EXPERT REVIEW

Star-Telegram.com's view


Those who predicted a severe downturn in the full-size sport utility segment during 2007 turned out to be wrong.

As gasoline prices spiked, ostensibly putting pressure on consumers to give up their big SUVs in favor of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, sales of the large sport utilities declined only 1 percent.

That was much better than some other market segments. Sales of midsize SUVs, for instance, decreased about 13 percent for the year, and minivans sales dropped about 20 percent

Those decreases can be linked directly to the boom in the crossover utility vehicle segment; as Americans turned to the new crossovers, they tended to migrate from minivans and traditional midsize SUVs such as the Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner and Chevrolet TrailBlazer.

As I’ve said before, people who buy large SUVs usually have a real need for them, and crossovers just don’t meet that need. The ability to carry large families, tow heavy trailers and hold lots of cargo are among the key reasons consumers cite for sticking with big SUVs.

While these consumers might be driving their large sport utilities less often than they did before gas prices reached $3 a gallon, they are not abandoning them.

And for that reason, the automakers continue to expand and improve their offerings in this profitable segment.

Nissan North America has two of the best entries in the segment. They are the Nissan Armada and its upscale sibling, the Infiniti QX56.

For 2008, the Armada got the first makeover since its introduction as a 2004 model. It wasn’t a major redesign, though; it’s just what the automakers call a mid-cycle update.

Outside, the 2008 Armada has a new front fascia, headlights and fog lights, a new one-piece roof rack, revised rear fascia, and, on our LE test vehicle, new 20-inch wheels and Michelin tires.

Interior upgrades include a power-folding third-row 60/40 split seat (available only on the LE model), new interior colors and fabrics, a gated shifter, new wood-grain accents (LE only), a locking glove box, a revised steering wheel, and new instrument-panel illumination. A heated steering wheel is now optional on the LE model.

There’s also some new technology, including a keyless entry/start system; an enhanced Bose sound system with 9.3-gigabyte Music Box hard drive, third-row speakers and an amplifier (standard LE, optional SE); a Bluetooth hands-free phone system (standard on LE); and an improved navigation system with XM NavTraffic real-time traffic information. The optional rear DVD entertainment system was given a larger LCD screen (8 inches).

The Armada continues to have class-leading towing capacity of up to 9,100 pounds, thanks to the vehicle’s heavy-duty suspension and fully boxed frame.

With the introduction of the Armada, Nissan became the second Japanese automaker to challenge the U.S. manufacturers in a segment that they long had held exclusive rights to.

For Nissan, this entry into a market previously owned by Ford and General Motors was part of a two-pronged attack. A few weeks after launch of the Armada, Nissan also rolled out its first full-size pickup, the Titan, upon whose chassis the Armada is based. Both are built in Nissan’s new plant in Canton, Miss.

This first effort from Nissan to play with the big dogs in the SUV market – the Chevrolet Suburban/Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Ford Expedition – was perfectly executed, like just about every other new Nissan product over the past seven years.

Nearly the same size as the Expedition, the Armada is a strong competitor to the Ford and GM products, as well as to the similarly sized and -equipped Toyota Sequoia, which enters its second generation this year. The Expedition, Tahoe and Yukon were redesigned for 2007.

The Armada also competes against the once-midsize Dodge Durango and its new Chrysler sibling, the Aspen. The Durango grew somewhat with its most-recent redesign. The Aspen, introduced last year, is an upscale version of the Durango.

Nissan says the Armada still makes sense even though the full-size SUV market stopped growing when gas prices began climbing.

It’s a great choice for big families. There is room for up to eight passengers in the Armada, which comes with a third row of seating as well as a usable cargo area behind that seat. Most midsize SUVs, minivans and crossovers with a third seat can hold only seven people, and they usually have very small cargo areas behind the third row.

Among its attributes as a people-hauler: It has 14 cupholders, each of which can hold at least a 20-ounce bottle.

