Rugged and Powerful

By Derek Price

Nissan’s updates to the roomy, brawny Armada for 2021 make it a more bifurcated SUV than ever before.
On the one hand, the changes are all designed to make it look and perform more like a pickup. A new, upright, squared-off appearance up front is blatantly truck-like, and bumping up the V8’s power lets it tow a stout 8,500 pounds.
That’s not only the best towing figure in its class — classic pickup-truck bragging rights — but also available in every trim, with both four-wheel and rear-wheel drive.
At the same time, it still delivers one of the silkiest, smoothest, most luxury-car-like rides of any full-size SUV for sale today. The buttery ride is especially impressive for a vehicle that doesn’t come from a luxury brand.
In terms of performance and content, the freshly updated Armada competes nicely with the full-size General Motors and Ford products that dominate this segment.
A standard 12.3-inch touchscreen is the biggest in its class, Nissan claims, and it can be customized and split to access different functions at the same time.

The Nissan Armada gets updated styling for 2021 that makes it look more squared off and truck-like than before.

A 7-inch display in front of the driver takes the place of traditional gauges. It can also be customized and controlled using buttons on the steering wheel.
Overall, the cabin looks more contemporary now with a cleaner layout and improved connectivity.
Its strongest selling point, though, is the silky ride and capable powertrain.
The 5.6-liter Endurance V8 makes 400 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque, the best in its class, according to Nissan. That’s up from 390 and 394 last year.
It has a couple of unsurprising downsides, though. The engine requires premium fuel to make that much power, and it burns a lot of it. The rear-wheel-drive Armada is rated for 14 mpg in city driving and 19 on the highway. Opting for four-wheel drive drops those numbers by 1 mpg.

A 12.3-inch touchscreen comes standard in the revised Armada this year. The cabin looks more contemporary overall after the long list of updates.

If you can look past the fuel economy, the powertrain is flawless. It delivers smooth, instant power with a pleasant growl through the tailpipe. The seven-speed automatic shifts confidently in every situation.
Taken as a whole — including things like comfy front bucket seats, a spacious cabin in the first two rows and a 26-gallon fuel tank for long distances between fill-ups — the Armada is a fantastic highway cruiser. The supple, near-silent ride on the freeway is icing on the family-friendly cake.
Pricing starts at $48,900 for the S grade and tops out with the Platinum at $65,300. You can add 4×4 traction to any Armada trim for an extra $3,000.
A special Midnight Edition also launches this year with 20-inch wheels and a thoroughly blacked-out look both inside and out. It is a $1,990 upgrade and only available on the SL trim level.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2021 Nissan Armada Platinum 4WD Auto ($68,000). Options: Carpeted floor mats ($320), illuminated kick plates ($390), welcome lighting ($395), captains chairs package ($650). Price as tested (including $1,495 destination charge): $71,250
Wheelbase: 121.1 in.
Length: 208.9 in.
Width: 79.9 in.
Height: 75.8 in.
Engine: 5.6-liter Endurance V8 (400 hp, 413 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 13 city, 18 highway

Style: 8
Performance: 9
Price: 7
Handling: 6
Ride: 9
Comfort: 8
Quality: 8
Overall: 8

Why buy it?
A thorough update for 2021 keeps the spacious, powerful Armada competitive. Its smooth ride and 400-horsepower engine stand out among full-size SUVs.

Posted in Nissan

Scaling New Heights

By Derek Price

Jeep is reaching into loftier territory — both in terms of luxury and sheer size — with an all-new vehicle: Wagoneer.
It’s actually an old nameplate that Jeep put into storage for decades, then polished up to create a premium sub-brand for its truck-based vehicles in 2022. The goal is to create a more upscale experience for luxury buyers, both in the vehicles themselves and in the service owners get at the dealership.
While I can’t vouch for the customer service — Wagoneers are just now arriving at dealers, if you’re lucky enough to find one — I can describe what it’s like to drive after spending a week behind the wheel.
Three words sum it up: roomy, supple and silent.
The Wagoneer is noticeably bigger and portlier than the three-row Grand Cherokee L that I tested a couple of weeks ago. It’s about six inches wider and 10 inches longer, which makes the cabin feel downright cavernous in comparison.
It also feels more substantial from the driver’s seat. The true, truck-based frame gives it more heft than the lighter, car-based, unibody Grand Cherokee, which makes the Wagoneer feel portlier over the road but also helps it tow up to 10,000 pounds.
A 5.7-liter HEMI V8 makes 392 horsepower and 404 pound-feet of torque, enough to do a good job pulling all that weight.
The downside is the same demon that haunts all truck-based SUVs: fuel economy. My tester was rated for 15 mpg in city driving and 20 on the highway.

A seven-slot grille gives the Wagoneer a classic Jeep look in front.

Wagoneer’s mission isn’t efficiency, though, but comfort, and it’s absolutely spectacular at that job.
This is one of the smoothest, silkiest luxury SUVs in the world, matching and even surpassing established contenders like the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator.
Part of my tester’s smoothness came from its optional air suspension, which not only raises and lowers the vehicle for loading cargo or driving off road, but also smooths out bumps on the pavement for a cotton-candy experience on highways.

The Wagoneer’s spacious cabin gives off a premium vibe, even if you don’t pony up an extra $30,000 for an over-the-top Grand Wagoneer.

