There was a time, not so long ago, when the race to build bigger SUVs was a profitable, enviable enterprise. Nissan built one of the biggest of them all: the Armada. The 2012 Nissan Armada dwarfs ordinary SUVs. With a base price of $53,950 ($55,850 as tested), the 2012 Nissan Armada Platinum comes with a 3-year/36,000-mile basic warranty, a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates of 12 mpg city/18 mpg highway. Let's drive.
Armada launched as "Pathfinder Armada" back in 2004, and set sail as "Armada" in 2005. Periodic cosmetic refreshes have been applied since then, but the Armada has the same bones that it has had for years: Traditional, body-on-frame construction on a platform shared with the Nissan Titan pickup truck. Armada is built in Nissan's Canton, Mississippi plant alongside Titan.
Armada is big and tall. Only the extended wheelbase Ford Expedition, Chevrolet Suburban, Cadillac Escalade ESV and Infiniti QX56 outdo it in terms of sheer combined dimensions. Impressive 10.4" of ground clearance lends to a 78" vehicle height, making Armada the tallest SUV on the market. The bold exterior design is aging well, with flat planes and square edges dominating the visuals. There's definitely a family resemblance with Pathfinder and Xterra, including the Pathfinder's signature high-mounted second row door handles. If you've got young kids, be aware that they may not be able to reach to open the back doors on their own -- which is great for the coming Zombie Kid Apocalypse, but not so good for the After School Pickup Line.
In the Driver’s Seat
All that exterior space translates to great roominess inside Armada, too. No surprise there. Nissan has made some very good decisions about how to divvy that space to maximize comfort in all three rows. The third row of seats is reasonably comfortable, and easily accessible. My test vehicle was equipped with captain's chairs in the second row ($450) in place of a bench seat, reducing seating capacity to seven. Because my tester was a Platinum trim level vehicle (top of the line), it also got such extras as leather seating surfaces and heated first and second row seats.
The view from Armada's driver's seat is commanding, but a word of caution: the big flat hood and front fenders create a massive blind spot. It's difficult to see what's right in front of the SUV, and especially difficult to see anything directly to the front corners. I had a couple of close calls with pedestrians and kids on skateboards at traffic lights. I'd check to my right, and see nobody; then check to my left to see that traffic was clear. One more look to the right, and I'd initiate my right turn -- only to realize at the last second that a kid had stepped off the curb in my path. This happened more than once during my week with the Armada, which made me extra-cautious at every intersection. I also noticed that it was very challenging to change lanes in the Armada, as the "D" pillars and tall window base made it tough to see. I tried to remedy this by sitting up as high as possible, which helped. Shorter drivers will have a tough time driving Armada safely.
On the Road
V8 power is nearly essential for a vehicle this large, and Armada has it. A 5.6-liter V8 engine lurks beneath Armada's broad hood, tuned to produce 317 hp and 385 lb-ft of torque. With Armada's curb weight of 5,808 in Platinum 4x4 trim (or as little as 5,202 in base SV 4x2 trim), the engine is sufficient to make the SUV feel quick. The five-speed automatic transmission (almost a throwback) does a pretty good job of keeping the engine in the powerband. I guess I'm getting accustomed to six, seven and even eight-speed automatic transmissions lately, which means that it felt like Armada labored longer in each gear before upshifting.
Armada handles well for a big SUV, but it's not a vehicle that you want to be throwing into corners at high speeds -- this is a tall, full-size SUV, and there's a limit to how much physics will allow. In normal driving conditions, with traction control left in the default "ON" position, physics will behave politely and Armada will sail smoothly down the road. If you're foolish enough to switch traction control to "OFF" and then try to drive Armada like a Miata, you'll get to learn a very expensive lesson very quickly.
Sure, it may seem like the time has passed for full-sized SUVs like the Armada. But there are still people who need a big, strong, capable SUV on a regular basis. Most people would be okay with the smaller, more efficient Pathfinder or even the Murano crossover, both stars of the Nissan family. I felt a little guilty driving Armada around Los Angeles, unless I had an SUV full of passengers.
If you really do need a full-size SUV, you should drive an Armada before you make your final decision. The Chevy Tahoe, Toyota Sequoia and Dodge Durango are each good competitors, depending on your taste and desire for features. It's hard to go wrong here -- only the best full-size SUVs have survived the economy.
If you choose an Armada, you'll get a very capable, boldly styled and mostly engaging full-size SUV. Enjoy it while you can -- full-size SUVs are a dying breed. We can just be thankful that they're going out on top.