Published: 10/06/2003 - by John DiPietro, Automotive Editor
In our last full-size SUV comparison test, Toyota's ultrarefined Sequoia bested the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Tahoe. Although it doesn't have quite the workhorse capabilities of the brawny Americans, the Sequoia impressed us in areas that most folks will appreciate; it's comfortable, roomy, easy to handle and oozes quality inside and out.
But for 2004 Nissan's new Pathfinder Armada storms onto the scene with a mighty 5.6-liter V8 and rather unique body styling. Where the Sequoia is soft and rounded, the Armada is hard-edged and angular. Like a brazen heavyweight fighter who likes to show off, the Armada has a presence that Ali would envy.
As a production version of the Armada was not available, we took what we could get a preproduction Armada SE Off-Road 2WD. So while it's not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, we still jumped at the opportunity to drive these two competitors back-to-back in an informal comparison. With clipboards, route maps and evaluation forms in hand, we hopped in the trucks and sampled them in a variety of conditions, the commuter grind, twisting two-laners, interstate freeways and even a moderate off-road loop into the Angeles National Forest.
With Nissan taking a different approach than the kinder, gentler Sequoia in the fight for big SUV supremacy, it made for an interesting match.
We have to tip our hats to Nissan for having the gumption to go right after the last bastions of the American auto industry full-size trucks and SUVs. Yeah, Toyota has the Tundra pickup and the Armada's opponent in this test, the Sequoia. But they're more like 7/8s scale versions almost, but not quite, full-size, at least in terms of brute power and towing ability.
Why Nissan chose to include its midsize Pathfinder's name for this new full-size SUV is a mystery to us; the two trucks share nothing at all. That would be like Toyota calling the Sequoia the 4Runner Sequoia, or Ford calling its Expedition the Explorer Expedition. And Armada? Isn't that a fleet of warships? We're talking about a single vehicle here and a landlubber at that.
The oddly named Armada is available in two trim levels, base SE and luxury LE, with a choice of either two- or four-wheel drive. Our preproduction vehicle was a 2WD SE equipped with the "SE Off-Road Sunroof" package that adds Rancho shocks, a lower final drive ratio (for improved acceleration and climbing), skid plates, foglamps and massive (285/70R17) BG Goodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires (a 4WD model was not available). The package includes other features as well, such as leather seating, a power passenger seat, side airbags, a Bose audio system with steering wheel-mounted controls and, of course, a power sunroof. Though it may seem strange that an off-road package is offered on a two-wheeler, the more aggressive tires and suspension, along with the skid plates, constitute enough extra equipment to handle most off-pavement terrain.
Looking something like a prop in a "Mad Max" sequel, the Armada should win favor with those who think that the more intimidating a truck looks, the better. The front bumper seems as if it was borrowed from a Kenworth, and the bulging fenders look like the pumped-up muscles of a pro wrestler. Some of us liked the Armada's industrial/testosterone-inspired style while others thought it was just too much.
The cabin has a similar, if more subdued, "square jaw" theme that was best summed up by one editor who declared "this cabin's macho personality suits this vehicle perfectly." In terms of function, it works well. Large buttons and displays take no time to get used to, though the indicator light for the "recirculate" function was hard to see as it washed out easily in the daylight. The large front and second-row seats allowed driver and passengers alike to spread out, though the seats felt somewhat flat compared to the Sequoia's more supportive seats. A wheelbase 5 inches longer than the Sequoia means even b-ball players shouldn't be lacking for legroom. The third-row seat is set up high, theater-style, and has decent legroom but a short seat bottom, making it (as with most of these) best suited for kids. The second- and third-row seats fold flat, making the transport of bulky items a snap.
Behind the Armada's menacing grille is an engine with a personality to match; a stout 5.6-liter, DOHC V8 with 305 horsepower and 385 pound-feet of torque. Editors raved about the performance with one normally reserved car jockey moved to proclaim his outright affection: "What a motor I love it! Move over Tahoe, there's a new, more powerful SUV in town." A few of us, though, felt this powerhouse was a little gruff when compared to the ultrasmooth V8 found under the Sequoia's hood. Like a doubles tennis team, a good motor is nothing without an equally adept partner, and the five-speed automatic that accompanies the Armada's "Endurance" V8 does a fine job of responding when a quick downshift is called for, quickly and seamlessly changing gears.
With all that muscle on hand, the Armada is rated to tow 9,100 pounds, making it the best in its class in this category. The previous lugging champ, the Ford Expedition, can pull 8,900 pounds, and the Armada's rating is nearly 50 percent more than the Sequoia's 6,200-pound capacity.
