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Expert Reviews 1 of 6
By Joe Wiesenfelder
September 12, 2003
With its 2004 Pathfinder Armada, Nissan sails into waters dominated by the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition. What is the Pathfinder Armada? Is it a fleet of Nissan Pathfinder sport utility vehicles armed with torpedoes and cannons? No, my friends, it's Nissan's first full-size SUV, which shares a platform with the 2004 Titan, the company's first full-size pickup truck, which I'll be reviewing here soon.
To be perfectly clear, the Pathfinder Armada has nothing to do with the Pathfinder, the midsize SUV that Nissan has sold since 1987. Market research proved that the Pathfinder has excellent name recognition and brand equity, so Nissan decided to make its name part of the new model's name to defray the effort and considerable expense of introducing a completely new name to the marketplace.
This was a bad idea. For every gullible sod who gets a warm, fuzzy feeling about the new model by association, there will be several who think that the Armada is just a version of the midsize Pathfinder, or that the name was appropriated because the midsize Pathfinder is going away which it's not. Like I said, bad idea. I know it because sometimes you just know, and because every other journalist with whom I discussed it at the vehicle's national media introduction here agreed. Surly and ill-dressed though we are, fifty-some ink-stained wretches can't be wrong.
Regardless of how long Nissan takes to wise up and change the name officially to Armada, I will henceforth refer to it simply as the Armada for efficiency's sake. Some folks bristle at the name Armada because it plays off the aggressive nature of SUVs (and often their drivers), but I support it because it's a real word. It beats the heck out of PA560 or the like. Pricing will be announced sometime this month, and the vehicle will hit dealerships by the end of September or October.
All Armadas have three rows of seats, to accommodate seven or eight occupants, depending on the second row's configuration. To get a feel for the Armada's size, here's a comparison to competing vehicles from Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, the latter of which is the only other imported full-size SUV:
Exterior Dimensions (in.)
2004 Chevrolet Tahoe 1500 LS 2WD
2004 Ford Expedition XLS 4x2
2004 Nissan Pathfinder Armada SE 4x2
2004 Toyota Sequoia SR5 4x2
As the table reflects, the Armada has the longest wheelbase by 4.2 inches. It's also the longest overall, by 1.1 inches over the Expedition. Bear in mind that the table excludes the long-wheelbase version of the Tahoe, which is called the Suburban, as well as the Ford Excursion. For perspective, the Suburban is 12.4 inches longer overall than the Armada, and its wheelbase is 6.8 inches longer. The GMC Yukon and Yukon XL, not included in the table, are almost identical to the Tahoe and Suburban, respectively. The Yukon is 2 inches longer than the Tahoe, and the GMC models are both 0.2 inch taller than their Chevrolet counterparts.
There are two, arguably three, Armada trim levels. The base trim level is SE, and the higher level is LE. An optional Off-Road Package, available on the SE, creates a virtual trim level called SE Off-Road. Understanding that offroad equipment is more about image than actual offroad use, Nissan makes the SE Off-Road available with rear-wheel drive as well as four-wheel drive. Both drivelines are available on all trim levels, as is the choice of a three-seat bench or two bucket seats for the second row.
A new all-aluminum 5.6-liter V-8 engine that Nissan has named Endurance powers all Armadas. Nissan uses a 4.5-liter V-8 to power its Q45 and M45 sedans from its luxury division, Infiniti, but the 5.6-liter shares little more than the cylinder pattern with that engine. The new V-8 generates less horsepower, 305, but more torque, 385 pounds-feet, than the 4.5-liter engine, which puts out 340 hp and 333 pounds-feet of torque. Though it's also a dual-overhead-camshaft design, the Endurance V-8 reaches its peak output at comparatively lower engine speeds and runs on regular unleaded rather than premium gasoline.
