2018 Nissan Armada Platinum Reserve Review: An SUV As Big (and Old) As a Battleship
A mighty, capable off-road boat is let down by poor controls and aging tech.
Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Nissan Armada Platinum.
The 2018 Nissan Armada Platinum, By the Numbers:
Base Price (Price as Tested): $62,885 ($66,195)
Powertrain: 5.6-liter V-8, 390 horsepower, 394 pound-feet; seven-speed automatic transmission; full-time four-wheel-drive]
EPA Fuel Economy: 13 city / 18 highway
0-60 MPH: 5.9 seconds (Car and Driver testing)
Maximum towing capacity: 8,500 pounds
Quick Take: Nissan's biggest SUV has the size and capability to battle it out with GM, Ford, and Toyota's big rigs—but an aging user interface and irritating driving dynamics keep it from greatness.
One Big Question: Does Nissan have a big SUV problem?
Don't confuse that Big Question with "Does Nissan have a big SUV sales problem," by the way. Of the 1.4 million vehicles the carmaker moved off showroom floors in 2017, 607,000 of them were sport-utility vehicles; two-thirds of that was made up solely of Nissan Rogues, but that still leaves about 200,000 big hunks of high-riding metal to make up the rest. And that's in spite of a sport-utility lineup that could charitably be described as "graying." The current Pathfinder dates back to 2012, while the current version of the stylish Murano first showed up in 2014. Then there's the mighty Armada, so named because it has the same total tonnage as a carrier battle group. While the current second-gen version first parked itself in American showrooms in 2016, it's based on the same platform as the Nissan Patrol sold elsewhere—and that big rig first hit the streets in 2010.
Clearly, buyers haven't yet begun to care en masse that Nissan's towering people-movers are growing long in the tooth. But the competition isn't sitting still: Ford released an all-new Expedition last year, Chevrolet and GMC are set to drop new Suburbans, Tahoes, and Yukons on the market, and Toyota is doing its damnedest to keep the Sequoia and Land Cruiser...well, if not fresh, at least smelling that way. Will those new and improved competitors be capable of stealing some of the Armada's market share? Or does Nissan's naval-themed SUV still have what it takes to defend its territory?
2018 Nissan Armada Platinum Reserve: The Pros
- The 5.6-liter engine is a sweetheart of a V-8, producing a pleasing (if subdued) rumble as it winds up through the rev range. Though it amazingly doesn't sound all that potent in this day and age of 800-hp Dodges and 300-hp Camrys, the Armada's output of just shy of 400 horses and pound-feet alike is plenty for this size and class of vehicle—more than enough to move it through traffic with urgency.
- The Reserve package for the Armada Platinum's best asset is its two-tone trim, which weaves black and saddle brown leathers together in a way that's pleasing to both gaze and touch. (The whole package works far better in person than it does in pictures, where the leathers can look a tad faded and bland.) The ruffled texture on the doors is a nice touch, adding a bit of what Ralph Lauren might call "casual elegance" to the interior.
- The "dark chrome" trim that comes with the Reserve version is still plenty bright, but it's just subdued enough to dial the look back from garish. Indeed, the brightwork lends a touch of class to the bulging, rhinocerine exterior, which has the burly, heavier-on-the-bottom proportions of an ex-weightlifter. Call it the SUV equivalent of dad-bod.
- As you'd expect from a 5,600-pound SUV, space is plentiful in the Armada. The second row has more than enough room to seat full-sized adults, even with the front thrones pushed back. Considering the third row seems more likely to be tapped as an occasional-use jump seat than a regular —presumably, anyone who really needed three rows and rejected the sane choice of a minivan would choose a Suburban or Expedition Max—I flopped it flat and opened up the cargo bay to its full capacity, which seems a far more prudent use for that big rear end.
2018 Nissan Armada Platinum Reserve: The Cons
- As GM and Ford engineers will happily tell you, we've moved past the era when big pickups and SUVs are forced to drive like garbage...but nobody seems to have informed Nissan. The Armada is one floaty boat on the road; it bobs up and down with every touch of the gas and brake, and flops like a carp when you push it through a turn. Pack some Dramamine for the kids in the glovebox.
- The controls have seemingly been calibrated to make this giant seem easy to drive, but their sensitive nature means finessing this Nissan around becomes an exercise in controlled frustration. The featherweight steering is pretty much what you'd expect, but the brake and gas pedals require the delicate touch of a brain surgeon; the slightest pressure on either pedal produces head-snapping force. Parking, as a result, becomes a nightmare—a series of short hops and sharp stops that leave you looking like your learner's permit is still warm in your wallet. My tester had an automatic back-up braking system that would slam the Armada to a stop if you got too close to an obstacle astern; I hated it for the first two days, until I realized it had saved me from tailgate-checking parked cars more than once, simply because I couldn't manipulate the pedals with enough finesse to reverse slowly.
- The in-cabin electronics, from the infotainment system to the instrument panel, are painfully out of date. It has Bluetooth, but even after several minutes of plunging through menus and setup screens, I couldn't figure out how to pair my phone with it; the car simply wouldn't show up on my phone's settings. (Also, you'll go nuts scanning the wall of hard buttons on the waterfall center console for a "Phone" button, because while there are separate buttons for pretty much everything else, there isn't one for your little communicator.) The tiny, dot-pixel information display between speedo and tach looks lower-res than the screen of the Nokia 6210 I played Snake on in high school. And I'm pretty sure this nav system haven't been updated since I first saw it in an Infiniti G37 test car back in 2009.
2018 Nissan Armada Platinum Reserve: Value
It's certainly a value next to its bougie twin, the Infiniti QX80. The QX starts, price-wise, where the Armada leaves off, but adds basically nil in terms of creature comforts or capabilities—hell, configure the Infiniti to match the Platinum Reserve's specs, and you'll be looking at a $79,000 SUV. Or, on the flip side, you can make the Armada an even better value by shaving some money off the price; a 4WD mid-level SL version with the Premium Package and its wealth of active safety features can be yours for $57K.
And considering the breadth of its capabilities, the Armada can be a decent bargain. It'd be valuable for a very select group of people, who need both an acre of interior volume and the all-terrain ability of a real 4x4: ranch owners, families who camp regularly, wedding planners who need to drive off-road to picturesque meadow sites, etc. But it's only a good deal for someone who actually needs all those capabilities. If you don't need to crawl around off-road with your entire family and half your possessions in the car, you're probably better served by a minivan, or a smaller crossover, or (dare I say it) a station wagon. And even if you do need to do all that...Chevy and Ford build giant, equally-capable SUVs that arguably do the job better for similar money.
The Bottom Line:
Sooner or later, this Nissan's weak points seem bound to catch up with it. As consumers place a greater emphasis on electronic doo-dads, the interior's dated control arrangement and technology are liable to turn people off; if the vintage screens and giant array of hard buttons don't turn off buyers groomed on iPads and Galaxy Notes, the frustrating menus and sluggish responses are sure to do the job. And even if the average giant SUV buyer doesn't give a damn about dynamic handling or steering feedback, the superior highway ride and parkability of the Armada's full-sized foes mean it seems likely anyone who test-drives the competition back-to-back with this beast would choose the better-driving American options.
For now, though, the Armada's basic ingredients—Japanese build quality, American size and power—still seem like more than enough to woo in a fair number of buyers, if they can make peace with the aging aspects of the experience. But please, Nissan: fix the damn pedals. Parking this kaiju is hard enough already.
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