Why did the two sides break up? Neglect. Decades of dirt-ready offerings put Nissan and the trekkers closer than forked branches and marshmallows. Nearly every Nissan Hardbody commercial from the 1980s promoted the pickup as a means to adventure, not merely a tough hauler. Nissan Pathfinder commercials from the 1990s almost all featured snow, rocks, rivers, or mud for a supporting cast. As the Pathfinder bloated into middle age and retired from the hard rock life, the Xterra took over. That Xterra then slid into the Pathfinder’s former commercial campaign, and the hearts of outdoor enthusiasts.
Then, sometime in the lead-up to The Great Recession, Nissan drove out of the woods and didn’t look back. Instead of sincere updates for the four-year-old Xterra and five-year-old Frontier around 2009, product planning but both on cinder blocks out back and left them to rot. In 2015, Nissan grabbed its shotgun and put the Xterra in the ground. The Frontier’s still back there. Adventure travelers, as disgusted as if Nissan had been doing donuts through delicate flora on its way to dynamiting endangered fish, abandoned the brand.
Yet it’s not like Nissan forgot how to build a capable truck – in fact, Nissan never stopped. The Frontier, ancient but indestructible, gobbles punishment as readily as the legendary Hardbody. Overseas, there’s nowhere the Patrol won’t go. More accurately, there’s nowhere the Patrol hasn’t already gone in its 67 years.
Enter the Armada Mountain Patrol, introduced at the Overland Expo West. The newest hunk of bait to lure enthusiasts back to the brand comes after a year of promotion for the Titan Project Basecamp, which was unveiled at the same show last year. Since then, Nissan has run a series of Titan Adventures for the media, trying to position the pickup as a gifted multitool for backwoods exploits. Joe Cashen, Nissan’s senior marketing manager for Titan and the NV series, said the automaker sees a growth opportunity in aiming the Titan at the “hunter, fisher, boater, camper crowd.” This year’s Armada Snow Patrol tried to hook the snow-bound set. And enticements are also in the pipeline: Nissan dealers will soon offer a three-inch lift from Icon Vehicle Design, and we got the idea there’s a factory-approved lift kit on the way for the Armada.
We got a little wheel time in the Armada Mountain Patrol on a lengthy backcountry route in the high country around Flagstaff and Jerome, Arizona. The convoy included a standard Armada Platinum Reserve, the Project Basecamp Titan, a brace of less extreme Titans, and two pure aftermarket offerings: the Recon Campers NV200 Evny overlander, and “Rulebreaker,” a yellow Titan with a black and yellow Lance camper built by Hellwig Products.
David Page runs Fluid Peak Collective, Nissan’s outside agency doing lifestyle and social media for trucks. He designed the Titan Project Basecamp – “I built my dream truck,” he says. He also is behind the Armada Snow Patrol, Armada Mountain Patrol, and the Titan Wounded Warrior. Starting with an Armada Platinum Reserve, Page added about 1,500 pounds of kit, putting the Mountain Patrol well over 7,000 pounds. The biggest challenges compared to the Titan Project Basecamp was the Armada’s lower payload capacity compared to the Titan, no eight-food pickup bed, and a lack of vertical space for a 4’x3′ bed under a low roof. That meant more discrimination concerning amenities, so whereas the Titan Project Basecamp is good for about a week of self-sufficiency, the Armada Mountain Patrol can disappear for around five days.
The Armada might be a mildly diluted Nissan Patrol, but it didn’t fear anything in our day of wheeling. By putting that Armada on a six-inch Calmini Lift and fitting 35-inch Nitto Grapplers, our trail day was the equivalent of inviting Usain Bolt to run a community college track meet. Still, the Mountain Patrol was a sound build, especially on the road. On the winding mountain tarmac running up to Jerome, Arizona the Mountain Patrol maintained steady composure, refusing to flop over in tight bends even when pushed.
Anyone with carmaker money can build a good truck, though. The more important question is whether Nissan will continue investing money and stay in the game long enough to woo the twice-shy outdoor enthusiast crowd. The few threads on overlanding forums inquiring about the Titan and Armada – compared to the number of Toyota Tacoma and Landcruiser threads, for instance – almost always include the assessment that they’re good trucks but the aftermarket isn’t there.
Nissan says it’s in the long game with both trucks. David Bercik, senior marketing manager for the Armada, said the carmaker “cares about Armada now at the highest levels,” and that it won’t be left to wither. Both Bercik and Titan marketing manager Cashen told us that Nissan will continue using builds like Project Basecamp and Armada Mountain Patrol to demonstrate possibilities, at the same time as they work on developing more aftermarket products such as the Icon lift. When we asked Kevin Raftery, Nissan’s point man for truck and SUV outdoor communications, if he thought Nissan was ready to hold on for the years it might take to restore the faith, he replied, “That’s the hope.”
There is a small and growing aftermarket scene for both trucks – a private buyer could probably recreate about 85 percent of the Armada Mountain Patrol build before dipping into custom work. What Nissan’s money and time investment really needs to do is drive the sales that will drive the aftermarket, and that in turn will get more enthusiasts in the game.
We spoke to Mike Hallmark, the marketing and sales manager for Hellwig Products, a 72-year-old company in Visalia, California specializing in load- and sway-control products. He brought the Rulebreaker camper to the Mountain Patrol event. Asked about the aftermarket support for the Titan, he said, “You’re not gonna see as many products as The Big 3, or dare I say the Jeep JK, but aftermarket is driven off demand of customers. If there were 500,000 Nissan Titans on the road, I guarantee you almost every manufacturer would have something for it.” Even so, he said, “There’s been a good amount of product that’s now available for it.” The Rulebreaker build sheet lists 16 different aftermarket companies tapped for components.
Nissan will need to maintain its intensity for a while yet, because the Titan and Armada are merely warning shots – big, heavy full-size trucks aren’t go-to options for hardcore outdoor crowd. Nissan wouldn’t discuss future product, but it was clear that the big draw for deep woods wanderers will be a new Frontier. If Nissan delivers a small truck with modern technology, maintains the price value and lengthy warranty, and showers the Frontier (or whatever it will be called) with years of attention and accessory love, that will mark genuine courtship of jilted Pathfinder and Xterra lovers. Until then, concepts like the Titan Project Basecamp and Armada Mountain Patrol are more than capable of holding the high ground.