Our first drive of the 2017 Armada took place out in the produce belt of California, where amidst the smoke of wildfires and the scenic beauty of farm fields, we put this three-row SUV through its paces on and off the road.

The 2017 Armada's launch is part of the overall "Year of the Truck" campaign in which Nissan is launching several truck-based crossovers and sport utilities including the 2017 Pathfinder (first impression coming soon) and V8 gasoline Titan (also coming soon).

During our pre-drive briefing, Nissan also teased a new sport utility coming later this fall. We speculate that this will be an X-Terra or X-Terra replacement to compete against the Toyota 4Runner, Jeep Cherokee, and the like in the midsize SUV segment.

For marketing purposes, Nissan places the big Armada ahead of the Pathfinder as a "large family SUV," making it the flagship of Nissan's SUV lineup. It seats up to eight and is robust in build, competing with similar sport utilities from General Motors (Tahoe, Yukon) and the Ford Expedition. That segment accounts for about 250,000 vehicle sales per year in North America. The segment is expected to grow slightly with most of those buyers being new to the full-sized SUV market. Nissan, obviously, wants to tap into those sales.

To the rest of the world, the Nissan Armada is known as the Patrol, which was first introduced in the 1950s as a Japanese take on the American Jeep Willy's utility truck. Based on the first-generation Nissan Titan pickup truck, the Aramada itself debuted at the 2003 New York International Auto Show. The new 2017 Armada, however, sheds those roots and now has its own platform and design based on the global Patrol.

On the exterior, the 2017 Nissan Armada shares many style elements with the Infiniti QX80, especially at the rear quarter and roofline. The hood is long and flat with a more truck-like grille incorporating the Nissan "V-motion" lines. The squared body of the Armada is not hidden, but is instead almost accentuated through the flat beltline and roof.

Inside, a lot of attention to comfort, roominess and quality materials has been given. A new three-tone with simulated wood grain is offered in the upper trim levels, a premium-level touch that is not out of place in this big SUV. Eight-passenger seating is standard and there's plenty of head, leg, and shoulder room in the front and second rows, but the third row remains largely for children – unless you're under five-feet tall.

Motivating this 2017 Armada is the new V8 engine also found in the V8 gas-powered Titan. This all-new 5.6-liter engine uses variable valve event and lift, and direct-injection gas technologies to improve fuel economy and torque output. Engine output is rated at 390 horsepower (291 kW) and 394 pound-feet (534 Nm) of torque, with the sweet spot for RPM being in the 4,500 range between the two peaks. Torque curve delivery is flat, though, with a long space where most of the torque is available to the drivetrain thanks to the VVEL (Nissan's variable valve timing tech) and a new seven-speed automatic transmission. We found that transmission to be a smooth-shifting unit with great on-road presence that brings solid power delivery when pressed.

Gear ranges in the transmission are phenomenally strong, starting at 4.887 for first, then 3.170 for second, and 2.027 for third. This provides a lot of low-gear power for offroading and towing. Yet the topmost gears deliver 1.0, 0.864, and 0.775 in fifth, sixth, and seventh gears for improved fuel economy when at speed. Towing is rated at up to 8,500 pounds (3,855 kg) in both two-wheel and four-wheel drive variants of the Armada. That is 1,000 pounds (453 kg) more than the current segment leader, the Toyota Sequoia.

On the road, the 2017 Armada is quiet thanks to acoustic glass at both the windshield and side windows up front. Nissan wanted "library level" noise reduction in the cabin of the Armada, and it comes pretty close. On the highway, interior noise levels are at around 2 decibels. This made the Armada one of the quietest SUVs we've driven to date. Of course, shattering that quiet is easy with the included Bose sound system. Fair warning.

On-road handling and driveability in the 2017 Armada is good as well. Although most sedans and smaller vehicles will definitely outpace and outmaneuver the Armada, it handles very well for a big SUV. Parking is not as easy, but with the optional 360-view camera, that becomes less of a hassle. Our only gripe was that the steering can be a bit numb during hard maneuvering, which was more of an issue once we were off the pavement and in the dirt.

For safety, Nissan is offering their full Safety Shield suite of options. These include the aforementioned 360-view camera system, moving object detection, blind-spot warning, advanced sonar, and more. Active emergency braking and other options are also available.

We also had the opportunity to take the Armada off the road on a short but dynamic showcase course on the Laguna Seca Raceway. This course is challenging for novice offroaders and fun for those with experience, but wasn't really a danger to the Armada with its surprisingly solid offroad chops.

Not surprisingly, Nissan expects the majority of its 2017 Armada sales to be in the top-level Platinum package, which offers all the goodies. Pricing has not yet been announced, but we expect that this premium Armada will be in the US$55,000 range, depending on options.

Product Page: 2017 Nissan Armada

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