2008 Nissan Pathfinder SE

Funkmaster Flex was spinning his "'90s at 9" on the radio as I motored up the Garden State Parkway in the Nissan Pathfinder, and the music couldn't have been more appropriate. Not so much the song selections, but the era: The Pathfinder emerged from its latest redesign in 2005, but thematically, this Nissan is a throwback to previous decade and the golden age of SUVs.

An off-road warrior with plenty of ground clearance and a low-range transfer case for its four-wheel-drive system, the Pathfinder sits on a hefty frame (adapted from that of the full-size Armada) and feels high and heavy behind the wheel. Its big tires, with their tall sidewalls, smoother bumps in a manner that's reassuring to those who travel over a crumbling urban infrastructure. But the downside is a bobbing, bouncing ride and woefully imprecise steering that's no fun along narrow, winding parkways and construction-squeezed lanes.

Nissan's smooth, optional 5.6-liter V-8 has 300 hp and 380 lb-ft or torque that provides plenty of punch; unfortunately it comes at considerable cost. The Pathfinder's 12 mpg (!) EPA city rating definitely requires a '90s mindset, when gas was under $2 a gallon and few people gave a thought to the price of filling up.

It's a big climb up to get inside the Pathfinder, and the running boards are more something to step over than to step on. The cabin's rich, brown leather seats, loop-pile carpeting, and metal trim distract occupants from the early Ghosn-era hard plastic on the door panels and lower dash. The now-requisite third-row seats are adequate for elementary-school kids but there's precious little space behind them. The middle row counts as adult fare, but in both rear perches, the high floor feels constricting.

That's the price you pay for the robust chassis hardware underneath, which was once considered essential to the SUV's mission. Now we know that for most buyers, the SUV's mission really isn't to drive to Central America (as one intrepid couple did in an early series of Pathfinder ads), but to drive across suburbia. Thus, lower, lighter, and more agile-if less romantic-crossover vehicles have nudged aside traditional SUVs.

Although the Pathfinder stands at the ready, there isn't much uncharted, unpaved territory between home, work, and school.

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