2013 Nissan Pathfinder vs. 2013 Toyota Highlander
2013 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum 4WD
The Nissan Pathfinder has been like an aging rock star struggling for relevance. One of the progenitors of the SUV craze, it fell to the wayside as the segment evolved. But now the all-new 2013 Nissan Pathfinder has found itself some new managers and is aiming for the top of the charts.
Much like the opening lines of a catchy pop song, the Pathfinder's styling is at once fresh and a little familiar. A flowing Coke-bottle shape clearly communicates that this is now a unibody, carlike crossover rather than a body-on-frame truck. Nissan designers also resisted their weirder impulses (reference the Cube, Juke, and Murano CrossCabriolet) and instead went for what one of us describes as "proportional and clean" and another thinks is "anonymously attractive."
Living the Crossover Life
The interior likewise aims for the segment's sweet spot. First- and second-row passengers have acres of space. The third row feels more hospitable than the specifications (30.7 inches of legroom) would suggest. "The optional moonroof helps brighten things back there," notes deputy editor Joe DeMatio.
Nissan is more adventurous with interior materials than most mainstream brands. Berber-weave floor mats and a nicely grained, almond-color dash warm up the cabin and further distance this crossover from its SUV forerunner. It's also worth noting that the materials are mostly the same hard plastics that we knock in competitors like the Toyota Highlander; Nissan's designers deserve credit for figuring out how to work with the cheap stuff in an impressive way. At $44,395, you pay for such details, of course.
Power with Responsibility
We thought Nissan's notoriously noisy 3.5-liter V-6 and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) would be a match made in hell. In fact, the engine and transmission get along reasonably well. The V-6's growl signifies 260 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque, and it sounds infinitely better than the buzzy four-cylinders we typically associate with CVTs. It's hard to argue with the results, since the Pathfinder's fuel-economy rating of 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway edges out the rest of the pack. "Pretty impressive for a large, four-wheel-drive crossover," notes DeMatio.
In driving environments representative of the typical crossover experience -- say on the freeway or in the parking lot at Chuck E. Cheese -- we enjoyed the Pathfinder's linear steering and comfortable ride. Even so, the 4471-pound crossover had a tough time hiding its size when pushed in corners.
Some of our more aged, tenured editors wistfully recalled what a sensation the original Nissan Pathfinder had been in the 1990s, when its snappy made-in-America design set it apart from mainstream trucks. Today's 2013 Nissan Pathfinder, like most of the pop songs on the radio in this new century, is polished and professional, if not particularly memorable. Yet, just as teens no longer line up to listen to rockabilly, most American families no longer want to drive around the suburbs in a truck. - David Zenlea
2013 Toyota Highlander Limited V6
The 2013 Toyota Highlander is in many respects the grand dame of this segment. Toyota started offering a third row in the Highlander back in 2004 to make it an alternative to minivans and bulky, full-size SUVs. The second-generation model introduced in 2008 remains a strong seller that we simply can't ignore, even though an all-new version (based on the Camry, just as here) is on the horizon. Yet the opportunity to drive the 2013 Highlander back-to-back with its newer competitors provides evidence of the way this segment has evolved.
The most notable shift is in size. The Highlander finds itself on the small end of this group, more like a mid-size crossover with bonus seats in back than a dedicated three-row vehicle. (It's still a bit bigger than other 'tweeners like the three-row Kia Sorento and Mitsubishi Outlander.) Toyota makes up some ground with smart packaging. The second-row center seat, for instance, folds neatly into the front center armrest. Still, the Highlander's third row seats were more cramped than those of any other vehicle in this group.
The 2013 Highlander also betrays its age with its austere styling. There's nothing offensive about the Highlander's sheetmetal, but neither is there anything interesting. The interior proves versatile when it comes to utility, but it's trimmed throughout with rental-car plastics, which is noticeable in a vehicle priced at $41,855. "Toyota needs to get its act together in terms of interior quality," notes road test editor Christopher Nelson. That said, some appreciated the Highlander's minimalism. "I like the slim A-pillars, the shallow dash, and the ability to sense the front of the vehicle," says deputy editor Joe DeMatio.
The Highlander's hallmark remains its hassle-free driving experience. Although all the crossovers we tested drive like cars, the 2013 Highlander convinces you it really is a car. Credit the Camry-derived underpinnings and a silky smooth, 270-hp V-6 that gets 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway. Mind you, we're not talking about a very interesting or sporty car. The 4464-pound Highlander features the same flaccid steering and soupy handling that knocked the Camry out of contention in our recent comparison test of mid-size cars. There are, no doubt, plenty of buyers who desire an effortless, isolated driving experience, but they don't read Automobile Magazine.
Some Respect, Please
Even if we don't love the 2013 Toyota Highlander, we left this test with a healthy respect for it. "As old as this crossover is, it's still quite good," concludes DeMatio. Yet among this group of new and recently updated models, that's not quite good enough. An all-new, significantly larger Toyota Highlander debuts later this year. If it can build on the strengths of the outgoing car, Toyota should again have a formidable contender. For now it will have to settle for an honorable first-round exit. - David Zenlea
Winner: 2013 Nissan Pathfinder