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2006 Nissan Armada Review

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

A Road Test and a Travelogue
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Nissan

My pretty blonde and I thought the first week in May ought to be a great time to be in Sedona, our favorite inspirational location in northern Arizona. We’ve arranged a big Nissan Armada, sport-utility - built on the full-size Titan truck platform - to be our faithful steed for this week of meditation, exploration and recreation.

We must give Nissan’s press fleet contractors (A&M and Smart Park) credit. They bused us expeditiously from the Phoenix airport to the Smart Park lot where our Majestic Blue (a new color this year) Armada was waiting. The power tailgate was wide open awaiting our luggage, the motor was running with AC on full and soft jazz was tuned in on the 10-speaker Bose sound system. You won’t get that kind of service at Avis.

Parallel parking the large Armada was remarkably easy with its big mirrors and long wheel base with very little overhang front or rear. We pulled up for lunch at First Watch, our favorite trendy café in downtown Phoenix. A Cajun omelet for me and fruit-garnished chicken salad for my pretty blonde got us off to a good start.

Traffic ran briskly up I-17 once we cleared the coagulated glom of vehicles where the freeway narrows to two lanes just beyond the northern edge of Phoenix. For a full-size sport-ute the Armada doesn’t feel too cumbersome or truck-like, although from behind the wheel there’s no question we’re in something big. We’re sitting comfortably high with good visibility all around. Controls and gauges are easy to manage and easy to read as we get acclimated. Power mirror, window and lock controls are mounted on the horizontal surface of the window sill where my arm and hand naturally rests.

We had forgotten just how dramatic the Arizona vistas are as the freeway climbs to over 4500 feet then back down and up again before our exit at Highway 178. Traffic bested the 75 mph speed limit most of the way and began to thin the farther north we went. The Armada’s 5.6-liter, 90-degree, 305-hp V8 was enough to keep up easily although I found myself shifting the 5-speed automatic down manually on some of the steeper grades. Stately saguaro cactus punctuate the creosote and other low scrub as elevation increases. As we approach Sedona the twisted old cedars begin to dominate and the silvery prickly pear cactus sparkle in the mid afternoon sun. The famous red rocks suddenly come into view beginning with Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte. Another five miles of slow traffic and we’re literally surrounded by red rock formations.

The last Saturday in April appears to be the beginning of a tourist surge in Sedona, this most spiritual of tourist places. These beautiful red rock formations have inspired folks to identify recognizable shapes and forms, much like finding shapes in clouds. Along Schnebly Hill Road are formations called Cow Pies, Talking Heads and Aunt Jemima. Directly above downtown Sedona is a formation everyone sees as an image of Snoopy reclining on his dog house with little Woodstock the bird perched on his nose. It would be hard to mistake Snoopy.

We pulled up at a coffee shop downtown with views of Snoopy, Oak Creek about 300 feet below and Schebley Hill about 1500 feet above. Browsing the Mulroni (window sticker) we find that we’re driving the 2-wheel drive SE version of the ’06 Armada. Base price is $34,500. We have the $4,100 Sunroof package that includes the sunroof, power lift tailgate, Sirius radio, leather seats, side airbags and Bose audio system. Floor/cargo mats cost another $210 for a total of $39,480.

Our first day’s drive had us testing the rough-road capability of the Armada on Schnebley Hill Road - a real challenge. The first five or six of its twelve miles are rough – mighty rough. One might be able to manage 10 mph in a few areas but most of the way it’s rather like a cobble stone road with larger, pointier cobbles mixed with even bigger rocks erupting from the road surface. The armada has skid plates so we’re not worried about scraping bottom. The saving grace is that the scenery is so spectacular that going any faster would be a shame anyway. Our Armada is stiffly sprung with independent rear suspension. It bounced, and jounced and lurched but it held the road admirably. A few rattles were evident but we would hesitate to fault Nissan for those on such a rough road. I think there were loose parts inside my head rattling as well. We stopped a couple of times for photos of the truck and the views, finally reaching the destination most drivers shoot for here, Schnebly Hill Vista. From here one can see Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona, and a good share of Verde Valley all the way to Jerome, 30-miles to the west and perched on the side of the next mountain range, the Mingus Mountains - our destination later in the week.

