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DAN NEIL RUMBLE SEAT

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

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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 last year represented 853,138 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.

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.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Armada's five-speed automatic transmission -- the only one in its class -- the vehicle has unholy acceleration. Car and Driver magazine clocked an Armada from zero to 60 mph in seven seconds flat. The nearest class competitor is more than a second slower. A Mercedes-Benz E320 sedan requires three-tenths longer to reach 60.

So then, the ideal customer for this vehicle would be ... who? A family of Masai warriors towing their 30-foot cabin cruiser to Lake Victoria for the weekend?

Unfortunately, this vehicle will find its way into the hands of too many suburban moms and dads who will use it as a short-range commuter and mall runner, tasks for which it is excessive. Even setting aside fuel economy (13/19 miles per gallon city/highway, according to the EPA), there is the Armada's sheer unfriendly bulk. You need the ground crew from Lakehurst, N.J., to park this thing. And every mall parking deck threatens to skim the roof racks right off it. The center of the Armada's headlamps is approximately 38 inches from the ground, which puts them at a perfect height to fuse the retinas of drivers ahead of you.

This is where SUV enthusiasts and I have irreconcilable differences: If you need such a vehicle -- and that means you have five kids, live in Idaho and tow a boat the size of a Spanish galleon -- fine, by all means. If you don't need one, what, pray tell, is the upside? And if you live in the Los Angeles area, may I mildly suggest you get out of my way?

It's not as if the Armada offers thrilling handling or a luxurious ride to compensate for these inconveniences. I found the ride quality over anything but smooth pavement to be fretful, with lots of jostling over surface imperfections and fairly uncontrolled body movement as it thundered over uneven concrete and asphalt patches.

On California 2 heading north to Glendale, the Armada fairly bounded over the evenly spaced expansion joints in the highway. Over jolts big and small, the interior fittings rattled lustily. The central dash panel twittered. The rear bench shook. When I went looking for the source of the rattles, I instead discovered lots of shoddy upholstery stitching.

Sales of full-size SUVs are down 17% from a year ago, and this is anything but a growth market. In part that reflects automakers' offering crossover vehicles more finely tuned to the real-world needs of urban and suburban customers. Nissan's Murano and Infiniti FX45 are excellent examples.

It further reflects the rate at which people are abandoning full-sizers because of their wearying nuisances.

The Armada, as vainglorious as its name, is inanely bigger, when what the world needs now is better.

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Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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2004 Pathfinder Armada LE 4x2

Wheelbase: 123.2 inches

Length: 206.9 inches

Curb weight: 5,274 pounds

Powertrain: 5.6-liter V-8 engine with dual-overhead cams; five-speed automatic transmission; two-wheel drive

Horsepower: 305 at 4,900 rpm

Torque: 385 pound-feet at 3,600 rpm

Acceleration: zero to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds

EPA rating: 13 miles per gallon city, 19 mpg highway

Price, base: $37,800

Price, as tested: $41,550

Competitors: Chevy Tahoe, Ford Expedition

Final thoughts: Avast, ye maties!