Review: Overlanding Nissan's special-edition adventure trucks
Before heading to Overland Expo and Abenteuer & Allrad to check out the latest off-road adventure wares built by small companies we only hear about a few times a year, we took a close look at an overland rig commissioned by one of the auto industry's household names. Nissan has been dipping its toes in the overland arena the past few years, with project builds like last year's Project Basecamp. This year, it revealed the all-new Armada Mountain Patrol, and for a few minutes under the setting sun, it stood majestically as a perfectly polished show truck. A day later, we got it filthy while putting it through its paces in the high desert of Northern Arizona.
Over the past five years, Nissan North America has moved away from the off-road market it was once a spirited part of. In the 2013 model year, it bloated its crossover lineup, turning the once-rugged, stalwart Pathfinder into yet another a unibody CUV. It followed that up in 2015 by axing the Xterra. The aged Frontier is absolutely screaming for a full overhaul, leaving just full-size models like the Armada and Titan to fill the role of body-on-frame trucks with non-ancient platforms. And the Armada is really more a big, road-touring family wagon lacking true off-road grit.
Interestingly, during those same five years or so, Nissan has been putting out some pretty wild off-road crossover concepts and one-off truck builds. It had a string of treaded "Warrior" concepts, and it added this weird, surfy 370Zki earlier this year. It has also dabbled in overland design, with builds like the digi-camo Project Titan and last year's Overland Expo-debuted Project Basecamp.
Sure, those are just one-offs with no production futures ... but maybe there's something there. It's almost as if Nissan has been signaling to off-road lovers that it hasn't forgotten about them, just have patience.
And maybe the "Patrol" name that's appeared on two of Nissan's 2018 off-road concepts, as well as earning a reference in the announcement for the recent Titan Surfcamp, has something to do with that. While the newest US-market Armada shares its underpinnings and looks with the latest international-market Patrol, it doesn't have the full slate of off-road goodies, or the rock-solid reputation, that have long made the Patrol the Patrol.
But a "Patrol"-spec Armada could add overnight credibility to Nissan's off-road lineup, bringing with it some combination of locking differentials, off-road-tuned suspension and big, grabby tires, right out of the factory.
Then again, maybe Nissan designers and engineers have just been having some fun with custom show builds. Nissan didn't give up much when we tried to poke around about the significance of the reoccurring "Patrol" concept name.
Whatever Nissan's long game, it has been building some interesting one-offs. And for this year's Overland Expo, it followed up last year's appearance by debuting the all-new Armada Mountain Patrol, which joins the Armada Snow Patrol from earlier this year to complete the 2018 "Patrol" show truck duo.
The presentation of the Mountain Patrol followed a social media campaign inviting fan input on the design of the truck. The meatiest additions are the 6-in Calmini lift kit and Icon Vehicle Dynamics heavy-duty coil-over suspension and extended A-arms cushioning the 17-in Icon Rebound wheels centered in Nitto Ridge Grappler 35/12.25/17 tires.
The other big addition lending to the Mountain Patrol's "don't mess with me" demeanor is the custom-fabricated steel front bumper from Calmini that juts out around a 12,000-lb (5,443-kg) Warn Platinum Series winch. Calmini complements that big chin with a heavy-duty steel rear bumper, rock sliders and a swing-away spare tire holder.
The Mountain Patrol supports multi-day expeditions with a four-person Cascadia Vehicle Tents Mt. Shasta roof-top tent, which is held in place by a Rhino-Rack Backbone roof rack and joined up high by Baja Designs LED lighting, a Hi-Lift Jack and a Rhino-Rack Batwing 270-degree awning.
The Mountain Patrol doesn't offer a full kitchen, but it does have a slide-out ARB fridge. ARB is also the badge on the pull-out drawer system and air compressor. Up front, Lowrance off-road navigation helps prevent undesired expedition detours and, we imagine, encourages desired ones.
We've already started to slip into that gray area, but before we start advertising every add-on and accessory manufacturer that threw gear Nissan's way, we'll let this handy pictorial take care of the rest:
Below its foresty burnt orange wrap, the base Armada offers a muscular 390-hp 5.6-liter V8 engine and 8,500-lb (3,855-kg) towing capacity, not to mention a spacious interior. Even when filled out with expedition show truck gear, it's a capable machine to get out and about with.