305 @ 4,900 rpm
385 @ 3,600 rpm
regular unleaded (87 octane)
According to Nissan, the engine produces 90 percent of its peak torque at roughly 2,500 rpm. This is how it feels to drive as well, with a commanding launch when you nail the accelerator. Though it's not as important with an engine this torquey, it can't hurt that the standard automatic transmission is a five-speed. If nothing else, it should aid fuel economy, though EPA-estimated mileage figures are not available as of this writing. Weight is one of the most significant and easily quantified factors in fuel economy, and the base Armada's 5,013 pounds falls between those of the Tahoe 4x2 (4,828 pounds) and Expedition 4x2 (5,218 pounds). The transmission provides a nice mix of smooth shifting under gradual acceleration and relatively firm, efficient upshifts when on a sprint.
The ride quality is firm but not bouncy, a characteristic for which Nissan strove. The structure feels reasonably rigid, but one still feels a little shudder in the floorboards after traversing a bump. This phenomenon remains common in body-on-frame models, and Nissan is quick to mention that the test Armadas were early production vehicles and prone to more rattles and anomalies than the marketed vehicles will be.
The front suspension is a double-wishbone design, as on the Titan, but the rear deviates from the pickup truck's solid rear axle and leaf springs with another independent double-wishbone setup that employs coil springs. The Expedition is currently the only other full-size SUV with an independent rear suspension.
The improvement in ride quality is evident compared to the Titan, whose rear end has more of the harshness and bounce common to unladen pickup trucks. An independent suspension makes for better ride and handling in most cases, and Ford proved it can bring other advantages to a large body-on-frame vehicle. Ford credits the Expedition's suspension design with lowering the truck's center of gravity. The Armada felt like it had a higher center of gravity than the Expedition, though it's lower than it probably would be with a non-independent rear end, and it is quite stable in turns regardless, thanks in part to a wide stance. The long wheelbase helps in this regard, too, though it also makes the Armada a bit less maneuverable than the Expedition. The Armada's turning diameter is 41 feet, where the Expedition's is 38.7 feet.
The Off-Road Package includes Rancho offroad performance shock absorbers. Though they are heavier duty than the standard shocks, Nissan says the overall ride quality of these shocks combined with the BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires, rated P285/70R17, is comparable (tire codes). The SE Off-Road has 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels to provide a taller tire sidewall for off-roading. The regular SE and LE have five- and six-spoke, 18-inch, aluminum-alloy wheels, respectively, shod with Continental Contitrac SUV tires rated P265/70R18. I felt no significant difference between the SE and SE Off-Road on pavement. (Offroad driving wasn't part of the program.)
Along with lowering the Expedition's center of gravity, Ford says the space efficiency of its independent rear suspension facilitated third-row seats that offer good headroom yet fold into the floor. The Armada's third row also folds flat into the floor in one motion, but headroom isn't exemplary. With 35.9 inches of headroom, the Armada falls behind the Sequoia, Tahoe and Expedition. The Expedition is best, with 38.2 inches. These figures, all of which are manufacturer-supplied, tend not to tell the whole three-dimensional story, so you're best off to test prospective models yourself. I can say as a surrogate that, at 6 feet tall, I'm downright comfortable in the Expedition's third row. The Armada's third row isn't for people of my height.
Still, the Armada's third-row legroom, 32.2 inches, is better than the Tahoe's (27.3 inches) and Sequoia's (29.8 inches). Hip room again falls behind the other three, though shoulder room in the Armada's third row, at 63.7 inches, is second only to the Tahoe (64.4 inches). This is the only dimension in which the Expedition's third row (60.1 inches) doesn't dominate. Another good aspect of the third row is that its cushions sit almost 3 inches higher than the second row's, so people who do fit back there don't feel entombed and have a chance at seeing the optional video screen.
Jump forward a row and the story improves. The Armada's second row has the best legroom by full inches, at 41.9 inches even beating the Suburban, which is longer overall than all the others mentioned and offers only 39.1 inches. Nissan's product developers say their studies showed that second-row roominess was an unmet need in the market, more important than greater third-row space. The Armada's second-row headroom is second only to the Sequoia, by 0.6 inch. Hip and shoulder room are competitive. In seven-seat Armadas, the second-row buckets have a removable center console between them.
