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2017 Nissan Armada First Drive

10:05PM - 01.08.'16

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About 4 percent of you digging into this first drive, I predict, will be salivating uncontrollably. These folks, who should go grab a bib right now, know exactly what this 2017 Nissan Armada is. "It's a Patrol," they sputter, turning slightly pink, "the all-conquering Dakar Rally hero! The rugged backbone of the UN in the most inhospitable environments! A real, full-size, all-terrain monster!" They know a Patrol hasn't been sold in this country since 1969, leaving the Land Cruiser to corner the hardcore 4x4 SUV market only to abandon it somewhat as it packed on the pounds and luxury equipment. "That's all about to change," our American Patrol fanboys sigh. "It's coming!"

Hate to burst your saliva-bubble, chaps, but this isn't the Patrol you've been looking for. Yes, it shares a rugged body-on-frame chassis and powertrain with what the rest of the world calls the Nissan Patrol, and it's built alongside that vehicle in the Kyushu factory in Japan. But most of the really good off-road equipment has been left off the menu. You can't get locking front and rear differentials, you can't get the trick sway bar disconnects for extra wheel articulation, and you are stuck with a suspension tune that caters to American on-road preferences. And you can't get the Hydraulic Body Motion Control (HBMC) suspension system that links the four corners hydraulically, which reduces roll on-road and reduces harshness off. That's on option on the Patrol, but it's not in the cards for the Armada.

This also isn't the first time we've seen this chassis or engine. Americans have been able to buy it since the 2011 model year as the Infiniti QX80 (née QX56), packing an almost identical 5.6-liter gasoline V8 (known as the VK56VD) and Jatco-built seven-speed automatic gearbox and either rear- or four-wheel drive. The Infiniti, it should be noted, does have fancy cross-linked suspension which reduces body roll during cornering as an option. If you think all this decontenting nerfs the Armada's capabilities, or that it's some sort of soft-roading boulevardier, you're partly wrong. It still has some authentic off-road chops, just about nine inches of ground clearance, and a real low range. Unless the kids' soccer game is in the Kalahari, this is already more than virtually anyone will utilize. And Nissan isn't presenting the Armada as anything other than the family-carrying, rugged full-size SUV it'll be purchased as in the US. In places where four-wheel drive won't be needed, it'll even be available in a rear-wheel-drive configuration, much like its QX80 near-twin.

In that role, it has many things going for it that competitors don't offer. The GM full-size SUVs, based on the K2XX platform, like the GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Suburban/Tahoe, are perennial strong sellers but can't claim the sort of rally and exploration cred that the Patrol does worldwide. The rest of the competition is slim and aging. Toyota's Sequoia is creaking along at eight years in production, making it two years older than the Y62-generation Patrol that the 2017 Armada is based on – and the Sequoia doesn't even pretend to have legit off-road capabilities. The Land Cruiser is even older, the current generation having debuted in 2007, and it's terribly expensive. Toyota offers only one model, a 4x4 loaded to the gills with luxury goodies, coming in at a somewhat astonishing $85,815. Yikes.

Nissan won't release full pricing for a little while, but its spokespeople dropped a hint: The Armada is expected to start at $45,395, for what logic tells us is a two-wheel-drive SV model. From there, it steps up into SL and then top-of-the-line Platinum trim levels. In the QX80, all-wheel drive is a $3,100 option. We don't expect it to add quite that much to the Armada's price, but it might be pretty close. No matter how you cut it, a person could buy this full-size SUV for tens of thousands of dollars less than a Land Cruiser and get, at least superficially, very similar on- and off-road capabilities. Normally, we talk about how a vehicle drives before delving into the pricing or competitive set, but this context is important to set expectations and frame the discussion. We'll also note that this is an older platform without a lot of brand-new content; the differences between the Armada and the QX80 are mostly styling and content rather than mechanicals. They have similar on-road manners.

That's mostly due to a meaty torque curve, which melts away the pounds.

When we drove the Infiniti back in 2010, when it was called the QX56, we said it drove like a big near-luxury sedan more than a huge body-on-frame SUV. Partly, that was due to the suspension's anti-roll trickery, but also because it is simply a more refined platform than the old QX56's Titan-based chassis. The same can be said, mostly, for the new 2017 Armada. The ride is excellent and roll is subdued for such a hulking beast, even though it utilizes standard dual-tube shocks. Unlike the QX56/QX80, the Armada didn't give the sensation of being a Q70 writ large, but rather a very large SUV that acts smaller than it is. That's mostly due to a meaty torque curve, which melts away the pounds. While the VK56VD in the Armada is detuned slightly compared to the QX80's version so it can run on regular gas, it doesn't make a whit of difference on the road.

Despite being a speed-sensitive hydraulic power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering setup (instead of the increasingly ubiquitous electronic-assisted units selected for slight but undeniable fuel economy gains), steering was on the numb side of vague. It took more attention than I'd like to keep the Armada on the straight and narrow, or the straight and freeway lane. Pay attention on a moderately twisty road and the Armada doesn't fall on its face, which sounds like faint praise but is actually a high compliment for an old, largely analog family hauler that'll tow 8,500 pounds.

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