Nissan admits that it's among the last automakers to offer a crossover with three rows of seats, something Honda and Toyota have peddled since the early 2000s. Through September, three-row midsize and large crossovers have edged north of 660,000 sales. Every major automaker except Volkswagen now offers one, and that may soon change (see the post).
Nissan's solution: Re-imagine the aging Pathfinder — historically a truck-based SUV, most recently with combined EPA city/highway mileage ratings as low as 14 mpg — into something that competes squarely with the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.
The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder boasts handsome styling and a decent, if imperfect, compromise between drivability and fuel efficiency.
Certain trim levels have subpar tech features, but the Pathfinder has a few strengths that should get the attention of family shoppers. Trim levels include the S, SV, SL and Platinum; each can have front- or all-wheel drive. Compare them here, or stack up the 2012 and 2013 Pathfinder here. I drove SL and Platinum versions.
Where Honda doubled down on blocky SUV styling with its second-generation Pilot, the Pathfinder looks more like a tall wagon, with overall height — 69.6 inches — on the shorter end of the competitive set. But the face borrows more from Nissan's truck-based Xterra and Armada than from its car-based Rogue and Murano. It's more of a statement than the bulbous tail, whose blocky window spoiler and generic taillights don't make much of an impression.
Eighteen-inch alloy wheels are standard, with 20-inchers installed on the Platinum. Fog lights are optional on the S and SV and standard on higher trims.
Going & Stopping
Nissan swapped the old Pathfinder's truck-suited drivetrains — a 4.0-liter V-6 or 5.6-liter V-8, each with a five-speed automatic — for its familiar 3.5-liter V-6 and continuously variable automatic transmission. The duo provided enough oomph for rapid elevation changes, but the so-called "next-gen" CVT's penchant to hunker back into lower revs makes for some lag when you dig into the gas while passing. Still, once the V-6 kicks up to higher revs the Pathfinder moves out, though not as stoutly as a V-6 Toyota Highlander or Chevrolet Traverse. Fans of the old V-8 Pathfinder will find little comparison when it comes to passing power or towing capacity, the latter of which drops from 7,000 pounds to a more crossover-competitive 5,000 pounds. Nissan says buyers cared much more about gas mileage than towing.
To that end, Nissan removed hundreds of pounds from the Pathfinder in its redesign — between 279 and 508 pounds, depending on V-6 trim. That's atypical in a segment where weight gains are the norm even when SUVs move to more modern platforms (see the Dodge Durango or Ford Explorer). The Pathfinder boasts an excellent EPA-estimated gas mileage rating of 20/26 mpg city/highway (22 mpg combined) with front-wheel drive, and all-wheel-drive versions are rated 19/25 mpg (21 mpg combined). Both figures edge out the major competition by 1 to 2 mpg, though one Explorer variant — front-drive with a turbocharged, four-cylinder EcoBoost engine (20/28 mpg) — has Nissan beat.
Ride & Handling
Unfortunately, that efficiency doesn't come for free. Nissan says low-rolling-resistance all-season tires helped save a few tenths of a mile per gallon, but I found they surrendered grip too easily in tight corners. The same held true with two tire sizes on two trim levels: Bridgestone Dueler Sport P235/55R20s on a top-of-the-line Platinum and Continental Cross Contact LX P235/65R18s on the Pathfinder SL.
The sidewalls protested even during modest high-speed curves. A Pilot and Highlander I drove the same day had better grip.
Handling and ride composure in normal driving otherwise impressed, with good steering feedback on winding roads and a settled wheel at highway speeds.
The Pathfinder's cabin shows clear design similarities to its platform sibling, the Infiniti JX35, though the Nissan is expectedly less rich, with harder textures up front and less padding where backseat passengers rest their arms. It is, however, competitive with its non-luxury ilk, if not as roomy as some of them.
The second-row seats sit low to the floor, and adults in the second and third rows will have to work out a compromise for acceptable legroom. With 5.5 inches of second-row seat travel, either row can enjoy room aplenty if the other one gets very little, so negotiate wisely. Third-row headroom, by contrast, is good. The third-row seatbacks recline — a rare bonus — but the Explorer and Durango have the comfiest third rows.
Nissan's Latch and Glide system allows third-row access if you've installed a child-safety seat in the second row. The passenger-side seat (sans child) tips forward while keeping the child-safety seat installed, but the walk-in path is more of a squeeze-by setup. Without the child seat, both sides collapse forward — similar to the chairs in GM's three-row crossovers — for a wider entrance.
Luxury options include heated and cooled front seats, two moonroofs that cover all three rows and a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, but there are a few utility shortfalls.
Fold the seats down and numerous gaps in the floor threaten to catch your cargo. Maximum luggage volume — just 79.8 cubic feet — roughly matches the Explorer but trails the Pilot (87.0 cubic feet), Highlander (95.4 cubic feet) and Traverse (a mammoth 116.3 cubic feet).
Safety, Features & Pricing
The Pathfinder has yet to be crash-tested. Standard features include all-disc antilock brakes, an electronic stability system and six airbags, with curtain airbags for all three rows. Click here for a full list of safety features.
The front-drive Pathfinder starts around $29,000, including an $825 destination charge. All-wheel drive adds $1,600 to any trim. Standard features include 18-inch alloy wheels, tri-zone automatic climate control and a CD stereo with steering-wheel audio controls and an auxiliary jack but not Bluetooth. USB/iPod integration and Bluetooth phone operation come on the SV and SL, but only the Platinum has Bluetooth audio streaming — downright stingy, given the popularity of music on smartphones these days.
Move up the trims and you can get dual moonroofs, a power liftgate, power front seats with heating and cooling, heated rear seats, leather upholstery and a heated steering wheel. A loaded Pathfinder Platinum will set you back around $44,000.
Pathfinder in the Market
The Pathfinder's handsome cabin styling and driving refinement — tires notwithstanding — should help family buyers overlook its modest cargo room. Can Nissan find the sales success of a Pilot or Explorer? Established automakers and small players alike have struck out (see: Hyundai Veracruz and Subaru Tribeca) in the attempt, but I suspect the Pathfinder won't go their way. With six SUVs and a minivan in its lineup, Nissan has strong people-hauling credentials. It's missed a big chunk of the market for years, but at long last, the new Pathfinder fills the gap.
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