2021 Nissan Armada first drive review: Big softie

Nissan's large-and-in-charge three-row SUV prioritizes comfort at every opportunity, yet it's still plenty capable, too.

Andrew Krok Reviews Editor / Cars
Cars are Andrew's jam, as is strawberry. After spending years as a regular ol' car fanatic, he started working his way through the echelons of the automotive industry, starting out as social-media director of a small European-focused garage outside of Chicago. From there, he moved to the editorial side, penning several written features in Total 911 Magazine before becoming a full-time auto writer, first for a local Chicago outlet and then for CNET Cars.
Andrew Krok
6 min read
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This new front end has done wonders for the Armada's on-road presence.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

The currently in showrooms debuted in 2016 and while doesn't like to admit it, its three-row SUV was already a few years old at that point, being based on the company's existing overseas-market Patrol. That left the big bruiser feeling a little behind the times, especially in terms of cabin tech. Now, for the 2021 model year, a substantial refresh has brought this big boy into the modern era without messing with the base formula that made it popular in the first place.

Sharp front end, soft edges

The Nissan Armada has always been large enough for its shadow to have a shadow and that doesn't change for 2021. However, some of the model's stodgier elements have finally been cast aside and what a difference that makes. The front end now looks positively futuristic, thanks to a sharp set of headlights with a new daytime-running-light pattern, which flank a larger (but appropriately sized) version of Nissan's "V-Motion" grille. The front bumper also conveys more ruggedness than before thanks to the revised lower trim, which nearly touches the bottom of the grille.

My SL tester also packs Nissan's Midnight Edition package, which further enhances the design's visual aggression by ditching exterior chrome trim in favor of gloss-black elements, from the bumpers to the windows and all the way back to the taillights. The rear end has been gussied up, too, thanks to a new set of taillights and revisions to the rear bumper, but the changes out back are pretty mild compared to the front. Nevertheless, the whole shebang looks a lot fresher.

2021 Nissan Armada is a big boy full of improvements

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Inside, the 2021 Armada's center stack and console have been given a big ol' freshening to great effect. The button-heavy middle of the dashboard has been swapped out with a new infotainment system and a fresh layout for all the controls beneath that. While the shifter remains the same, the vehicle drive-mode dial has been moved aside in favor of a knob that controls the infotainment system -- a much smarter piece of switchgear to keep close to the driver. Safety first, after all. I'm a huge fan of the change, which frees up a lot of wasted space -- enough to accommodate a new wireless device charger and a trailer brake controller. The utilization of space is much better this time around.

The rest of the interior remains mighty comfortable. This SL trim comes standard with leather seats, enhanced in the Midnight Edition with a black headliner and dark interior trim. Dim light can leave the whole thing feeling a little cavernous, but it's not bad if you dig dark motifs. The seats themselves are mighty comfortable across all three rows and even the way backs offer a suitable amount of space for grown adults. My specific tester ditches the second-row bench in favor of captain's chairs and a honkin' center console with enough storage space for just about anything. You'll never run out of places to stash stuff in here. Behind the third row, there's a solid 16.5 cubic inches of storage, expanding to 49.9 cubes when you drop the way-backs, which on my tester is done with a dead-simple pull cord. Fold the second row down and you can shove an impressive 95.4 cubic feet of junk in the Armada.

My, what a big screen you have

Heck, if all Nissan did for the 2021 Armada was replace its dreaded tiny infotainment screen, I would've been happy. Gone is the tiny, low-res, forgettable tech of yore and in its place is a 12.3-inch setup that is much more appropriately sized for this full-size SUV. I can't explain why the screen is tilted toward the sunroof, but on the positive side, glare from the direct sun was never an issue.

The display runs the latest version of Nissan's infotainment system, which looks a lot snazzier than before. A home screen lets me see a few different things at once and it's plenty easy to swap between audio and map tiles, for example, using the quick-access buttons located on the center console. I also appreciate the easily accessible brightness button just below the screen itself. While Nissan's UI is very straightforward and easy to work with, phone addicts will appreciate standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. The former is wireless, making for a particularly convenient combo with the wireless charger tucked under the climate controls.

2021 Nissan Armada
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2021 Nissan Armada

The new infotainment screen is great, but I'm unsure why it's pointed halfway to the ceiling.

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There's also a new 7-inch screen tucked between the analog gauges in the cluster. This one is nothing you haven't seen before in any other modern Nissan -- it'll show the driver information about fuel economy, tire pressures, trip meters, the usual cluster fare. While the dials themselves do feel a little old-school in comparison to the rest of the cabin tech, they are super legible without causing much distraction.

Big cars need big cameras -- at least I think they do -- and the Armada doesn't disappoint there, either. In addition to packing a backup camera of suitable resolution, my tester sports 360-degree bird's-eye camera coverage that works in conjunction with front and rear parking sensors to make parking-lot positioning a breeze, rather than a chore.

Get up and go

Easy-breezy is also a great way to describe how the 2021 Nissan Armada acts on the road. Then again, it should feel simple to pilot, thanks to its sizable standard 5.6-liter V8 gas engine, which puts out 400 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque (improvements of 10 and 19 over last year, respectively), which on my tester is sent to all four wheels by way of a seven-speed automatic transmission (rear-wheel drive is standard).

Despite a hefty 6,000-ish-pound curb weight and the footprint to match, the Armada has no problem getting out of its own way. At tip-in, the throttle can be a little sensitive, but a light foot and a gradual roll onto the throttle can produce impressive acceleration for an SUV of its size -- with a pleasant V8 growl to match and a transmission that, while a little old, remains commendably smooth. That hustle might be appreciated with an unladen vehicle, but it'll be of special importance to those looking to make the most of the Armada's standard 8,500-pound towing capacity. Bringing the whole thing to a stop is dead simple, too, thanks to a gradual brake feel that offers surprising precision.

2021 Nissan Armada
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2021 Nissan Armada

All that power and capability comes at a cost.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Since comfort is of high priority in the 2021 Armada, it's not a surprise that everything is tuned with that quality in mind. The standard fixed suspension and tall-sidewall 275/60R20 Bridgestone Dueler tires do a great job eating up nasty roads and returning very little body-on-frame jostling in the cabin, with exceptions for some of the more severe expansion joints and potholes out there. Body roll is plentiful and the nose does pitch more than I'd prefer under heavier acceleration and braking, but in a hefty majority of cases the whole driving experience is straight-up comfortable. The steering is light and sort of loose, but hey, it turns the car, so I can't complain.

While the EPA's website has yet to publish figures for the 2021 Armada, its carryover powertrain means fuel economy shouldn't stray far from 2020's numbers, which are admittedly on the low side. The feds rate the 2020 Armada 4WD at 13 miles per gallon city and 18 mpg highway, just 1 mpg behind the 2WD model in both cases. With conscious effort, I'm able to eke out 20 on the highway, but the Armada is just plain thirsty in around-town situations.

Down to brass tacks

In terms of full-size body-on-frame SUVs , the Armada's biggest competition comes from . The 2021 and are both brand spanking new and they're mighty impressive vehicles in terms of both comfort and capability. However, piling on the options can create some jaw-dropping window stickers -- and not in a good way. The and its twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 would like a word, too. If you want something a little smaller with a less-trucky makeup, the still-capable is a good option to consider, as well.

As it stands, though, Nissan's done great work with the 2021 Armada. Now firmly rooted in the 21st century, the refreshed Armada packs plenty of daily usability and comfort with solid capability to match -- or, at least, it will, when it goes on sale in January.