Armada's brute power blows competition away

Toyota Motor Co.p. was the first Japanese brand to challenge Detroit in the full-size sport-ute arena. Now, two years after the arrival of Toyota's Sequoia, a second Japanese contender, the Pathfinder Armada, has been launched by Nissan Motor Co., and it finally seems like the Japanese mean business.

The 2004 Pathfinder Armada, much like its sister vehicle, the 2004 Titan pickup, is the first serious attempt to crack Detroit's stranglehold in the full-size truck market.

The Sequoia, as good as it is, always seemed like a middle linebacker on a diet, somewhat underequipped to be playing with the pros. Not so the Pathfinder Armada, which is the second vehicle to roll out of Nissan's new $1.4-billion plant in Canton, Miss.

The Armada -- even its name sounds formidable -- looks and acts the role of spoiler. It shares the Titan's aggressive front-end styling and a tough-guy attitude that carries through the muscular side profile all the way to the bold rear-end graphic.

Nissan backs that up with a sturdy ladder-type frame that supports a fully independent suspension, with double wishbones and coil springs at all four corners. The result is a solid truck-like ride that absorbs man-size potholes on the freeways of Detroit while still providing reasonably good ride comfort, and brisk, controlled handling in most situations. Helping with the compliant ride are a generous 123.2-inch wheelbase -- the longest in the segment -- and standard 18-inch wheels and tires.

I didn't get a chance to take the Armada off the highway, but then most SUV buyers rarely do either. 

But it's good to know the big Nissan SUV has a towing capacity of more than 9,000 pounds, which makes it fully-competitive with popular Detroit iron in this class, including the Ford Expedition and the Chevrolet Tahoe.

In fact, the Armada handily outguns its domestic rivals in the power department.

The base Expedition ($32,885 including destination) is fitted with a single-overhead-cam 4.6-liter V-8 that makes 232 horsepower and 291 pounds-feet of torque. An SOHC 5.4-liter V-8 is an extra-cost option. The base Tahoe ($34,955) comes with an overhead-valve 4.8-liter V-8 that produces 275 horsepower and 290 pounds-feet. An OHV 5.3-liter V-8 is available for an additional charge.

The Armada blows both away. The only available engine in model year 2004 is a double-overhead-cam 5.6-liter V-8, a monster block that is borrowed from the Titan and in this particular application churns out 305 horsepower and 385 pounds-feet of torque. The engine is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission.

Despite Armada's two-and-a-half-ton mass, the big V-8 is more than up to the task. Acceleration is brisk, and the engine responds willingly to the slightest throttle provocation.

All is not roses, however. The two-wheel-drive edition of the Armada is rated by the EPA at a middling 13 miles per gallon in city driving and 19 mpg on the highway; the 4x4 model surrenders one mpg in highway driving. Even with the standard 28-gallon fuel tank, you're likely to find yourself filling up frequently on long trips -- an undesireable trait that Armada shares with its equally thirsty Detroit rivals.

We can forgive the mediocre fuel economy in part because Nissan has lavished so much attention on turning the Armada's cabin into a safe and inviting environment for family and friends.

The vehicle can seat up to eight. Both the second- and third-row benches fold flat for more cargo space.

Outside of a massive plasticky center stack that houses the audio and climate controls and screams Japanese kitsch, the Armada is pretty tastefully outfitted.

The base SE series comes with cloth seats; leather is standard on the LE and optional on the SE.

Other options include a satellite na igation system on LE models; a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, with a single overhead display and two sets of wireless headphones; and a premium Bose audio system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, 10 speakers and redundant steering-wheel controls.

The Armada has been thoughtfully equipped with ample safety features. Among the standard items are four-wheel disc brakes with antilock, brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution; electronic stability and traction control; side air curtains for all three rows, and a tire-pressure monitor. Seat-mounted side air bags for front occupants are standard on LE and optional on SE.

Among the competition, the Expedition was heavily revised a year ago, while Tahoe and Sequoia won't be overhauled for at least two to three more years. Armada then is not only the newest and freshest kid on the block, it's also -- for the moment anyway -- the spunkiest.