That car hikers simply roll them off the delivery truck into the hands of waiting buyers. Forget any detour to the showroom.That, of course, must mean rival vehicles from Japan such as the Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder and Isuzu Trooper are gathering dust in some distant corner. You'd think so, based on the fact that the rising value of the yen against the dollar has boosted Japanese vehicle prices to the point that it doesn't hurt to inhale deeply from the smelling salts before focusing on the window sticker. But it's not the case. All sport-utility vehicles are doing well, and whilethere are domestic loyalists, there are import fans, too. Such is the case with the Nissan Pathfinder-or, as the local Ford ad calls it, the "Sneeze-on Pathgrinder." Sales, when last we looked, were up 50 percent from a year earlier. What makes that a bit surprising is that in the world of sport-utility vehicles, Pathfinder isn't exactly what you'd call a pathfinder. Except for a little cosmetic touchup, the Pathfinder has basically gone unchanged since it bowed in this country in 1986. We test-drove the four-door, four-wheel-drive SE version with a 3-liter V-6engine and automatic transmission. The Pathfinder has only been offered in a four-door model since 1990. That's when the U.S. government determined that two-door Pathfinders were trucks and subject to a 25 percent import duty, while four-door Pathfinders were cars, subject to only a 2.5 percent duty. One gripe we have with Pathfinder (and 4Runner) is that in a U.S. market begging for function yet fun, for multipurpose use and the ability to stay on the road or take a side trip off it, and to be able to load it up with people and down with luggage, it is annoyingly narrow. It's time the Japanese look atthe dimensions on the Explorer and Grand Cherokee, realize an expansion is in order and let out the sides a notch or two. The Pathfinder is 66.5 inches wide, the same as the 4Runner. But the Explorer is 70.2 inches wide, and the Grand Cherokee is 69.3 inches wide. Those added inches mean you feel less confined. Pathfinder's 3-liter, 153-horsepower V-6 has about as much zip as the 4-liter, 145-horsepower V-6 in the Explorer, but it isn't as powerful as the 4-liter, 190-horsepower in-line six in the Grand Cherokee or the 4.3-liter, 165-horsepower V-6 in the Blazer. The mileage rating for the V-6 and four-speed automatic in our test vehiclewas 15 m.p.g. city/18 highway. That means frequent stops for refueling. Snow Belt dwellers can take advantage of the part-time four-wheel-drive traction. The hubs lock automatically, but to engage 4WD you have to fiddle with the transfer case on the floor and don't have the luxury of a dash-mounted push button, unlike in the domestic rivals. Given the narrow interior space, the transfer case on the floor stands out like a barricade. Push-button four-wheel-drive activation is comin g because more and more people are demanding it, but you need to be patient a while longer in the Pathfinder. The vehicle is equipped with anti-lock brakes, but for the rear wheels only. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes would be preferred, but two-wheel is less costly. A quick check of the steering-wheel hub reveals no "SR" (supplemental restraint system) lettering to indicate an air bag is inside. Like push-buttonfour-wheel drive, an air bag is coming, but again you must be patient. Our test vehicle came with 31.10 15-inch monster tires, which are added forthe macho, chew-through-the-mud, toss-out-the-sand image. On dry pavement at speed, as you approach a sharp corner the appearance of those treads becomes secondary to the need for stability. Oversize tires make the vehicle feel top-heavy and a bit uncertain whenever the road isn't straight. We prefer the standard P235 15-inch tires for better handling. We also would like to see Nissan design smaller hea drests. The rests are solarge they block side and rear vision. The way to win back visibility is to remove the headrests, which makes you ask why they have to be so big that you don't use them. (At least when the rear-seat rests are removed you can fold and move the seats forward to increase cargo space.) And we'd really like Nissan to shed the tubes hanging by the rocker panels and come up with some integrated steps to make for easier entry and exit. Finally, the sunroof is one of those twist-open rather than power-open types. No gripe, but it would be nice if there were a transparent screen or a covering over the glass to reduce glare. The base price of the Pathfinder we drove is $24,770. Standard equipment includes power steering; power brakes with rear anti-lock; tilt steering; rear wiper, washer and defroster; chrome wheels; an AM/FM stereo with cassette; power windows; power door locks; air conditioning;dual power/heated outside mirrors; power antenna; cruise control; remote tailgate release; dual, illuminated visor vanity mirrors; and velour seats. The optional SE package-consisting of oversize tires, alloy wheels, outsidespare-tire carrier, limited-slip differential, fog lights, manual sunroof, driver-adjustable shocks and step rails-added $2,220. Leather seats and trim added $1,120, and a luggage rack was $175. With a $375 freight charge, the vehicle stickered at $28,660.
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