First Look: 2013 Nissan Pathfinder

Almost every three-row SUV on the market has switched from old-fashioned, truck-style body-on-frame construction to more modern, car-like unibody design. The Nissan Pathfinder was one of the holdouts, but the new 2013 model finally switches to a unibody, front-wheel-drive platform. You may recall the Pathfinder launched as a body-on-frame SUV in 1985, became unibody from 1996-2004, and reverted to a body-on-frame vehicle from 2005-2012.

Of course, the Pathfinder has an established reputation as a rough-and-tumble, rear-wheel-drive off-roader, so will moving to a crossover-style platform alienate loyal fans? Nissan Pathfinder marketing director Tom Smith says no. "Consumers aren't really going off-road much, we know that. If they want to go to Moab, we've still got the Xterra," he said.

Instead, he expects Pathfinder buyers will be style-focused drivers who fit a demographic that Nissan calls "savvy, cool parent." That is, people who need a large vehicle but won't settle for a bland box on wheels. Whereas the existing five-passenger Nissan Murano is marketed toward young couples or empty nesters, Nissan hopes the Pathfinder will attract burgeoning families.

To satisfy style-conscious customers, the Pathfinder wears all-new sheetmetal with gentle curves and creases that produce a more rounded shape than the outgoing model. Chrome trim adorns the wide front grille and the tailgate, while large angled headlights take up much of the nose's real estate. The appearance is of an enlarged, taller version of Nissan's own Murano. It's a standout design, aside from the partially clear taillights that look out of place on a family SUV. The new style is leaps and bounds more modern than the boxy, squared-off 2012 model.

The roomy interior seats seven, with more leg and headroom than before in all three rows. The hard interior plastics don't give at all to the touch, but they are nicely grained and reasonably attractive. Nissan's new "EZ FLEX" second-row seats tilt and slide forward by 5.5 inches -- claimed to be a segment-leading number -- to allow for easier access to the third row. It takes just one knob and one swift motion to slide the seats forward. To make things even easier for carpooling parents, LATCH-equipped child seats can remain attached to the second-row seats even as they slide and tilt, a feature called Latch and Glide. Unlike in some competing SUVs, there is actually space for adults in the third row, although it's not generous. Both the second and third rows of seats will recline slightly, and can be folded to create an almost flat load surface.

The Pathfinder shares its new unibody platform with the 2013 Infiniti JX35, but there are significant differences between the two. The suspension and engines are tuned differently, and the Pathfinder is a few hundred pounds lighter than its luxury cousin. The 2013 Pathfinder itself is between 300 and 500 pounds lighter than the 2012 model, at 4149 with front-wheel drive and 4290 pounds with four driven wheels. Eliminating the hefty old-school frame cut some weight, and more was saved by using high-tensile steels, lightening the engine and transmission, and even designing lighter seat frames.

The only engine is Nissan's familiar VQ35, a 3.5-liter V-6 with 260 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque. Nissan didn't consider a four-cylinder engine because the Pathfinder is a big car and its customers generally want lots of passing and towing power. In an era of higher gas prices and stricter emissions regulations, it's no surprise that the old Pathfinder's V-8 engine has been culled. Both front- and all-wheel-drive models are available, each with the latest version of Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable transmission. The new CVT is lighter and more efficient than before, contributing to higher fuel economy numbers.

Nissan expects front-wheel-drive models to return 20/26 mpg (city/highway) in EPA testing, while all-wheel-drive Pathfinders should get 19/25 mpg -- the 2012 version achieved no more than 22 mpg highway. Those keeping track at home will also note that the Pathfinder is more fuel efficient than the Infiniti JX35. That's because the JX35 is heavier and less aerodynamic, because it has an older version of the Xtronic CVT, and because the engine is tuned for slightly more power. Four-wheel-drive models can tow up to 5000 pounds. That's down from 6000-7000 pounds on the 2012 model, but Nissan deems 5000 perfectly adequate for most Pathfinder customers.

The big surprise on the technology front is that the Pathfinder lacks blind-spot and lane-departure warning systems. That's a glaring omission given that those safety features have become prevalent in the crossover and SUV segment. It's also odd given that the 2013 Nissan Altima, launched earlier this year, has a unique low-cost rear camera that performs blind-spot and lane-departure functions. Nissan officials had no explanation for why the Pathfinder lacks these safety functions, but did promise that they will be added at a later date. The Pathfinder does offer Nissan's 360-degree AroundView Monitor camera system, as well as a backup camera and parking sensors. The instrument cluster gains a four-inch color screen, while an optional touch-screen navigation system sits atop the center stack. Other niceties available on upper trim levels include heated and cooled front seats, heated second-row seats, a heated steering wheel, dual rear-seat DVD players, remote start, push-button start, a 13-speaker Bose audio system, and a panoramic sunroof.

The Pathfinder currently lags far behind its three-row competitors in the sales race -- in fact, the Nissan barely puts up a quarter the annual sales numbers of entries like the Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, and Honda Pilot. Officials are quietly optimistic, however, that switching to unibody construction, offering a more attractive design, improving economy, and including more technology will change that. The unspoken goal is to match sales of the aforementioned rivals, at around 100,000 units annually. Last year Nissan sold 25,935 Pathfinders, so it will clearly be an uphill battle.

The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder will be offered in S, SV, SL, and Platinum trim levels of ascending price and equipment. Base pricing will start at around $28,000 (about $2000 cheaper than the 2012 model). Exact prices will be announced closer to the SUV's on-sale date this fall.

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