First Drive: 2013 Nissan Pathfinder

To know one's self, observed Benjamin Franklin, is sufficiently hard as steel and diamonds. It seems that buyers of the Nissan Pathfinder found self-awareness especially challenging. They fancied themselves as rugged outdoorspeople, towing 7000-lb boats, and crawling across the boulder-lined trails of Moab.

In reality, all their Pathfinders did was shuttle kids from home to school and back. And in the SUV-frenzied days of cheap gas and disregard for our planet's resources (and for our own money), Nissan humored these customers, twice switching the Pathfinder between body-on-frame and unibody construction to best serve their imaginary needs.

For the fourth-generation Pathfinder, Nissan is finally serving its own needs -- the need to sell 100,000 units a year, just like the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, and Ford Explorer all do. Those crossovers each sell more than three times as much as Nissan's current Pathfinder. Clearly, while some customers may want to pretend they're out on the Rubicon, in these more pragmatic economic times, they're increasingly unwilling to put up with the drawbacks of a body-on-frame SUV: heavy weight, inefficient space utilization, lack of ride refinement, and of course, miserable fuel economy.

To that end, the 2013 Pathfinder becomes a real player in the three-row, soccer-mom, crossover segment. It switches back to a unibody, this time with a transverse-mounted V-6, front-wheel drive, and a continuously variable transmission. Of course all-wheel drive is available, but there is neither a V-8 nor locking low-range diffs. No need to pretend.

The Pathfinder shares its basic platform with the Infiniti JX, which means the V-6 is a 3.5-liter VQ-series, mated to a new chain-driven CVT that Nissan says is strong enough to cope with 5000 pounds of towing duty. Given how easily our front-wheel drive tester would squeal its tires off the line, we'd recommend all-wheel drive for towing -- not that we expect to see too many Pathfinders with a boat hitched to the back.

The all-wheel drive system is fully switchable, meaning drivers can select between front-wheel drive, automatic four-wheel drive (which sends power rearward in response to front wheel slip), or 4x4 lock, which keeps a constant 50/50 split. We'd much rather see a computer-controlled system that requires no intervention from the driver and can engage the rear wheels before slip occurs.

That system would be more appropriate for a mommy-mobile, a role that the Pathfinder performs quite well. The CVT's programming keeps the coarse VQ in its sub-3000-rpm quiet zone at all kid-friendly levels of acceleration. At full thrust, the transmission makes the best of all 260 hp, pegging the tachometer needle satisfyingly into the red zone. With a curb weight as low as 4150 pounds, the Pathfinder is quick once it's up to speed, though sudden requests for power at highway speeds are met with an unacceptably long pause before speed starts gathering.

Nissan claims best-in-class fuel economy (20/26 for front-wheel-drive versions, 19/25 for all-wheel drive), a 30 percent improvement over the previous Pathfinder. That's despite the fact that the new vehicle is 4.6 inches longer, 4.3 inches wider, and offers an additional 8.4 cubic feet of interior space. In place of the off-road credentials is a focus on family usability. The second-row seats are mounted uncommonly high, but still offer vast headroom -- and they slide well out of the way for easy ingress to the rear. And the third-row is surprisingly roomy and comfortable.

The driver's seat is likely the best seat in the Pathfinder, since those who sit in it command an exquisitely communicative electro-hydraulic steering system (which boasts a big Renault logo on its fluid reservoir). Front-wheel-drive Pathfinders suffer from considerable torque steer, however, so you'll have to hang on tight. Between the highly legible, clear gauges is the forward-leaning LCD display we first saw in the 2013 Altima, which here, too, lacks an "off" mode or a blank screen option.

The Pathfinder also suffers from slightly too-small rear-view mirrors that we couldn't seem to adjust to eliminate a car-sized blind spot. No blind-spot monitoring system is available, nor are HID headlights or any of Nissan's other active safety aids -- but the dual-zone climate control system is quiet and effective, even in 110-degree heat. And speaking of 110, the cabin is devoid of excess wind noise even at 110 mph.

Not that Pathfinder drivers typically drive at such speeds. But perhaps knowing that they can do so -- in comfort -- will be enough to sway those final few that mommies insistent upon Moab off-road credentials. If they had just admitted years ago that all they wanted was a butch-looking minivan with four-wheel drive to get them home in the snow, perhaps we'd have had a great Pathfinder like this all along.

ErikAdamec
I recall when the the Pathfinder was first introduced in the late 80's--instant success! Simultaneously simple and state of the art, it looked athletically rugged, with a tall stance offering generous ground clearance, and trail-rated looking tires mounted on industrial-looking rims set seemingly an inch or so outside of the wheel wells. With a presence that announced itself as more of a household tool designed around the task of leaving the pavement, it performed well at doing what it looked like it could do. This new Pathfinder, on the other hand, looks wimpy and uninspiring. Low to the ground, dumpy appearance, and wheels tucked way into the wells, it looks like a common station wagon. What happened to the Pathfinder that lived up to it's name?

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