The Armada is the king of front-seat legroom by fractions of an inch with 41.8 inches. In front-seat headroom, the Armada bests the domestic trucks by at least a few tenths and trails the Sequoia by a mere 0.1 inch with 41.0 inches. Hip and shoulder room are competitive here as well.
Standard step rails aid ingress, but shorter and even average men and women find the Armada typical of a full-size SUV: It requires climbing. Once inside, drivers of all sizes reported that they were able to get situated comfortably. The driver's seat is powered, and though the tilt steering wheel doesn't telescope, standard adjustable pedals help drivers of different statures to distance themselves properly from the airbag. Visibility has the usual trade-off of a large truck. You have a high seat for seeing down the road, but the blind spots near the vehicle are substantial, and the driver's height seemed to make little difference. Nissan wisely includes a sonar-based rear "proximity sensor," which most manufacturers call parking assist, to warn the driver with beeps of increasing frequency when the rear bumper is approaching an obstacle. It's laudable that this is standard equipment, but a rearview camera offered on some vehicles including Infinitis is a superior solution. Nissan does offer an optional navigation system, the LCD screen of which is required for such a feature, but a camera is not currently an option. The conventional side mirrors are nice and large. They're powered and heated, and the LE trim level adds puddle lights.
Nissan didn't skimp on the safety features. The front airbags are dual-stage designs that deploy at one of two intensities depending on crash severity, seat belt use and, in the case of the passenger, occupant size. The system uses occupant sensing, which employs a sensor in the seat cushion to determine the passenger's size and chooses the stage at which to deploy the airbag, if at all. The system is comparable to that in the 2004 Ford F-150 full-size pickup truck.
As of its introduction, the Armada is one of few models on the market and the only one in its class to offer side curtain-type airbags designed to protect all three rows of occupants in a side-impact collision. What's more, they're standard equipment and tied to a rollover protection sensor that triggers the curtains if a rollover is likely. The system does nothing to prevent a rollover, as Volvo's XC90 is claimed to do, but it is one of few designed to protect occupants and prevent their ejection should a rollover occur. The Expedition's Safety Canopy is another, though its curtains don't account for the third row. Regular side-impact airbags, for torso protection of front-seat occupants, are optional in the SE and standard in the LE.
The Armada's interior includes many of the amenities of recent models, such as integrated front-seat armrests and door pockets with integral bottle holders. There's a giant center storage console for the front seat, which still has room to spare when equipped with the DVD changer for the optional overhead video system. The 7-inch screen flips down from a standard console that runs almost the whole ceiling's length. Nissan cleverly embossed a channel into the roof sheet metal so the console which provides reading lights, ventilation ducts, storage bins and the ubiquitous sunglasses holders is recessed into the ceiling.
The Armada's interior is reasonably quiet, and its design is modern, in the general style of the Murano SUV and other recent Nissan models. Still, I question if it can compete on the latest battlefield in the automotive market, that of interior materials quality. Toyota has long been a step above average in this regard, and Ford markedly improved the Expedition's design and materials in the 2003 redesign. Some of the Armada's plastics didn't impress, though the same caveat about the test vehicles' pre-production status stands.
When it comes time to carry cargo, the Armada has some pros and cons. The rear window raises independently of the liftgate. Though it lifts high and clear, the liftgate itself is reasonably easy for shorter people to lower and close thanks to a handle and relatively light springs. A powered liftgate is optional on the LE. There are four tie-down hooks on the floor and a 3.5-inch-deep covered compartment under the load floor behind the third row. Another compartment in the side panel accommodates a gallon container.
Another plus, the Armada's seats needn't be removed to achieve full cargo volume, as the Sequoia's, Tahoe's and Yukon's must. The third-row seats fold in one step, and the two or three seats that comprise the second row each fold in two steps. The front passenger seat also folds flat, providing about 10 feet of space from liftgate to dashboard. As reflected in the table below, though, the Sequoia and Tahoe have higher maximum cargo volumes when their removable seats are gone, and the Expedition, with the same basic fold-flat-seat design as the Armada, manages to top them all in cargo volume.