To accommodate trips to Home Depot or Lowe’s for weekend home improvements, the Armada’s second- and third-row seats fold to create a flat load floor, and unlike some competing vehicles, the headrests do not have to be removed first.

With a base price range of $36,000-$45,000, the Armada isn’t quite as expensive as it looks. It’s easily as elegant at the $63,000-plus Toyota Land Cruiser, for instance, or even the Lexus LX 570 version of the Land Cruiser.

Of course, the QX56, an Armada with the Infiniti name on it, plays in the higher-priced segment, and has some upgrades to justify the additional cost. Base prices of the QX56 range from $53,000-$56,000.

Our test vehicle, the uplevel Armada LE model with four-wheel drive (base price $44,550 plus $645 freight) came with a bunch of options that pushed the price to $52,270 (with freight).

Both vehicles are powered by the same 5.6-liter V-8 engine – a version of which also is used in the Titan. It cranks out 317 horsepower and 385 foot-pounds of torque. The engine is connected to a smooth-shifting, electronically controlled five-speed automatic transmission.

EPA ratings on our test model were 12 miles per gallon city/17 highway; two-wheel-drive models are rated at 12 city/18 highway.

Pulling out to pass, or speeding up on an entrance ramp to join the traffic on the freeway, this drivetrain combination works flawlessly. Even when passing on two-lane roads, the Armada had plenty of power.

Ride comfort was another plus. On a long trip in the Armada, I found that sitting for several hours in the driver’s seat wasn’t as tiring as I have found it to be in many other vehicles. Backseat passengers had no complaints, and they said knee room was ample.

For a smooth ride, better cornering capabilities and more cargo space, Nissan designed the Armada with a fully independent rear suspension. The vehicle is available with either two-wheel (rear) or four-wheel drive.

Standard features on our tester included leather seats, running boards, flip-out rear quarter windows, power rear liftgate with separately opening glass, halogen headlights and fog lights, electronic stability and traction control, speed-sensitive power rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake assist, cruise control, automatic climate control, eight-way power driver’s seat, six-way power passenger’s seat, the 11-speaker Bose audio system with subwoofer and six-disc CD changer, XM satellite radio, power-adjustable pedals, and the gated floor-mounted shifter.

Options on our vehicle included a moon roof ($1,000); a technology package ($2,400), which brought the navigation system, power third-row seat and heated steering wheel; rear DVD system ($1,600); a preferred package ($1,000), which tacked on heated front seats, power rear quarter windows, Bluetooth phone system, power-folding and self-dimming outside mirrors; a towing package ($350)

Our vehicle also came with the optional middle-row captain’s chairs. With these seats, the capacity is seven.

Armada safety features include seat-mounted front side air bags; roof-mounted side-curtain air bags for all three rows, triggered by a rollover sensing system; a rear proximity system to aid in backing up; and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

At a Glance:

2008 Nissan Armada

The package: Full-size, five-door, seven- or eight-passenger, rear- or four-wheel-drive, V-8 powered sport utility vehicle.

Highlights: Built on the chassis of the Titan full-size pickup, this is Nissan’s largest SUV. The Armada is similar in size to the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon. A luxury version, the Infiniti QX56, is sold by Nissan’s premium brand.

Negatives: Poor fuel economy compared with large crossovers and minivans with the same passenger capacity.

Engine: 5.6-liter V-8.

Power/torque: 317 HP./385 foot-pounds.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Length: 206.9 inches.

Curb weight: 5,013-5,327 pounds.

Towing capacity: 9,100 pounds.

Electronic stability control: Standard.

Side air bags: Front seat-mounted; side curtain for all three rows.

Fuel capacity/type: 28 gallons/unleaded regular.

EPA fuel economy: 12 miles per gallon city/18 highway (2WD); 12/17 (4WD).

Base price range: $35,330-$44,630 plus $745 freight.

Price as tested: $52,270 including freight and options (LE 4WD).

On the Road rating: 8.7 (of a possible 10).

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-telegram since 1995. Contact him at chambers@star-telegram.com.

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