less than an inch at that. As a result, Nissan's new SUV offers more front and rear legroom than its three full-size competitors, and in the case of second-row legroom, the advantage is as much as three full inches. Nissan claims its research shows full-size SUV owners list second-row legroom as one of the more important criteria. The extra legroom is noticeable and makes riding in the second row more pleasant, while making it easier to climb in and out and install a child safety seat. The third-row seats offer adequate legroom, but only the smaller Toyota Sequoia has less third-row legroom Ford and Chevrolet offer more. Given the Armada's longer length and wheelbase, it's obvious Nissan chose to give the second row more room while the less often-used third row is not as spacious. Still, the third-row passengers do benefit from a raised theater-style seating position, which offers more comfort and a better view when compared to other SUVs with three rows of seats.
But what would all this size matter without some real trucklike ability? The Pathfinder Armada delivers more horsepower, more torque and more towing capacity than the Tahoe, Expedition and Sequoia. At the heart of all this power is a 5.6-liter, 32-valve DOHC V8 that is good for 305 hp and affords the Armada a 9,100-pound towing capacity. That's an impressive statement and goes directly to the heart of Nissan's desire to be seen as a serious player in a truck world dominated by domestic nameplates with decades of heritage and image.
Nissan has an advantage by being the last major automaker to offer a full-size SUV. Like Nissan's own Quest minivan, the Pathfinder Armada is able to offer all the features of its competitors in one package, and then improve on them. The Ford Expedition was recently redesigned and incorporates an easy-to-use, fold-flat third-row seat. Nissan's new SUV offers this feature but goes one better by making both the second- and third-row seats fold flat. The second-row seats also tumble forward to make entry to the third row all the easier.
Unlike domestic trucks and SUVs, the Pathfinder Armada will not be offered in overly complex trim levels with several engine combinations where the customer must then choose from bewildering option packages and separate features that are often confusing, redundant and difficult to understand (although Nissan spokespeople would not rule out the possibility of diesel power in the future). Three trim levels are available SE, SE Off-Road and the upscale LE. Even the lowest trim Armada (which Nissan predicts will be the most popular) comes well equipped with such features as four-wheel antilock disc brakes; power windows, locks and mirrors; steering wheel-mounted audio controls; running boards; third-row seating; and dark tinting on the side and rear windows. Each trim can be ordered in two- or four-wheel drive. Four specific option packages are available: a Bose audio package which upgrades the stereo, a Leather package which adds leather and side-impact airbags, a Sunroof package and a Journey package that includes all the equipment from the other packages but adds second-row bucket seats. Available only on the upscale LE is a Technology package with navigation and dual-zone climate control. The LE is also available with a power rear door. Oddly, the SE comes with cloth seats that are much more comfortable than the leather seats on the LE. However the leather seating is a worthwhile option as it automatically adds side airbags.
While Nissan claims Pathfinder Armada customers are looking for an anti-minivan, the SUV still offers plenty of minivanlike features, including a DVD entertainment system, seating for up to eight, no less than 12 cupholders and more overhead and up-front storage bins than we can count. But any mixed message this might send is quickly cleared up by the Pathfinder Armada's macho looks and rumbling exhaust note. With a front-end treatment shared by the Titan pickup, the Pathfinder Armada is big and aggressive-looking. The "loaded" LE version adds a chrome grille to enhance the bold look while SE trims use a body-colored grille.
The bold exterior styling is really no surprise to anyone even vaguely familiar with Nissan's more recent truck offerings. What is surprising is the deep exhaust note that rumbles through the chrome pipe. It is strange to fire up a Nissan and hear what sounds like a Chevrolet V8 spring to life under the hood. Moderate to heavy acceleration yields a throaty sound that rivals the best from GM. Thankfully, the din subsides at highway speeds, so it never approaches annoying. But it's not all show and no go, the Armada offers very impressive forward thrust. With 305 hp under the hood, this big SUV feels much lighter than its 5,000-pound weight would suggest.
Even though 5,000 pounds is no heavier than most of the competition, the Armada's weight makes itself known when traveling on twisty back roads. Under most circumstances, the Armada feels stable and actually corners quite well thanks to a fully independent rear suspension, but carry too much speed into a corner and the momentum can really make the vehicle feel heavy there's just no hiding more than two tons of mass. The Pathfinder Armada splits the line between the Tahoe's fun-to-drive nature and the Sequoia's smooth but uninteresting ride. The Armada does have a decided stiffness but is also able to deliver a smooth highway experience at the same time. The big Nissan in no way suffers from being too soft, but there is refinement in certain areas. The five-speed automatic transmission is so smooth you can barely feel it shifting; in fact, if it were not for the tach needle dropping, the driver would be hard-pressed to know that anything mechanical had happened imperceptible would not be an exaggeration when describing the Armada's smooth five-speed.
There's no question that Nissan is facing some tough competition with this new full-size SUV. Combine that with the fact that large SUV sales fell as much as 16 percent from 2001 to 2002 (only the Chevrolet Tahoe and Toyota Sequoia made sales gains during that period), and it's easy to see how difficult the Armada's prospects could be. Nissan's sales predictions are modest top sellers like the Tahoe and Expedition sold about 200,000 units combined in 2002. Nissan is looking to sell about 40,000 Armadas its first year out. What this means to consumers is that buying an Armada could offer all the utility a family might need while still retaining some measure of individuality. After our initial drive, we're convinced that the Armada offers what many large SUV buyers are looking for a bold exterior, a roomy interior, massive towing capacity fueled by a powerful V8 and better-than-average off-road ability.
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