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What would Gulliver drive?

Nissan's super-sized Pathfinder Armada is aimed squarely at Detroit's most profitable piece of the SUV segment. But do bigger ends justify bigger means?

November 12, 2003|DAN NEIL

It has taken years of analysis and reverse engineering, but the Japanese automakers are now able to build vehicles just as big and stupid as the Americans.

This is a troubling development for Detroit, which has long had a lock on big and stupid. Indeed, the popular big-stupid segment has been a godsend to General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co.: Full-size sport utility vehicles, built on the same platforms as full-size pickups, offer the highest profit margins of any car or truck and represent about 200,000 in annual unit sales in North America.

Toyota Motor Corp. was the first Asian automaker to pan for gold in the big-ute stream when in 2000 it began selling the Sequoia, built on the Tundra pickup platform.

Now comes the 2004 Pathfinder Armada from Nissan Motor Co., another SUV built on a big-pickup platform (namely, the steel ladder-frame underpinnings of the forthcoming full-size Titan) in the United States. Both Toyota and Nissan breed their Brobdingnagians at American plants: Indiana and Mississippi, respectively.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Nissan Pathfinder -- In Highway 1 on Nov. 12, a review of the Nissan Pathfinder Armada incorrectly said annual sales of full-size sport utility vehicles in North America totaled 200,000. In fact, last year's sales were 853,138.

The Armada is the Double Whopper with Cheese of SUVs. Excepting the Chevy Suburban/GMC Yukon XL twins -- and the Hummer H2, which is big-stupid sui generis -- the Armada is longer (206.9 inches) and taller (77.8 inches) than anything else in its class, which includes luxury lorries like the Ford Expedition and Chevy Tahoe. It is as wide (78.8 inches) as the widest in the class (Tahoe) and has the longest wheelbase (123.2 inches) and highest ground clearance (10.7 inches) in its segment. The Armada's pricing is competitive with that of the domestic barges; our loaded-to-the-gunnels test vehicle priced out at $41,550 (a luxury LE edition with sunroof, power liftgate and DVD entertainment system).

But, clearly, Nissan's designers believed that gawdamighty size alone would not be enough to guile Americans away from their beloved domestics. It had to look scary. Thus the Armada's case-hardened styling -- vast slabs of steel and glass soaring above the wheel wells, with fender flares punched out at discontinuous angles to give it a muscular look, though it looks to me less muscular than glandular. The chrome bumper insets look as if somebody swiped the doors off a Vulcan gourmet oven.

This isn't design, it's pornography.

The dimensions give the Armada a distinctly bus-like gestalt. Grab hold of the chrome door lever and pull. The door swings open like that of a side-by-side refrigerator (how long before the Armada is cheekily nicknamed the "Amana"?). The seat height is a pants-splitting 34 inches from the ground, and once you hoist yourself aboard you find yourself dwarfed by the Armada. Well, at least I did. I'm over 6-feet-1 and 180 pounds, and I felt as if I was wearing Shaq's warm-up suit. I dropped a piece of paper on the floor ahead of the front-passenger seat, and I could not reach it from the driver's seat.

The Armada, a seven- or eight-passenger vehicle depending on configuration, has vast amounts of room allotted to second-row seating with a full three inches more legroom than any of its competitors. Armadas with the second-row bench can be quickly configured in such a way that, when the second and third rows are folded, the cargo floor is flat from the liftgate all the way to front seat backs, creating 97 cubic feet of space. Vehicles with the second-row captain's chairs require you to remove the console.

As in the Toyota Sequoia, the Armada's second-row seats flip forward for easy access to the third-row bench seat, which is raised stadium-style to improve sightlines and reduce the consumption of Dramamine.

As all this suggests, Nissan is pitching the Armada as a family vehicle. Consider the tag line: "Liberate your family." I bet that plays well in Utah.

Consider, also, the various means available to distract the kids on the long drive from Provo to Orem. The LE model test vehicle was equipped with dual-media playback that allows the front-seat passengers -- the adults -- to listen to the stereo through the 10-speaker Bose premium sound system, while the kids tune to whatever CD-DVD-MP3 they desire with wireless headsets. A flip-down LCD monitor is situated in the ceiling for watching or video gaming.

In addition, the Armada is awash with cup holders, cubbies and bins, including an overhead console for reading lights, air vents and yet more storage.

The other thing the Armada has in abundance is power. Under the broad hood is a 5.6-liter V-8 with dual-overhead cams and four valves per cylinder -- the same engine in the Titan pickup -- producing 305 horsepower and 385 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm. That is sufficient to give the Armada class-leading towing (9,011 pounds) and payload (1,949 pounds) capacity. My test model had two-wheel drive; a four-wheel drive model also is available.

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