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First drive: 2017 Nissan Armada [Review]

Nissan\'s flagship completes its refit.

When the Nissan Armada was introduced for the 2003 model year, it was an American entry aimed at domestic SUV buyers. It made sense, then, that the Armada was essentially a Titan pickup converted for SUV duty.

At the risk of being pedantic, Nissan's trucks all ride on variants of the same essential platform, so it was a little bit Titan and a little bit Frontier and a little bit Pathfinder... you get the picture. In fact, that's part of the reason why Nissan's push to expand its presence in the U.S. truck market has lasted this long. The costs get spread around.

For 2017, Nissan decided to globalize and simplify. The Armada is now a re-badged Nissan Patrol--a staple of the international SUV market. What does that mean for Nissan's full-size SUV? We traveled to Monterey, California, to find out for ourselves.

A segment in fluxNormally, when a vehicle goes global, it gets "right-sized" in the eyes of the U.S. consumer. Not so in this case. The 2017 Nissan Armada is still large and in charge. It's aimed squarely at the full-size segment, meaning it has the Ford Expedition, Chevy Suburban, Toyota Sequoia and GMC Yukon in its sights.

There's a fairly widespread belief that this is a dying segment. Not so, especially with gas as cheap as it is. With buyers asking for more truck-like proportions and rugged versatility even in the smaller CUV market, it should be no surprise that traditional SUVs are hot again.

A strong coreAnd that's what the 2017 Nissan Armada is--a traditional SUV. It's a body-on-frame, three-row bruiser. Under the hood is a 5.6L V8 producing 390 horsepower and 401lb-ft of torque on 87-octane gas.

If that sounds like a significant bump over the outgoing Armada's power output, that's because it is. This engine is all-new, sharing only its displacement with its predecessor. While the 2017 Armada may take a somewhat unsophisticated approach to human conveyance, don't mistake it for a simpleton. The new "Endurance" V8 features all-new tech for the Nissan lineup, including direct injection. It's also mated to a new seven-speed automatic transmission.

The sophistication continues elsewhere under the sheet metal, where you'll find a four-wheel double-wishbone suspension setup along with beefy front and rear anti-roll bars for an excellent mix of ride comfort and handling capability.

A new lookOutside, the new Armada represents a fairly significant departure from the old. It has been a while since the Armada resembled a Titan without a bed, but the outgoing model was plenty dated by the time it was retired. A twelve-year model run will do that.

The 2017 Armada is essentially a Patrol with a nose job. That's probably a good thing. While the new Maxima and Murano have fully embraced Nissan's sleek, car-centric design language, the Armada's looks are more traditional. Sure, you'll find the "V-Motion" grille up front, but there's no trick "floating greenhouse" look or anything like that. In fact, with a different nose grafted on, you could probably convince the world that it's an Infiniti, especially with the standard LED headlamps.

A fresh interiorThe 2017 Armada's interior goes long on comfort and practicality. Our Platinum tester showed off all the bells and whistles. The seats are Nissan's "zero gravity" design, and they're comfortable and easy to position. Ours were heated and ventilated, to boot, and the steering wheel was heated too.

The new Armada can be had in both seven- and eight-passenger configurations, depending on how you option the second row (captain's chairs or a bench). Nissan claims it has best-in-class second- and third-row headroom as an added bonus.

If we're picking nits (and of course we are), we'd like to see a new set of controls for the heated/ventilated front seats. Glare from the chrome finish on the existing dials can obscure their embedded status lights and make it difficult to see what temperature has been selected without a careful look--one deep into the lower recesses of the center console.

A truck's capabilityOn the practicality front, Nissan claims the Armada offers best-in-class standard towing, with a maximum of 8,500 pounds on both two- and four-wheel-drive models (Sequoia, the next highest, tops out at 7,400.).

A few technical difficultiesIn a world of ever-shrinking gaps between on-board infotainment and consumer smartphone technology, and increasingly prolific driver assistance systems, it's become the norm these days for each new vehicle introduction to bring with it significant upgrades in both departments. Much to our befuddlement, such was not the case here.

On the infotainment front, we were surprised to learn that not only are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto not available on the 2017 Nissan Armada, but the technological architecture behind Nissan's in-car tech is not ready for it. In other words, this tech platform cannot be made to operate with either smartphone integration ecosystem. Such compatibility will have to wait until a new set of hardware is introduced in a future model year.

Our second gripe is a bit more nit-picky. Let's say this up front: The 2017 Armada is not devoid of advanced safety features. Far from it, in fact. Depending on what you're willing to spend, you can get your hands on predictive forward collision warning, forward emergency braking, intelligent cruise control, backup collision intervention, blind spot warning, blind spot intervention, lane departure warning and lane departure prevention.

It's that last bit, however, which was a bit of a letdown. Because the 2017 Nissan Armada lacks electric power steering, its lane departure "intervention" system is entirely brake-based. This is not a lane centering/lane keeping system. In other words, you can't take your hands off the wheel and expect it to maintain lane position without your input. Rather, it will keep you from crossing the center line (or shoulder line) by braking the wheels on the opposite side of the car, pulling itself in the other direction.

Whether it can then successfully "bounce" off the other line depends on several factors, including the shape of the road (straight vs. curved), the width of the lane, the condition of the surface and the speed of the vehicle. It's very much a reactive system.

The absence of electronic power steering is not a negative by itself. In fact, when we found some space to stretch the Armada's legs, we found ourselves quite thankful for the omission.

An engaging driveIndeed, the 2017 Nissan Titan turned out to be a surprisingly capable and willing partner. The steering response is excellent, especially for a SUV of this size, and we found it cornered surprisingly flat and even allowed for a touch of rotation when pushed hard into corners. Remember, all things are relative. This is no GT-R (or Maxima, for that matter), but it's not the unwieldy straight-line cruiser that one may assume it to be on first glance.

If we're being picky, we would ask for a little more brake. The 2017 Armada runs from just under 5,600 pounds in its most basic 4x2 configuration to more than 5,900 pounds on the loaded-up Platinum 4x4 models. That's a lot of car, and as we bombed up (and especially down) the canyons west of Monterey, there were some stretches where we got the impression that the powertrain was writing checks the braking system wasn't prepared to cash. A little more "whoa" to match all that go could inspire a great deal more confidence.

Our time spent at Nissan's off-road course further solidified our first impressions of the new Armada's performance and capability. Despite the absence of some dedicated off-roading hardware (you'll find no rear differential lock here), it comported itself well in multiple scenarios. Even with two wheels in the air, Nissan's ABLS ("Active Brake Limited Slip") system kept it chugging along, braking the free-spinning wheels and shunting torque to those on the ground.

In addition, the Armada's double-wishbone front and rear suspension setup didn't get in the way of some fairly impressive articulation. The new Armada won't be anybody's first choice for a rock-crawling platform, but the three-row SUV buyer who needs to navigate genuinely rough terrain from time to time will not be disappointed.

Leftlane's bottom lineNissan's new global SUV surprised us with its engaging, yet refined road manners and impressive acceleration. While there may be some glaring omissions in the technology department (rudimentary lane keeping; no Android Auto or Apple CarPlay), we're not sure those are deal-breakers.

2017 Nissan Armada base price, $44,400; Destination, $995

As-tested price: TBA

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Nissan.

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