Debuting in 2004, Nissan’s first full-size SUV shares direct kinship with the Titan pickup and the Infiniti QX56. The former provides bold styling cues, a rugged framework, and first-rate powertrain elements. The latter donates exceptional functionality, an impressive array of features, and ride-enhancing independent rear suspension. Less opulent than the Infiniti, the Armada does boast a spacious, well-finished interior with room for eight, a class-leading 9100-lb maximum tow rating, and a base price that undercuts the QX56 by about $14,000. Both the SE and upline LE come in rear- and four-wheel-drive configurations, and the SE 4WD also offers a dedicated Off-Road Package. We tested a generously optioned LE 4WD.
Even larger than its key rivals, the Chevy Suburban, Ford Expedition, and Toyota Sequoia, the Armada employs a long wheelbase with short overhangs and a wide stance to enhance its appearance and help stability. A bounty of Titan-like brightwork, prominent fender flares, 18-inch alloy wheels with 265/70 (or 17-inch 285/70s with the Off-Road package) tires, and privacy glass add to this purposeful character, while standard running boards help facilitate the entry/exit procedure.
The Armada’s tastefully understated cabin shows a strong Titan influence throughout. Key controls are well positioned, and white-on-black gauges afford good legibility, day or night. Included in its full complement of power assists are adjustments for both the driver’s seat and pedal set. Dual-zone front/rear air conditioning is standard on all Armada variants. LE models swap cloth upholstery for leather and upgrade the AM/FM/CD with changer audio package to a 10-speaker Bose system.
The Armada’s spacious nature is most evident in the first two rows of seats, where head and leg room are scaled to accommodate six-foot-plus occupants. Its well-formed front buckets are the most comfortable perches in the house. Both the captain’s chairs and optional (at no charge in LE) second-row split bench flip and fold forward to ease third-tier access. However, despite “theatre style” elevation, relatively thin cushion padding and smaller key dimensions make the one-piece third-row bench a kid-only zone. Flat folding the bench is a snap–a lever pull actually–but raising it takes palpably more effort. With all seats up, the Armada can swallow 20.0 cu ft of payload through a large, two-piece power (standard LE, optional SE) liftgate. That figure maxes out at 97.1 cu ft with rows two and three down. Storage areas for personal effects include a non-locking glovebox and a center console with both open and covered bins. The utility of the latter is somewhat compromised by the optional DVD entertainment system, but there are plenty of other cubbies and pockets (plus a removable rear console in any Armada with captain’s chairs) for lesser items plus a full-length overhead console. Also on hand: four cupholders, eight bottle holders, and four 12V powerpoints.
To its strong core structure, the Armada adds “smart” front airbags plus active front head restraints, seatbelt pretensioners/load limiters, full-length side curtain bags, and three-point belts for all seats. Front side airbags are SE options, LE standards. All get ABS disc brakes with Electronic Brake force Distribution and traction control, with the LE also netting a stability system.
All Armadas use Nissan’s 5.6-liter Endurance V-8, an aluminum DOHC engine that churns out 305 hp and 385 lb-ft of torque while drinking (well, chugging) regular unleaded. It’s backed by an electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission with manual and tow/haul modes. The optional All-Mode four-wheel-drive system is derived from the legendary Skyline GT sport coupe, but here it adds an electronically controlled transfer case with Auto/2WD/4Hi/4Lo choices. Limited-slip differentials and traction control are standard across the line, with the LE adding stability control.
Behind the Wheel
Class-leading power and torque plus a responsive, refined autoshifter put plenty of snap in the Armada’s step in addition to formidable towing potential. Electronic controls make transitioning from 2WD to 4WD and into tow/haul mode a breeze. While EPA mileage numbers of 13 city and 18 (2WD)/19 (4WD) highway are just average for the category, a 28-gallon fuel tank ensures at least reasonable refueling intervals.
Unlike its primary foes that still use a solid rear axle, the Armada boasts a fully independent, and very well-sorted, suspension. Despite its formidable scale, overall control and controllability is impressive, with modest impact harshness, relatively minimal body roll, and no “floaty” feel. Save for effort that’s a tad high and a bit of minor kickback on rough surfaces, the Armada’s power steering performs well. Vented disc brakes with ABS proved effective stoppers, with a softish pedal but good modulation. While the Tow Package brings auto rear leveling, we found the rear parking assist (included in the LE Technology Package) to be even more useful on a daily basis.
The Armada puts the right stuff in a lot of the right places for buyers desiring a full measure of the large SUV experience. Its traditional form is matched by amenities that make it as adept at everyday commuting as it is on a weekend getaway. A good deal of that charm stems from pairing spirited performance with confident handling, traits that arguably provide a modest edge versus its primary rivals. But that said, the Armada is still a big, truck-based vehicle, and one decidedly happiest when tooling about in wide-open spaces, be they paved or not. If your parking spot says “Compact Only” and you’re not particularly keen on a two-stage entry/exit process, a Pathfinder, Xterra, or 4Runner would provide a more palatable, lighter-duty alternative. While IntelliChoice rates the Armada SE as Better than Average in its Cost Value Rating, and the LE and SE Off-Road earn average marks, no Armada variant matches our 2005 Best Overall Value Winner in full-size SUVs under $36,000: the Toyota Sequoia.
Despite its daring, tough looks, the Armada is surprisingly easy to live with. If you believe that in the world of SUVs bigger really is better, this is definitely one to consider.
- What’s HotConfident handling Available XM or Sirius satellite radioImpressive performance on unleaded regular What’s NotBig engine has a big thirstSingle-piece rear bench seatClose-quarters maneuverability
Dropping its Pathfinder prefix and adding Red Brawn to its exterior palette, the Armada gets only minor upgrades for ’05. Key changes include the addition of a power liftgate to the SE Sunroof Package, a power liftgate and power passenger seat to the LE, a rearview monitor to the Technology Package, and active front head restraints and seatbelt pretensioners/force limiters to both SE and LE.
Packages aplenty here, and each builds on its predecessor in the following order: Bose, Leather, Sunroof, Journey (2nd row captain’s chairs), and Technology (LE only, adds Navigation, rearview monitor and automatic climate control). A single-screen, rear DVD entertainment system with wireless headphones and a Tow Package are also available. The SE 4WD offers a dedicated Off-Road Features combo (Rancho shock absorbers, all-terrain tires, lower final drive, skidplates, fog lamps).