As Schnebly Hill Road crests the mountain and heads down the other side reaching due east toward I-17 the road improves until we began to average more than 30 mph. A few deer and cotton-tail rabbits found themselves on the wrong side of the road and dashed across in front of us. But we didn’t hit any. We took I-17 into Flagstaff, just 20 miles to the north, where we cruised around, followed old Route 66 a few miles and had breakfast at Kathy’s Café, a little local joint downtown where it appears only the locals go. Lines of tourists were forming at two upscale cafés across the street but we copped a table at Kathy’s and enjoyed eggs with green chilies along with the local folks.

We returned the way we came, back across Schnebley Hill Road for another perspective with the afternoon light changing the look of the red rocks. Along the way we stopped at a broken down dam where a short, steep rock road gave us an opportunity to check out the Armada’s off-road competence. My pretty blonde was skeptical about our ability to get in and out of that trail without getting stuck or ripping our undercarriage out. Her fears were unfounded. Though we experienced some wheel slippage on the steep gravelly road we had plenty of ground clearance, more than ten inches according to the book. This kind of off-roading would be a good argument for ordering the four-wheel-drive version of the Armada since we were experiencing considerable wheel spin climbing the rocks and gravel.

We weren’t finished driving for the day. As evening approached we took the classic drive along Highway 89A up into Oak Creek Canyon to the escarpment. The first four-fifths of the drive is a gentle climb, then the freshly paved two-lane crosses Oak Creek one last time and switches back and forth up, and up and up another fifteen hundred feet or so. While the V8 has plenty of power and torque – 385 lb-ft - to get its nearly 5500 pounds up the steepest grade the tough 5-speed automatic transmission still doesn’t shift down quick enough for me. So, again, I just had to do it myself. Anyone who has driven this road will agree that it is one of the most scenic drives in the Southwest.

Sedona’s other claim to fame has to do with being blessed by great hiking trails among the red rocks and being home to dozens of electromagnetic “vortexes” – shafts of magnetism that extend through the center of the earth. It is believed by many that these magnetic - even spiritual - anomalies have brought people here for millennia as well as being responsible for some extraterrestrial visitors as well. It is believed that being in proximity to the vortexes can result in inspiration, clarification and fresh direction for one’s life. Local shops purvey crystals with spiritual power and maps to the vortexes along with the usual t-shirts, jewelry and tacky souvenirs. Artists are drawn here as well and galleries abound. I would not be surprised to find that there were more artists, particularly sculptors, per capita here and in neighboring Jerome, than anywhere in the world.

Hiking the trails around the vortexes is great sport here, and we have done some on earlier visits. We found a new hiking place - Broken Arrow Trail - in the back of a subdivision just south of downtown Sedona. My pretty blonde stuffed her purse into the Armada’s exceptionally large locking center console storage bin and off we trundled onto the rocky, dusty trail. The Pink Jeep squad uses a nearby road around the back of Twin Buttes to show tourists the area. Well, it’s not much of a road, really. It’s more of a rock trail no one would believe a vehicle could traverse. Parallel to the Jeep trail but considerably higher on the ridges winding along the midsections of the red rock towers. About two miles each this modestly challenging trail leads to Chicken Point, a solid red rock promontory facing into the swale below Bell Rock It was just enough to tucker us out completely for the day.

More exploration by truck takes us out past Boynton Canyon, site of another powerful vortex, where the road is under construction for about 10 miles and in great need of reconstruction beyond that. We’re trying to shake the Armada apart. The road is red sand and gravel along with the ever-present rocks. On the way back we bounced about five miles up Dry Creek Road to another memorable hiking trail called Devil’s Bridge where the last time we hiked here chills ran up my spine in spite of the sweaty hot climb. Musta been the vortex. The Armada took the abuse without complaint though we heaved a sigh of relief when we got back out to the pavement.