Despite a weight of 5,000 pounds (and remember, this is a two-wheeler the 4x4 bends the scale at 5,300 pounds), the Armada moves out quickly when prodded; nearly 400 pound-feet of torque can do that for you. A burly exhaust note adds to the enjoyment of the V8, inspiring one driver to compare its sound to that of an old muscle car.
Considering the Armada's independent, double wishbone suspension architecture (even the 4WD has it), we expected the handling and ride characteristics to be top-notch. In addition, our tester had the Tow Package that includes a self-leveling rear air suspension. But in spite of how impressive these specs look on paper, it still couldn't match the Sequoia. The Armada is comfortable under the non-demanding conditions of the freeway, but when challenged by twisty roads or the rutted and rock-strewn terrain of our off-road loop, it felt stiff-legged and lethargic compared to the Toyota's supple and more responsive chassis. Yes, our Armada was equipped with an Off-Road suspension package and the air suspension didn't seem to be working right on our preproduction truck, but still, these impressions jibe with those we felt in an earlier first drive we did on the Armada.
After the numbers were tallied, the Armada came in behind the Sequoia, but it was a close one, with only seven points separating the two. A roomy cabin, a powerhouse drivetrain and "out-of-the-box" styling are the Armada's strengths. With its potent performance and hefty towing ability, the Armada should be at the top of the list for those who need a 'ute that can easily tow a supersized trailer or boat. The other 80 percent of those considering the purchase of a full-size SUV would be better served by the more comfortable, more refined and easier to handle Sequoia.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Call me a sucker for a serious motor, but the Armada blew me away with its burly power plant. Up until now, the Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon twins were the only option if you wanted a full-size SUV with major-league power, but the Armada feels like it may have them beat. Not only is its big V8 capable of propelling the monster SUV with surprising gusto, it has a deep, throaty sound that makes GM's Vortec V8 sound like it's running on half its cylinders. I found myself mashing the throttle over and over again just to hear the motor wind itself out. Cruising on the freeway, however, there's little engine noise and even tire noise is negligible despite the huge 17-inch off-road tires. Strong brakes and a respectable turning radius are additional pluses that make it less cumbersome than you might think.
The interior design doesn't do much for me, as it features typical Nissan amber backlighting and multiple shades of gray trim, but from a functionality standpoint it's hard to knock. I liked the multiple storage areas and the sweet-sounding stereo, but the cupholders are weak and the center console gives up space to the DVD player. Sitting in the second-row seats is almost as comfortable as the front, a design element that Nissan was smart to offer since it's likely to be appreciated more than a roomy third row. The flat-folding seats are another well-executed feature that adds utility.
Deciding whether I would take the Armada over the Sequoia would be tough. As much as I like the Armada's monster engine and expansive size, the fact is that I would rarely make much use of either, a circumstance most drivers are likely to share. If, however, I knew that I was going to be towing a boat on a regular basis or wanted the extra space for family and friends, I wouldn't hesitate to get the Armada for a second.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Nissan has authentically recreated the experience of driving a traditional domestic SUV. Seated behind the wheel of the Armada, you can feel every ounce of its full-size body and the 5.6-liter V8 propels it with all the authority of GM's Vortec 5300. Fortunately, the Armada is quite easy to maneuver for a truck its size the suspension provides a comfortable, controlled ride, and the steering is progressively weighted. Make no mistake, this isn't a vehicle you'll wish to drive on winding back roads, but it's well suited for highway cruising. Although the air suspension on our preproduction test vehicle was malfunctioning, it was apparent to me that the Armada is tough enough to take a beating off-road.
Inside, the Armada has a crisp industrial look and a simple control layout that's easy to figure out the moment you enter the vehicle. There's plenty of room in all directions the Nissan seemed to hold the practical advantage in shoulder and legroom in all three rows of seating. Even so, I could not get comfortable in the driver seat due to the flat cushioning. Although the Armada would seem the better choice for large families, buyers should consider their options carefully: The Nissan does offer more room, and its fold-flat third-row seat makes it easy to transition between hauling passengers and cargo. However, because the seat is not a split-folding design (as in the Sequoia, Expedition and Tahoe), owners have less flexibility in situations where there is a mix of passengers and cargo.
After driving the Armada and Sequoia back-to-back, I think the Nissan is the better choice for families who do serious hauling and towing. However, for the average buyer purchasing an SUV as a minivan substitute, the more refined and agile Sequoia is the way to go.
Having handily won our last full-size SUV comparo, the Sequoia impressed us all with its high level of powertrain refinement, easy-to-handle nature, smooth ride and comfortable cabin. The general consensus was that for most people most of the time, the Sequoia was the best choice. Bolstered by a long-standing reputation for quality that the other 'utes couldn't approach, the Sequoia beat the Ford and Chevy soundly.
Now entering its fourth model year, the Sequoia's design has worn well. Although a few editors thought it looked boring compared to the extroverted Armada, the Sequoia's clean style found favor with one driver who stated "the Sequoia is classy yet has enough aggressive elements, such as the big wheel flares, to give it that rugged SUV look that folks demand."
Also in sharp contrast to the Armada is the Sequoia's cabin, which has rounded surfaces and a more upscale look and feel. In typical Toyota fashion, nearly all of the cabin materials are pleasing to the eyes and fingertips. Subtle metallic accents dress it up and there's not a bad seat in the house. Notes on the evaluation forms back up that last impression: "[The seats] are soft but felt great after an hour behind the wheel Softer and [with] better contouring than the Armada's ."
There were a few caveats, however: "The Sequoia's front seats are definitely smaller than the Armada's, so larger drivers may prefer the Armada." Although most of the Toyota's controls are easy to use, a few shorter drivers thought the recessed stereo and seat heater buttons were a little hard to reach, though steering wheel-mounted audio controls offset this somewhat. Lastly, the heavy third-row seats are a bear to remove, as they weigh quite a bit. But the 50/50 design does allow more cargo/passenger-hauling flexibility than the Armada's one-piece flip-down rearmost row.
Spec hounds will see that the Sequoia is significantly down on power when compared to the muscle-bound Armada. But what they won't see by looking at numbers on a chart is how we're running out of adjectives to describe how smooth and quiet the Toyota's superb 4.7-liter, 240-horse V8 is, whether cruising or accelerating at full throttle. Nor will they realize that, in the real world, where there's not a 40-foot Airstream or Bayliner behind it, this engine is plenty. Indeed, it feels more powerful than its output rating might suggest. Only when faced with serious climbing is it noticeable that the Sequoia is bested by the husky Armada. And although we didn't notice this in other Sequoias we've driven, the brakes seemed to require more effort than normal.
With a ride nearly as plush as a Camry, the Sequoia is proof that a truck-based (body-on-frame architecture) SUV needn't ride like one. And that comfortable ride doesn't equate to sloppy handling as the Sequoia's well-weighted steering delivers quicker response than the Armada, and the Toyota's smaller size makes it far more nimble. It's equally comfortable off pavement as well, as one editor stated in his notes: "A great all-around combination of ride comfort, body control and off-road ability."
Since the Sequoia debuted in 2001, new full-size SUVs from all corners have been taking a swing at it. Here we are three years later, and although Nissan's big and strong Armada put up a good fight, it just wasn't enough to beat the well-rounded Sequoia. The same reasons that allowed the Sequoia to beat the Ford Expedition and Chevy Tahoe last time assured victory (albeit a narrow one) this time 'round a polished manner on-road or off, a comfortable and quiet cabin, plenty of luxury and a virtually untarnished record for quality. No doubt about it, this is still the full-size SUV to beat.
Anybody else feeling up to taking on Toyota's champion?
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Every time I drive a Sequoia I'm consistently amazed at how small and nimble it feels for such a large vehicle. Granted, it gives up a few inches here and there to some of its rivals, but from behind the wheel you would think it was a couple feet smaller than the Armada. It sprints away from stoplights despite its modestly sized V8 and you don't have to make a five-point turn to get it into a parking space either. On our moderate off-road drive, the Sequoia was fun to toss around and there was less intrusion from the stability and traction control system than I remember on previous models.
As much as I admire how well it drives, however, I couldn't help but notice that the Sequoia is beginning to show its age a bit. The interior design, while still functional, looks dated and somewhat haphazard. The controls for the side mirrors are awkwardly placed on the center console and the seat heater switch for the driver is on the passenger side of the dash. Our test truck also had an annoying rattle coming from one of the rear windows and I gouged my side on a loose piece of seat trim getting out on one occasion. The engine does well around town, but on the highway it doesn't have the grunt to keep up with the Armada.
For average-size families whose activities won't require towing anything in the near future, the Sequoia is still the best full-size for everyday use in my mind. But if my activities included a ski boat in tow, or my family numbered more than five, the Armada's additional power and size would tip the scale in favor of the Nissan.
