There’s no shortage of hulking SUVs designed to bring your family and all your gear on adventures—or to the grocery store. While often overlooked in the full-size, three-row category, the Nissan Armada is making a case for itself with a 2021 refresh. The updates are aimed at making the ride more refined, comfortable, and luxurious for seven or eight passengers, while keeping the brutish V8 power the truck-based SUV’s always had. On the inside, the sport-ute feels more like Nissan’s Infinity QX80 than the brand’s Titan pickup. That’s where the Armada story started: Nissan bolted an SUV’s body to the truck’s frame back in 2004. To see if the updates are enough to put the Armada into the conversation with the Tahoe, Yukon, and Expedition, we packed the SUV with luggage, bikes, and (at one point) five kids and headed out on a long weekend trip from New York to Rhode Island.
Day 1: Settling Into the Interior
With the Armada’s roots planted firmly in a pickup truck, it’s no surprise its early interiors felt truck-like. Utility trumped luxury, with swaths of hard plastic trim in the cabin that made pulling into the mall parking lot feel like clocking in on a construction site. That’s changed for 2021. The seats up front are comfortable and plush with quilted leather and soft-touch accents. The center console has a traditional shifter, which we like, and doors that fold down to hide cup holders, which helps keep the interior tidy. Anyone with open cup holders knows how quickly they become the driver’s damp, sticky, penny-filled lost-and-found.
The middle row can be a bench or two captain’s chairs, and in our tester they easily flipped forward for third-row access. Those sitting in the middle have a center console, but they can also flip the top open on the front row’s armrest to access storage. During our trip, we stashed snacks and charging cables there, which cut down on whining.
While that last row is roomy enough for small children on quick rides of, say, less than 45 minutes, it’s too tight for adults on all but the shortest trips. If your brood requires stashing a child back there consistently, by default it’ll have to be the shortest one of the lot due to the limited head- and legroom. And even then, she or he is likely to complain. That said, four or five adults can find the Armada a very comfortable and quiet ride. In our case, two adults and five children all under the age of 10—with three spaced across the rear seat—had enough space to handle a 30-minute ride without a mutiny. The trunk behind the third row is a sparse 16.5 cubic feet—that’s less than some crossovers provide. If you plan to have the third row up all the time, that won’t leave a ton of room to schlep gear or groceries.
Outside, the styling is big, bold, and rocks plenty of chrome accents. Everything from the front windshield out is redesigned for 2021, including the streamlined Nissan v-motion grille and attractive headlights. Underneath, 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels fill their wells nicely (and also make using the side steps obligatory). Taller riders will appreciate the high step-in height. Chrome runs almost the entire length of the car, modernizing the look.
But the rear bumper is a love-hate detail. It projects out, which can get in the way while you’re loading up gear, but it also serves as a seat when the liftgate is open. When we loaded up our Thule hitch-mounted rack with adult bikes, the bumper left little space between the car and floppy front bike tires, though securing the bike tires should keep the paint safe.
Day 2: The Tech
The technology inside is probably the biggest leap forward with the new Armada. The center console is topped with a 12.3-inch-wide display. You can sync Apple CarPlay to it wirelessly or use Android Auto through the USB-C port. The graphics on the touch screen are sharp and it’s highly responsive, with almost no lag. The screen is paired with two knobs for volume and tune that also help you navigate through on-screen menus, and those work well, too. For low-speed maneuvering, the touchscreen gives you a 360-degree view around the car with graphics that are clear enough to keep you away from light poles and other obstacles. Although the screen’s size sounds impressive, only about 3/4 of it is a touchscreen. The right-hand portion is an information display, and that chunk sometimes shows info that you can see elsewhere, like the time.
The HVAC, thankfully, has its own set of buttons, so making climate control adjustments doesn’t require going down a rabbit hole of touchscreen menus. Under the screen, a wireless charging cubby makes a nice spot to hide a phone while driving; it also prevents it from sliding to the ground when you sprint from a stoplight.
Nissan’s safety suite includes things like emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring, which was our biggest pet peeve. The hitch-mounted rack loaded with bikes interfered with the backup sensor, which then jolted the car to a sudden stop when in reverse. The feature got so annoying we ended up turning it off. The instrument cluster has a centered, 7-inch screen that does a good job of indicating what features are on and helps you zip through menus controlled by buttons on the steering wheel. After a couple of days getting acquainted, we found the interface was pretty smooth and allows you to handle many adjustments—radio volume, for example—just by glancing down at the dash.
Day 3: The Drive
The daily driving with the Armada is smooth, thanks to the buttery seven-speed automatic transmission, and quiet even at highway speeds. While it can feel a little springy and less refined in turns, overall it drives like a smaller truck despite sitting so high up. Nissan kept the 5.6-liter V8 engine the Armada’s always had as the only engine option. The powerplant cranks out 400 horsepower with 413 lb-ft of torque with a max towing capacity of 8,500 pounds. Between city and highway, the Armada came in at about 15 mpg, which isn’t great—something your wallet would like you to consider before buying. A hitch is standard and integrated trailer sway control is built into most of the trim levels. In a way, Nissan’s telling you this SUV is for towing: boats, Jet Skis, trailers, etc. The selectable four-wheel drive on our tester is available as an option.
Bottom line: The Armada starts at about $50,000, with our four-wheel driver tester coming in at over $63,000. It faces stiff competition from other people-hauling, full-size, third-row SUVs that have more room, like the Tahoe, Suburban, Expedition, and even some larger crossovers. But with those other SUVs coming in at six figures when well-appointed, the Armada carves out a niche for itself—and the stout engine can make sense if you need a tow vehicle.