Midweek we had our obligatory time-share sales meeting. We usually agree to the pitch because we often get insights into the area and an update on what’s new in the time-share systems we use so often. We’ve had a variety of experiences with these straight-commission sales people who can become a bit aggressive. The one we had here was probably about the second worst of all time, next only to the obnoxious tag-team that abused us in Myrtle Beach a few years ago. This guy, Tom, seemed a bit brusque from the beginning with poor eye contact and choppy delivery. When it came time to say “no thanks”, he wouldn’t let go. Again and again and again he wanted to argue with my attempts to decline the pricey offers for us to buy into the new Sunterra points system. Finally, I got so annoyed I had lean forward and get aggressive myself – very unusual for me. And, he still didn’t want to let go.

Since it gets so hot by midday we decided to do our hikes earlier in the morning as the week waned. A 3.3-mile trail circles the mesa called Table Top Mountain upon which the airport sits. Since the mesa is nearly in the center of the Oak Creek/Sedona Valley a walk around it provides views in all directions from about 500 feet up. The trail is narrow and rocky, as are most of the trails here, but there is not much elevation change. We made it around in just less than two hours, having experienced the panorama of the Sedona area tucked into the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon.

We noticed a lot of horse trailers here since folks love to ride the trails on horseback. While we had no horse trailer to tow we note that the Armada’s towing capacity is 6500 lbs, and with the optional towing package, 9000 lbs. Tongue load limit is 650 lbs. or 900 with towing package and gross combined weight is 13,000 and 14,822. Big meaty tires are Continental Contitrac in a P285/70R17 size. One can get P265/70R18s as an option. A full size spare is standard.

Our week is nearly spent as we motor southwest along Highway 89A to visit the old hillside mining town of Jerome, halfway up Mingus Mountain. We had a traditional breakfast at the oldest restaurant in Arizona, the English Kitchen in Jerome, where our outside table had an expansive view of the Verde Valley. Then I spent nearly an hour photographing an amazing collection of old trucks and equipment (some may call it a junkyard – but the owner and I would both call it a serious collection), at the Gold King Mine. Anyone who likes old trucks could easily spend a half day among these old workhorses. With a couple hours to spare before our scheduled back-country train trip we drove another great driver’s road, Highway 18A from Jerome to Prescott (pronounced like biscuit, not like boycott) a road popular for making sports car commercials, with twists and turns and swales and great vistas where we can see the road winding in and out both ahead and behind.

The Verde Canyon Railroad is our indulgence for the week. (Next time we’ll take the bi-wing airplane tour.) For about fourty-five bucks apiece we get a 4-hour, 40-mile round trip ride into one of the beautiful secluded canyons abutting the Verde Valley. We spotted bald eagles and lesser wildlife while an insightful young female voice provided a narration over the speaker system detailing the geology, the geography and the culture of these dry canyons. Though we were traveling in the first-class car with snacks included, we spent most of our time on the open-air car enjoying the scenery and the breeze.

With that last excursion our week was nearly done. We had one last hike, the longest and perhaps most inspirational, about three hours worth, along the Templeton Trail which crosses the base of Cathedral Rock. It is here that one of the most powerful vortexes in the area can be experienced by the faithful. At the base of the rock, and across Oak Creek is a spiritual spot I’ve written about before. A bend in the creek has left about an acre of lovely, small, colorful eroded rocks from which visitors have built hundreds of cairns to commemorate spiritual experiences had at that place. If the youngsters had not spoiled the word “awesome” that’s what I’d call that spot. Now we’ll just say it is an awe-inspiring scene.

Cruising back to Phoenix to turn in the Armada we’re doing our math. The Armada has a 28-gallon fuel tank and takes regular fuel. The EPA says we can expect 13 to 18 miles-per-gallon. Our first fill, at a particularly unaccommodating Arco station, was 17 gallons and the trip odo read 263.3. That makes 15.5 but it may not have been entirely full. The station limited my purchase to $50. The gauge said full but it sure dropped fast. Interpolating, I’d say we got nearly 15 mpg average under some pretty demanding conditions.

So, in conclusion, we’d recommend both the Armada for those in the market for a big sport-utility and Sedona for anyone who loves to travel to interesting locations. Both made us very happy this week.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions