The Armada is the biggest entry in Nissan’s growing SUV fleet, a full-size body-on-frame big boy with three rows of seats, a powerful V8, and substantial towing capacity. It’s about to enter its first renewal since 2003, and Nissan hopes this major makeover will improve the Armada’s smallish share (less than 5%, according to Nissan) of the full-size SUV market, a market that’s on the small side itself -- about 250,000 sales per year.

Unveiled in February at the Chicago auto show, the 2017 Armada is truly new -- new chassis, new body, new interior, new powertrain.

However, new chassis merits an asterisk. The original Armada’s foundations were shared with the Titan pickup truck. But even though the Titan has been redesigned, the Armada adopts the frame that supports the Nissan Patrol, a rugged SUV that’s been around since 1951 in other markets.

Rugged is the key word. The original Titan was no wraith, but the transition to Patrol foundations includes much heavier frame rails and a 22 percent improvement in structural rigidity.

New powertrain also merits a footnote. A 7-speed automatic transmission replaces the previous 5-speed, but the basic architecture of the 5.6-liter V8 engine -- bore and stroke -- is unchanged. However, the engine has been extensively re-engineered, including Nissan’s latest variable valve lift and timing system, a higher (11.2:1) compression ratio, and the addition of direct fuel injection. The net is upgrades in power output -- 390 horsepower and 394 pound-feet of torque, up from 317 and 385, respectively. The new 2017 Nissan Armada still runs on regular fuel, good to know as its efficiency is only expected to improve by one mpg in city driving. Two-wheel-drive Armadas are estimated to get 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway, while 4-wheel-drive versions are rated at just 13/18 mpg.

There’s also an increase in towing capacity -- 8,500 pounds -- to go with the more potent engine and new transmission. That max is the same for both rear- and 4-wheel-drive models. An interesting footnote here is that a class IV trailer hitch is standard, but the 7-pin plug-in for trailer electrics costs extra.

Muscle vs. Mass

The Armada’s big horsepower increase is tempered to some degree by a substantial increase at the scales. Although its wheelbase (121.1 inches) is 2.1 inches shorter than the current vehicle, the new Armada is otherwise generally bigger: 1.2 inches longer at 208.9 inches and just over a half-inch wider, albeit 2.0 inches lower from rocker panels to roof. Nissan claims the increased length is 4.9 inches longer than that of its biggest competitor, paying off in a roomy interior.

Increased dimensions and the more massive frame rails add up to a curb weight increase of about 300 pounds versus corresponding models from the outgoing Armada lineup, according to Nissan.

Confidence On-road and Off

An increase of that magnitude can’t be taken lightly, but the gain in engine output is still sufficient to give the new Armada a significant edge in power-to-weight compared to its predecessor. This shows up as right-now throttle response, brisk acceleration when red lights go green, and impressive passing power on 2-lane highways, accompanied by a subdued but melodious baritone exhaust note.

Any vehicle weighing close to three tons isn’t likely to be particularly handy in quick maneuvers, and the Armada is no exception. On the other hand, in the course of a half-day drive the Armada established itself as more willing than most of its contemporaries to make rapid maneuvers with modest body roll and consequent prompt recovery in hurried transitions from extreme left to extreme right.

The chassis engineers have done a commendable job of tuning the Armada’s all-independent suspension -- double wishbones and coil springs front and rear -- to strike a nice balance between respectable dynamic responses and supple ride quality. Also, interior noise levels are exceptionally low at all speeds.

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Also worth noting: The Armada seems to be surprisingly capable in rugged off-road situations. This observation is based on a very brief demo with a 4-wheel drive Armada on a simulated course with extreme off-camber banking, steep ups and downs, and marginal traction. The long wheelbase that goes with a big SUV is the wrong prescription for roadless work, but the Armada’s 9.1 inches of ground clearance makes it more useful than most full-size utes for driving in the rough.

Braking performance is difficult to assess without a test track and instrumented data, but the Armada’s system is scaled to its task (13.8-inch vented discs all around), and the pedal responds well to modulation by the driver.

If there’s a soft suit in the Armada’s dynamic resume it’s a power steering system that’s a little slow (3.5 turns lock to lock) and a little numb on-center. However, tactility improves with speed, as system effort increases.

Family Face

While the sheetmetal is all new, the most readily discernible difference between the new Armada and its predecessor is up front, where the grille repeats the new V-motion theme of other Nissan SUVs. Low-beam LED headlights are standard on all models; the side mirrors are equipped with turn signal repeaters; standard wheels are 18 inches, 20 inches on upgrade models; and a power liftgate is standard on top trims and optional on the base model.

As detailed in its Chicago show unveiling, and as you’d expect of a vehicle in this price class, the 2017 Armada is attractively appointed inside and comes with an attractive array of standard features. Tops on the list: standard navigation with an 8-inch center dash touch screen. Other noteworthy standards include 13-speaker Bose audio, dual-zone auto climate control, cruise control, roof rails (220-pound capacity), side steps, LED daytime running lamps, and 8-passenger seating (2nd-row captain's chairs are available in top-line models, which reduces seating capacity to seven).

Nissan’s latest driver-assist safety features -- blind spot warning and intervention, back-up collision intervention, lane-departure warning and intervention, and adaptive cruise control with forward emergency braking -- are standard only on the top trim level, optional on the middle trim, unavailable on the base model.

Trim levels -- SV, SL, and Platinum -- carry forward from the current Armada and the all models go on sale in mid-August.  Pricing for the 2017 Nissan Armanda opens at $45,395 for a rear-drive SV, with the SL starting at $50,145 and the Platinum-spec model kicking off at $58,085. Moving to a 4WD configuration adds $2,900 to each of those numbers.


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