Six hundred miles, seven people, two countries…one Nissan Armada

This past weekend my wife, two daughters and I joined my buddy and his two sons on a ski trip to Whistler, BC. Since my friend, Andy, is one thousands of Acura TL owners plagued with the dreaded transmission slip, we decided to rent a big vehicle and pack everyone in together.

Andy arranged with Enterprise for a Suburban, which holds the title as the ultimate ski trip hauler. As it turned out, Enterprise got rid of all the Suburbans (since the model isn’t offered in eight-passenger form anymore,) standardizing now on Nissan Armadas. So it would be six hundred miles Nissan-style.

The Armada is an eight-passenger SUV offering automatic all-wheel and full-time four-wheel drive modes. At 207-inches, it is long. Its 5675 pounds puts it into the Jabba-the-Hut class. Luckily, the Armada uses Nissan’s 5.6 liter V8 to power it down the highway and up the mountain.

Like many in the segment, the first thing we noticed is that seven people cannot possibly travel comfortably for a weekend trip in the Armada. Seating is ample for adults in front, but cramped for an adult and two children in boosters in the middle and two children in boosters in back.

Cargo capacity behind the third row can only be considered laughable. It was too narrow for one suitcase and one duffle! Luckily, the Armada’s passenger-side third row seat folds independently, enabling bags to be stacked in this real estate. Not the safest or most comfortable for third row occupants by any stretch of the imagination!

Skis and poles went into a borrowed ski rack. The Armada’s top styling actually comes up in places, meaning that you either must mount skis tips-up or risk scratching the top. With aerodynamics just slightly worse than a 747 factory building, we felt it was best to optimize where we could…plus we noticed the Enterprise employees were all way too short to see the top.

The interior of the Armada is what we’ve come to expect from Nissan. From a distance the surfaces and styling look funky and cool. Up close, one notices they are made of cheap materials. The seats in this base model were made of tough fabric and were actually as comfortable as one could expect from units devoid of any bolster adjustments.

Gauges are pretty basic and easy to read, with the exception of the tiny KPH markings, which complicated quick-glance speed checks going through the Canadian mountains. Radio functions were easy to use, and it was nice to be able to plug an external DVD player directly into the front of the stereo.

Nissan would be smart to hire some ergonomic engineers from rival Toyota. No matter how many times each of us sat in the driver seat, we each would scream when fumbling around the many poorly-designed controls. For instance, the window wiper stalk is large and angled more like a transmission selector, causing all of us to yank on it to get into gear more than once. Furthermore, the adjustments for wiper speed, intermittent delay and rear wiper were all confusing and tough to negotiate while driving.

The HVAC system was also a source of frustration. It looked simple enough – two rotary knobs with a few buttons, but the knobs turned out to be +/- 1 toggles, which meant that making large adjustments required keeping tension on the knob for large periods of time. Activating the defoggers also proved difficult to manage while driving.

To say that the Armada is a handful is an understatement. It has Miata-sized blind spots, so changing lanes in traffic requires one to look twice. Steering feel is par for the course, and unlike many in the class, the power is actually assist is a bit under-boosted. Brake feel is quite good.

The 5.6 liter V8 delivers 317 hp and 385 ft-lb of torque. This means it actually out-accelerates pretty much everything in the class. Whether on I5 or going up the mountains outside of Whistler, the Armada is never for a lack grunt. The downside, however, is a drinking problem worthy of a Behind the Music episode. 300 miles on the highway puts it well below a quarter of the 28 gallon tank. Luckily regular unleaded is all it needs, although if it needed premium, we would likely have tested the anti-knock sensors by using regular.

Wind was a real problem in the Armada. Wind buffeting was loud. Heavier side bursts caught the slab-sided SUV like a sail, causing sudden wandering.

As we reached the mountain pass outside of North Vancouver I was my usual excited self at the thought of winding roads. The fully-loaded Armada, however, quickly brought me back to earth. It was an absolute pig in the corners, diving and leaning like a bobble-head doll at anything near the 80kph limit. The forces on occupants were best illustrated by Andy’s older son when he puked from motion sickness…twice.

AWD turned out to be totally unnecessary, as roads were clear and wet. A Toyota Sienna or Honda Odyssey would have been much more comfortable and fuel efficient means of travel. And with a set of snow tires, the traction would have met the M+S-rated tires on the Armada.

This might be the Armada’s downfall in the market. If you need four-wheel traction, snowbank ground clearance and room for a large group of travelers (plus equipment,) Chevy’s Suburban is still the gold standard, even despite the ‘burban’s heft, lack of good driving dynamics and lack of modern luxury appointments. When the passes are bare, a minivan is far and away better.

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