"One thing true off-road enthusiasts understand about the Armada Mountain Patrol is its authentic adventure heritage," said Brandon White, Nissan North America's chief marketing manager, when introducing the Mountain Patrol. "Every 2018 Armada is inspired by the global Patrol – a vehicle with over five decades of off-roading credibility."
There's that "global Patrol," again.
Patrolling the desert with the Mountain Patrol
We had roughly a dozen journalists shuffling off between trucks on our Nissan convoy through near-ghost towns, ancient rock art sites and open high desert, so we didn't get a whole ton of time at the helm of the Mountain Patrol. But we did take the wheel for a good stretch of sometimes bumpy, sometimes smooth and fast trail that gave a good, quick taste of the special-edition Armada's capabilities. And they were quite tasty, indeed.
We were expecting to feel a bit of weight and rattle from the tent, rack and accessories up top when negotiating hills and off-camber terrain, but the ride was smooth and we didn't notice any major handling shortcomings. The upped ride height did its job quite well, allowing us to soar clean over one or two mid-trail rocks that made us wince.
We were definitely glad to have the 390 hp and 394 lb-ft worth of V8 muscle while climbing and cruising, and we couldn't help but smirk – rightfully or wrongfully – as we sat in the cabin chatting about the 2.7-liter turbo four General Motors was busy introducing for the Silverado 1500 at that very same time. Pickup was never an issue, and we were able to get the Mountain Patrol comfortably cruising to around 45 mph (72 km/h) on some of the longer sections of fairly smooth track, confident that the suspension would gobble up any and all lumps and bumps that popped out of the periphery.
At the end of the day, we enjoyed the ride and couldn't cite any complaints, but we only really logged about 25 minutes of hard, quality wheel time. And since it was a day trip, equipment like the roof tent, refrigerator and auxiliary lighting remained but decorative jewelry.
But getting this one all dusty was more than you'd do with the average special-edition show build. Folks will likely love or leave the orange wrap, but beyond that, Nissan did some nice work here, and it was a unique opportunity to test-drive the type of truck you usually only see sitting still at Overland Expo, SEMA and/or the LA Auto Show, then never again.
Bringing it home with the hell-raising Hellwig Nissan Titan "Rulebreaker"
Moving on to a SEMA build that we have actually been seeing again and again, we got to finish out the drive with the biggest rig of our convoy – the tiger-like "Rulebreaker" expedition pickup camper from Hellwig and Lance. Essentially, a blacked-out Lance 650 pickup camper inside the bed of a lifted Titan XD with a Hellwig rear sway bar, leaf springs and air springs stabilizing things below, not to mention the usual laundry list of aftermarket pieces found on any SEMA build, this multi-company showcase vehicle was along for the ride.
The Rulebreaker first debuted at SEMA 2016, simultaneously highlighting the all-new Titan XD and its 2,500-lb (1,134-kg) payload, along with the fact that it is possible to make a pickup camper look cooler than those bright-white, broad-sided pompadours that look straight out of the 1970s.
The camper layout obviously makes the Rulebreaker much larger than the Mountain Patrol we drove immediately before it, so we expected to feel a difference in acceleration and handling immediately. But Hellwig's upgrades around the rear axle stabilize the rear-end to the point that all that extra bulk was rarely and barely noticeable.
We were driving this one during the very last leg, a smooth combination of level dirt road and highway back to the lodge, so we didn't go over anything that would really get it popping and rattling, but the lack of discernible pull on the rear or strain on the engine was impressive – a testament to getting someone that knows what they're doing to adjust the suspension on your pickup before rolling out with a big, ol' camper hanging off the back.
At one point, Hellwig's Mike Hallmark actually asked from the passenger seat, "did you ever think you'd be cruising at this speed in a big camper like this, full gangster lean," at which point we realized that we were sailing down the left lane of the highway, steering one-handed and all but forgetting about being in a full-size diesel pickup with a slide-in camper hogging the bed. Not bad for a full-size truck camper.
The only negative we did notice was some cross wind on the highway, which seems an inevitability of riding around with a broad-sided camper in your bed. It wasn't course-changing or otherwise problematic, but it did make us reel things back ... for a couple minutes.
We'll be watching closely to see if all these "Patrol" mentions lead anywhere concrete or end up more like the "Warrior" series of treaded snow/sand crossovers (we feel safe assuming Nissan won't be releasing a production Warrior all-track-drive in the future). Hopefully, we'll see a Patrol-inspired vehicle (or another model entirely) that harks back to the rugged, US-market Nissan utility vehicles of old.