New eight-passenger Nissan Armada lifts wheels to prove off-road prowess

In our first drive of the new Armada, Nissan sets up an off-road obstacle course to prove this large SUV is more than just a cruiser.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
4 min read

With a Nissan coach in the passenger seat telling me to keep steady pressure on the gas pedal, I aim the 2017 Nissan Armada up a dirt hill. The truck easily crawls upwards and we perch on the crest for a moment before letting descent control handle the ensuing downhill.

All goes fine on this dirt obstacle course during a Nissan-sponsored driving event in Monterey, California, but the real fun comes on the articulation track, a set of left and right alternate moguls on the track. Driving over these, I can feel when first the rear left, then the front right wheels hang in the air.

The scene looks even more impressive from outside the Armada, as it rears up with its front right wheel hanging three feet off the ground.

2017 Nissan Armada

The stiff frame of the Armada holds its right front wheel in the air, while the four-wheel-drive system compensates by putting power to the other three.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

Nissan used this course to prove the Armada's off-road credentials, although just knowing the provenance of the second generation of this eight-passenger body-on-frame SUV should settle the issue for some. This new Armada is based on the Nissan Patrol, a truck with over 50 years of history in markets outside the US and a Paris-Dakar competitor.

Nissan introduced the new Armada, coming out as a 2017 model year vehicle, at the Chicago auto show earlier this year. It continues as Nissan's largest SUV, the only one in its lineup with a body-on-frame architecture. With its direct injected 5.6-liter V-8 engine making 390 horsepower and 394 pound-feet of torque, it boasts a towing capacity of 8,500 pounds in either its rear-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive versions.

The exterior look, rugged yet somewhat futuristic, is good, and Nissan brings in an SUV version of its V-motion grille, a design cue reaching down the model lineup. LED headlights come standard.

Nissan sacrificed a little cargo area for the Armada's platform change, as the Patrol brings in a shorter wheelbase, but that only improved the driving character and capability, both on- and off-road.

New Nissan Armada brings an exotic look to big SUV

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On the off-road course, I use the Armada's four-wheel-drive system, which lets me lock torque in a 50:50 split front and rear with a dial on the console, and its descent control. That latter feature makes a racket as it alternatively brakes the wheels, but that sound is common among these types of vehicles. Lifting the wheels looks impressive, but I can't help thinking that an adaptive suspension would do a better job at keeping tires in contact with dirt, making better use of the power.

The Armada's surround view camera, initially designed to make parking safer, also proves a boon on the off-road course. My coach points out how its many views let me see not only the top-down angle on the car, but also a look down the sides, so I can see right where my wheels are placed. That would come in handy on a narrow mountain-side track. However, the mediocre quality of the Armada's dashboard LCD muddies the video imagery.

2017 Nissan Armada

As Nissan's large, body-on-frame SUV, the Armada comes standard with seating for eight and 8,500 pound towing capacity.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

Spending a few hours driving the Armada on pavement, I like how the shorter wheelbase makes handling feel more car-like. The truck responds well to steering input, and the steering system is tuned for comfort, making it easy to turn this behemoth.

Nissan also kept the cabin noise down with laminated glass and plenty of sound-deadening material integrated into the body. I find it easy to maintain a conversation with my co-driver, or listen to the 13-speaker Bose audio system. In this Platinum trim example, Nissan gussies up the cabin with wood trim and plenty of leather.

I note the buttons and dial under the LCD, a carryover from the infotainment system in Infiniti models. I always liked the usability of this system, but it is a bit dated now. In my brief look at the navigation and audio menus, I saw that Nissan hasn't really upgraded this software. As with its other vehicles, the Armada's dashboard electronics don't support Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Destination entry is the same old, tedious paradigm of choosing street number, street name and city on separate screens.

Cushy seats and big tire sidewalls contribute to a comfortable on-road ride, but I can feel an undercurrent of stiffness from the Armada's steel frame. It's a palpably different ride from crossover with independent suspension. With the four-wheel-drive dial set to its "Automatic" position, I know that it biases torque to the rear under normal driving conditions.

The most notable sound the Armada makes while on the road proves very enjoyable. It comes when I step hard on the throttle and the seven speed automatic transmission downshifts to passing gear. The engine note makes a steady, rising growl, a pleasing sound of power accompanied by acceleration quick enough for highway passing maneuvers.

2017 Nissan Armada

The new Patrol-based Armada looks good, its somewhat curved body giving it an exotic design.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

Nissan doesn't push many boundaries with the 2017 Armada, although segment competitors like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Toyota Sequoia tend to be rather conservative as well. The direct injection engine and seven speed transmission keep the Armada modern, in good competition with the Tahoe, and the four-wheel-drive system is solid.

The infotainment system may be hopelessly dated, but Nissan partially makes up for that with driver assistance features including adaptive cruise control, a blind spot monitoring system and, of course, the surround view monitor.

Where the Armada really stands out is its design. The body maintains a tough look, but hints at something slightly exotic. At a base price of $44,400, the Armada will definitely deserve a look when it shows up in dealers this August.