2021 Nissan Armada Review: Enclosed Trailer Towing Test and a Fresh New Face

The more discerning enthusiasts among us have dragged Nissan for a while now, accusing them of letting products wither on the vine a bit, to include their largest SUV. The Nissan Armada has been with us since the 2005 model year, and is – surprisingly? – only in its second generation, which launched in 2017. Forget enthusiasts, though, as second-generation Armada sales figures have been relatively strong since its big update four years ago. Nissan has sold nearly as many Armadas annually from 2017 onward as they did when it was introduced to the world that first year, in 2005.

Nissan is undergoing a bit of a cultural shift, their old CEO having fled Japan in a sound system’s shipping case to avoid charges of financial misconduct, a story that is somehow totally appropriate given it took place in 2020. In any case, Nissan’s got some new leadership and they’re launching some new vehicles that appear to handily shed the “withered” vibe – 400Z, Ariya, Pathfinder, Frontier, and so on. Of course, their big body-on-frame SUV has been due for some updates alongside the others, and they have arrived in the form of the facelifted 2021 Nissan Armada.

2021 Nissan Armada new logo

What Is It?

This is a 2021 Nissan Armada Platinum. The Armada lineup was given a little bit of bumper Botox and treated to a fresh interior for the 2021 model year. Nissan’s questionable two-screen infotainment has been replaced with a single, simpler 12 inch widescreen, real buttons and knobs (!) for climate control, and a wireless phone charger and wireless Apple CarPlay. Android Auto requires a USB cord, but is also standard.

The 2021 Nissan Armada is not an all-new vehicle, instead riding on the same Nissan Patrol platform that has been its backbone since 2017. Interestingly, where pre-2017 Armadas rode on a variant of the Titan pickup truck chassis, Nissan’s luxury-focused sibling Infiniti has used the Patrol platform for their QX56 (now QX80) starting in 2010.

2021 Nissan Armada interior

While the drivetrain in the 2021 Nissan Armada is largely the “ol’ faithful” 5.6 liter Endurance V8 and seven-speed automatic transmission, Nissan has pulled another 10 horsepower and 19 lb-ft of torque out of their hat for 2021. Every 2021 Armada produces 400 horsepower and 413 lb-ft of torque – healthy numbers for a naturally-aspirated V8.

Nissan has also made a suite of driver assistance technology standard on every Armada for 2021, which they’re calling SafetyShield 360. The tech is comprehensive, with automatic emergency braking, radar-guided cruise control, and blind spot monitoring. Much like Toyota’s Sequoia, though, the Armada cannot keep you in your lane. It can only let you know when you are leaving it. Lane keeping or lane centering would be nice, but is likely incompatible with the Armada’s hydraulic (not electric) power steering.

Suspension and towing capacity are the same for every Armada, a welcome sight compared to so many trucks and SUVs that require an exacting combination of packages to get to the advertised tow rating. No, every 2021 Armada is rated to tow 8,500 pounds with an 850 pound tongue weight. Suspension is fully independent, with standard self-leveling rear airbags. Your only real choice here is how many driven wheels you desire – two-wheel drive is standard, with an automatic four-wheel drive system optional on every trim.

MSRP of my fully-loaded 2021 Nissan Armada Platinum came to $71,250.

2021 Nissan Armada red

Towing With the 2021 Nissan Armada

Big SUVs are popular in racetrack paddocks, for buyers who need to tow but prefer the “big lockable box” concept instead of a pickup truck’s open bed. For those moving families and friends, a third row seat adds to the versatility. So then, it’s important to see how Nissan’s 2021 Armada handles a trailer.

Given the Armada’s hefty towing capacity of 8,500 pounds, I grabbed my enclosed trailer and plopped it (carefully) on the hitch.

Every 2021 Nisan Armada – regardless of drive wheels or trim level – has that same 8,500 pound rating and is approved for up to 850 pounds of tongue weight. Self-leveling rear suspension is standard across the board, as is a trailer brake controller integrated at the bottom of the center stack. If you’ve used a Tekonsha Prodigy P2, you’ll find the controller oddly familiar – the Armada’s owners’ manual freely admits that it’s a P2 they built in to the dash. My Armada Platinum was also equipped with Nissan’s optional Trailer Sway Control.