Cargo, Towing & Hauling
2004 Chevrolet Tahoe 1500 LS 2WD
2004 Ford Expedition XLS 4x2
2004 Nissan Pathfinder Armada SE 4x2
2004 Toyota Sequoia SR5 4x2
Cargo Volume (cu. ft.) behind:
Maximum Trailer Weight (lbs.):
Standard Payload (lbs.)
Manufacturer data *Seats folded but not removed **Seats removed 1Vehicles may require additional equipment to tow a trailer 2Where higher, maximum figure reflects a more substantial upgrade, such as an optional larger engine
Also shown are the Armada's two strongest suits standard towing and payload capacities. The advantage comes mainly from the strength of its 5.6-liter V-8 and the fact that it's standard equipment. Both the Tahoe and Expedition require engine upgrades to come close to the Armada's standard towing capacity, and still the Armada tops the Expedition by 200 pounds. Though the powerful engine is standard, the Armada does require an optional Tow Package to pull a trailer. It adds automatic leveling to the rear suspension, along with a receiver hitch, wiring harness, automatic transmission temperature gauge, heavy-duty battery and higher rear-axle ratio. Both the Tow Package and the Off-Road Package change the Dana-supplied rear axle from a ratio of 2.937-to-1 to 3.357-to-1.
Where most trucks have a lower towing capacity on their 4x4 versions, Nissan specs the same 9,100-pound capacity regardless of the driveline. The optional four-wheel drive is technically a full-time system, which means you can drive in a rear-drive mode (2WD) or switch, by means of a dial on the dashboard, to an automatic mode (AUTO) that drives all four wheels and can be used on dry pavement, unlike part-time four-wheel-drive systems. The automatic mode employs a multiplate clutch in the center differential, which transfers up to 50 percent of the torque to the front wheels upon initial acceleration and in the event of rear-wheel slippage. ABS-based traction control serves to direct torque from side to side as well. There's also a mode that locks the system in the four-wheel-drive mode with a 50/50 torque split (4H) and another that activates the transfer case's Low gear (4LO). The transmission is the same in rear-drive and four-wheel-drive Armadas.
The Armada comes well equipped. In short order, all standard and optional equipment and their prices will appear in the Pathfinder Armada Buying Guide. For now, I'll give you a preview. Standard equipment not already mentioned includes:
body-colored grille with chrome bumper and side mirrors
DVD entertainment system with a changer and two wireless headsets
power front passenger seat
Of all the Armada's features, the most rare is the auxiliary input on the stereo, which I've seen only on the Honda Element. This stereo mini jack allows one to patch any portable audio source such as an MP3 or MiniDisc player into the stereo. In this age of digital audio formats, the demand is great for just such a feature, especially if the stereo lacks a cassette player, which enables the use of a cassette adapter. Perhaps more important, demand is growing for satellite radio. Though Nissan will offer satellite-enabled car stereos, neither of the two providers XM and Sirius currently allows subscribers to pay a single fee for separate car and home stereos. The solution for the foreseeable future is one of a number of portable receivers that can plug into a home or car stereo. The "AUX" jack simplifies this immensely and provides superior sound quality to boot. Armada in the Market There are many Americans who think there are already too many SUVs on the road, so they cringe when they hear of another model hitting the market. Be that as it may, there's no denying the demand for them, and the full-size segment isn't nearly as close to saturation as is the midsize category. Full-size SUV sales more than doubled between 1995 and 1997 alone and then continued to grow from 524,427 in 1997 to 767,550 in 2002. Nissan developed the Titan and Armada because they saw profit opportunities and because they've developed brand loyalty that has been wasted when shoppers who wanted something larger than a Frontier pickup or a Pathfinder SUV went to other brands.
Nissan's sales target for the Armada's first year is 40,000 units. The company expects 40 percent of these to be the SE trim level, 25 percent to be SE Off-Road and 35 percent to be the LE trim level. Sixty percent of all models are projected to be four-wheel drive.
Mitch Davis, senior marketing manager for Nissan sport utility vehicles, said, "There's room for us, but we have to give the customers a reason to put us on the shopping list." My day with the Armada suggests they've given shoppers many good reasons.