I also wonder how much its 18-inch wheels helped with the ride. You can get it with up to 22-inch wheels, which are popular and trendy, but it’s my experience that those giant rapper wheels completely wreck the ride on luxury SUVs. The 18s on my tester felt supple and still looked sharp — even more so on a vehicle ostensibly built for off-road driving.
The interior of the Wagoneer is nice, even luxurious, by normal-car standards. Fit and finish are better than the last Navigator and Escalade I drove, although the materials and design aren’t quite as flashy.
If you want something flashy, you have to step up to the Grand Wagoneer, which might be the most opulent cabin ever installed in a domestic-brand vehicle. It seems to be covered entirely in a mixture of digital screens, real wood and soft-touch leather.
The Grand Wagoneer also comes with a bigger, 6.4-liter engine and price tag to match, starting about $30,000 more than the Wagoneer’s $57,995 base price.
Realistically, the Wagoneer is an alternative to the Chevy Tahoe or Ford Expedition, while the Grand Wagoneer competes with their luxury-brand cousins from Lincoln and Cadillac, along with a host of European and Japanese products.
It’s also priced accordingly. A Wagoneer with four-wheel drive starts at $70,995, while the fancier Grand Wagoneer starts at $88,190 and tops out uncomfortably close to $110,000.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2022 Jeep Wagoneer Series II ($70,995). Options: Advanced all-terrain group ($2,295), convenience group ($3,295), heavy-duty trailer tow package ($795). Price as tested (including $2,000 destination charge): $79,380
Wheelbase: 123 in.
Length: 214.7 in.
Width: 94 in.
Height: 75.6 in.
Engine: 5.7-liter HEMI V8 With E-Torque Hybrid Assist (392 hp, 404 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 15 city, 20 highway

Style: 8
Performance: 9
Price: 6
Handling: 5
Ride: 9
Comfort: 9
Quality: 8
Overall: 9

Why buy it?
It’s a premium SUV with the look and rugged reputation of a Jeep. A silky-smooth ride and quiet, well-executed cabin make it stand out.

Posted in Jeep

Driving Bliss

By Derek Price

When I first turned the key on the John Cooper Works MINI, I braced myself for disappointment.
It had been just a few weeks since I evaluated its cousin, the wild and unimaginably powerful MINI GP, one of the fastest and most thrilling small cars I’ve ever been fortunate enough to drive.
I was prepared for a letdown after I looked at the numbers. The John Cooper Works costs $12,000 less than the GP. It makes 228 horsepower, which is impressive in a lightweight car but not nearly as mind-blowing as the GP’s 301-horse engine.
In reality, after a week driving it, I ended up liking the John Cooper Works version even better than the GP for one reason: you can get it with a manual transmission. The GP deprives you of shift-it-yourself bliss, the only glaring downside in an otherwise spectacular car.
With the six-speed manual, the JCW feels more like a sports car than a hatchback. It sacrilegiously sends power to the front wheels, sure, as MINIs always do, but the experience of speed, connection and oneness with the road make me smile just as big in corners as I do when driving a Mazda Miata.

MINI gives the John Cooper Works Hardtop a fresh look and new equipment for 2022. Available with a manual transmission, it offers sports-car sensations with a practical hatchback layout and timeless styling.

I usually enjoy putting a car into “sport” mode, but I didn’t find it necessary — or even desirable — in this one. The normal driving mode is so perfectly balanced, so harmoniously tuned, that the more aggressive noises and throttle response when you press the “sport” switch feel like overkill, more for showing off than for actually enjoying.
It’s even reasonably practical. The back seat is usable. The hatchback makes it easy to load groceries or cargo. The front doors swing wide for comfortable ingress and egress, despite its diminutive dimensions.
Of course, no one buys a MINI — especially this particular souped-up version of the MINI — purely for practicality. It’s first and foremost a fun car to drive, and it looks the part after a slew of styling updates for 2022.

The MINI’s front seat feels surprisingly roomy. An optional suspension with adaptive damping helps with both smoothness and sporty response, but it’s pricey as part of a $7,000 trim package.

An eye-catching red stripe garnishes its bigger, wider hexagonal grille. Gaping air intake openings at the bottom front corners help the engine and brakes breathe freely, while a rear diffuser routes air cleanly under the car at high speeds.
In fact, one of the most striking things about driving the new John Cooper Works is just how stable it feels at speed. With a whopping 228 horses in a tiny car, it’s easy to reach faster-than-intended speeds at the end of highway on ramps, yet it never exhibits the twitchiness that small cars often suffer from in those situations. It’s planted like a rock and seems only to hunker down more firmly as it gets faster.
Active cruise control is an option, including the ability to stop and go with city traffic, but I didn’t press the cruise button once during my week of driving. With a car this satisfying to drive, why would I want to relinquish control?
A much more useful option in a car like this is the adaptive suspension, which varies the damping to smooth out uneven road surfaces. It makes the car feel surprisingly silky on straight roads yet impressively sporty when cornering, a best-of-both-worlds suspension. It’s pricey, though, as part of the $7,000 Iconic trim package on my tester.
Pricing starts at $32,900 for the JCW Hardtop or $38,900 for the Convertible. The Iconic Convertible tops the lineup at $44,900.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2022 MINI John Cooper Works Hardtop 2Dr ($32,900). Options: Iconic trim ($7,000). Price as tested (including $850 destination charge): $40,750
Wheelbase: 98.2 in.
Length: 152.8 in.
Width: 68 in.
Height: 55.7 in.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder (228 hp, 236 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy: 22 city, 31 highway

Style: 10
Performance: 9
Price: 9
Handling: 10
Ride: 7
Comfort: 4
Quality: 8
Overall: 9

Why buy it?
It’s as rewarding to drive as a sports car but comes with the practicality of a hatchback.

Posted in Cooper