Payload is always a concern, moreso with SUVs. Can you truly have a bunch of tongue weight and fill your seats with passengers? Nissan excels with Armada’s payload, with the base two-wheel drive SV offering a stated 1,634 pound payload. My heavier, loaded-up 4WD Platinum still carried a rating of over 1,400 pounds, according to the doorjamb sticker. Assuming my trailer consumed all of the 850 pound tongue weight – which it doesn’t – I’d still have 600 pounds or so remaining for people and things inside the Armada.

2021 Nissan Armada enclosed trailer

I first tried my trailer without weight distribution, as its total tongue weight is about 650 pounds. The Armada was doing its best, but the rear axle was clearly a bit overwhelmed. Being based on the Patrol, a truck used around the world for off-roading, has its downsides. Loaded or unloaded, the Armada is soft – especially in the rear. Highway speeds with this setup were relatively uncomfortable.

Hooking up weight distribution made a world of difference. With some tongue weight shifted toward the front axle, as is appropriate when towing over half of a vehicle’s stated capacity, the whole rig was level and body motion was much better controlled. The soft rear suspension still allowed some “porpoising” front-to-back over road undulations, but the Armada otherwise felt very stable. Its 121.9″ wheelbase is long enough to keep the trailer in line when things get windy or as a semi-truck passes.

Interestingly, while I could hear the air suspension’s compressor running after I hooked up my trailer (on two separate events), the rear suspension did not raise as high as I expected. Self-leveling is no substitute for weight distribution, but I’ve seen it make more of a visual difference on other vehicles.

Nissan’s slow-in-the-city steering was actually a perk while towing, working with the short(ish) overall length to make the Armada feel exceptionally maneuverable on back roads and in parking lots. Power and torque were ample, though as with any naturally-aspirated engine, you have to really wind it out at times. Peak power comes at 5,200 rpm. Braking was similarly strong, thanks to the Tekonsha trailer brake controller and Nissan’s well-programmed downshifts in Tow Mode.

My 20′ enclosed trailer is the biggest enclosed I’d feel comfortable hooking up to the Armada, as the soft suspension ultimately works against you as you add length to the “sail in the wind” that is an enclosed. Open trailers should pose no issues, regardless of length, and I suspect boats would feel a bit more stable as well, given they don’t catch the wind quite so much compared to an enclosed car trailer.

Are Nissan’s Updates to the 2021 Armada Enough?

I’ll admit, I am one of the people who felt like Nissan wasn’t doing enough to stay current for a while. I learned to drive in a vehicle that was built during “peak Nissan” – the Infiniti variant of Nissan’s 2002 Maxima sports sedan. Nissan was doing a lot of fresh, interesting things in the early aughts, and I just couldn’t get excited about much that followed for a few generations.

Nissan’s updates to the 2021 Armada are a solid start. They’re focusing more elsewhere right now, which is important. The Armada isn’t Nissan’s volume seller, though it is an important part of their lineup regardless. And to that effect, it has been modernized enough to feel appropriate in a 2021 Nissan showroom. Nissan improved – greatly – the center stack and infotainment, and added important driver assistance tech that many of us expect by now. Their updated logo, which some have derided as “an expensive marketing effort,” helps modernize the truck’s looks, although I couldn’t help but notice the outgoing Nissan logo on the engine cover when I popped the hood.

2021 Nissan Armada Endurance V8 engine

The 2021 Nissan Armada still feels a bit old-school at heart, with its big naturally-aspirated V8, heavy hydraulic steering, and ruched leather on the door panels and seats. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Domestic competitors – think Tahoe and Expedition – absolutely feel more modern in some ways, but there’s also only so much to be done with a body-on-frame SUV. Nissan has leapt substantially ahead of Toyota’s (ancient) Sequoia here, and provides a solid offering in the market otherwise.

We’ll likely have to wait for the globally-sold Patrol to evolve before we see the third-generation Armada, but in the meantime, the 2021 updates do a lot to bring the Armada into a more modern space.

2021 Nissan Armada

Final Thoughts

Most buyers of a three-row body-on-frame SUV would truly be better off with a unibody variant, like Nissan’s Pathfinder. But for those who have honest semi-heavy towing needs, these big truck-based SUVs fill a very specific niche. I appreciate the styling tweaks and technology improvements that Nissan has made to the 2021 Armada, and the simplicity of trim level to tow rating is incredibly refreshing.

The 2021 Nissan Armada tows well enough, though its Patrol roots shine through. I wish it were stiffer, either with adjustable dampers or higher spring rates. It’s absolutely safe and more than adequate for towing an enclosed trailer, but that extra smidge of body control would kick its capability up toward the top of the class.

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