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
As powerful and robust as the Pathfinder Armada is, this comparison test reminded me why I like the Sequoia so much. For the average buyer who's looking at full-size SUVs as an alternative to a minivan, there's no question that this Toyota is the easiest one to live with on a day-to-day basis. The highway ride isn't just comfortable it's plush and a smaller overall size makes the Sequoia feel downright nimble around corners compared to the Armada. The 4.7-liter V8 under the hood can't begin to match the torque of Nissan's 5.6-liter, but unless you haul heavy loads or tow a trailer on a regular basis, it's perfectly adequate and power delivery is much smoother. In terms of outright off-road ability, the Nissan likely holds the edge, but if your idea of off-roading is driving along a well-maintained 4x4 trail to a campsite, the Toyota will meet your needs.
The Sequoia's cabin design is less distinctive than the Armada's, but all of the controls are easy to find and use, and I found the front seats much more comfortable. The rear seats are softer and better shaped as well. Still, there's little doubt that the Armada offers more room in all three rows of seating, though Toyota does provide fore/aft adjustment for the rearmost seats. When it's time to make way for cargo, the Sequoia's 50/50-split third-row seats are a hassle to remove, while the Armada's single-piece bench can be tumbled into the floor. But if you've got a mix of passengers and cargo, you may prefer the flexibility of Toyota's split-bench arrangement.
The Armada is a real truck at heart that can do all the things that real trucks are supposed to do. The Sequoia is also a real truck by definition (body-on-frame design, available low-range gearing) adapted for the typical SUV buyer who wants a capable and refined family vehicle above all else.
The Armada came close to grabbing the trophy from the Sequoia. The total tallies on the evaluation forms bear that out: Sequoia 570 points; Armada 563 points. A powerful engine has a way of making up for shortcomings (such as handling) in other areas, and those who love the sound and fury of a brawny V8 should find joy in the Armada's engine. And so should those who need to haul a four-horse trailer or small yacht. But the rest of you may be put off by the big-truck handling dynamics and cold interior furnishings.
Having successfully defended its title, the Sequoia may seem like the perfect full-size SUV. But as with most other things in life, the Sequoia isn't perfect. It could use more power for that minority that needs it, removing the third-row seats is a hassle that one needn't deal with in vehicles like the Armada or Ford Expedition (which both feature fold-down designs) and the styling is too tepid for those who need to make an "I'm a rugged individual" statement.
But as indicated by the large numbers of Sequoias seen on our streets, most people seem to appreciate this well-rounded SUV's many talents, such as providing the room and seating position of a big 'ute while also being relatively easy to drive and park. Throw in a quiet and comfortable ride, silent but peppy engine and bulletproof reliability and we think you'll agree that the Sequoia fully deserves its place on the podium.
2003 Toyota Sequoia Limited 4x4
"Having happily owned a number of Land Cruisers from FJ40 days onward, when the price of the LC got above $50K I defected to an Expedition. Mistake. Returned to the Toyota fold with a 2002 Sequoia Limited. What a great vehicle! Tows my trailer and Mule with aplomb, even in the mountains. Mileage is 15 in town, almost 20 on the highway, 14 while towing. My only complaint (a mild one) is that it is kind of a tire eater with the factory rubber. Switched to Michelins as I usually do and expect that to be a nonissue from now on. Rides like a car on the highway, and not too stiff on the back roads." Bob Pond, Sept. 6, 2003
"I test-drove the Caddy Escalade ESV, Lincoln Navigator and all the GMCs. They are all nice but the Sequoia has the best balance of power, space and comfort for a large family. The best resale value in its class doesn't hurt, not one bit. I love the generous cargo room behind the third row. More spacious than any other competing vehicles. I would like better gas mileage, though." Big Gilk, Sept. 1, 2003
"After eight years of having Suburbans in our family, we decided to spend just a little more and get something we would not have to trade in every 2 to 3 years. It is amazing how much nicer this feels than a Suburban. The turning radius is like a small car, it is more comfortable than our Suburbans were and I feel that I won't have to be trading it in after 70,000 miles. You don't see many used Sequoias for sale; that should tell you something! The middle seats flip up easily so the kids don't have to step on the middle seat and jump over like they did with the Suburban. A little more cargo area would be nice." martinadrian, Aug. 6, 2003
2004 Nissan Pathfinder Armada SE Off-Road 2WD
N/A Not yet for sale.