Versus the competiton:
One of the quickest “fixes” a manufacturer can make to a platform that has fallen out of favor is to soup it up. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s too little, too late. In the case of the Nissan Pathfinder, it’s certainly not too little, but it may be too late.
The biggest rap against the compact sport-ute was that it was underpowered. One acidulous critic compared its performance to that of a garbage truck – how nasty, but how true. With 168 horses and two tons for them to move, it WAS a slug, unacceptable, given the $33.9K price tag on the one tested last year. Nissan heard my complaint and those of a multitude of consumers and went rummaging in its parts warehouse. The answer was at hand in the form of the splendid 3.5-liter six-cylinder engine used of late in the recently-reworked Maxima sedan.
Let the bargain-basement new offering, the Xterra, use the old, trucky 3.3-liter – that’ll get buyers to save their pennies for something better. The big-bucks Pathfinder deserves this little bit of underhood commonality with its zoomy cousin, although I’m a little surprised Nissan didn’t keep the older energy factory on the base XE version.
A truck and a sporty sedan have somewhat different usage patterns and thus, engine demands, but in this case that nicety is obscured by the vast improvement in poke and some clever retuning. The Max engine makes 250 hp when coupled with the four-speed automatic, 240 when mated with the five-speed manual. That’s better than a 40 percent increment. Torque – of more interest in the day-to-day, even if the vehicle stays on paved roads – gets an appreciable boost, too – to 240 foot-pounds with manual trans and a bountiful 265 with the automatic.
Bottom line is the machine goes from a lumbering 12-seconds-plus to a very competitive low-8-second range with the five-speed 4×4 version I tested, perhaps a second worse with the automatic. (It might be even swifter with the two-wheel-drive setup, which is not a very rational choice for a sport-ute.)
It’s an aluminum engine, top and bottom, and weighs 35 pounds less than the smaller-displacement unit it supersedes. It has four valves per cylinder, with variable valve timing and intake paths. The one downer is that in bumping the compression ratio up to 10:1, Nissan created a desire for premium (91 octane) fuel. And this machine, with its mass and aerodynamics, does have a bit of a thirst. EPA ratings are 16 mpg city, 18 highway, same as last year. I logged 16.2, driving mostly on country roads with a bit of four-wheelin’ in construction areas thrown in, with near-constant use of air conditioning.
Given its derivation, it’s not surprising the engine is somewhat rev-happy. It’s languid below 3,000 rpm, but when the shorter air path opens up and the valve timing switches over to performance mode, it really comes alive, with a well-machined clatter from under the hood and a pleasantly growly exhaust note, almost as v iscerally appealing as a typical V-8’s.
The manual transmission, a rarity in up-market SUVs, shifted reasonably well and the clutch was not daunting, a good thing, since some finesse is required for off-road or heavy-weather excursions. Fifth is an 80 percent reduction or overdrive ratio, yielding about 26 miles per hour per 1,000 engine turns for relaxed freeway cruising.
The Pathfinder is reasonably quiet at the highest legal speeds, with airflow managed well and only a modest amount of tire noise intruding, as is to be expected with mud-and-snow-rated skins. The XE, mid-level SE and luxurious LE all run on 16-inch alloys, the upper levels getting slightly wider tires (255 – 65) on individualistic wheels.
With its unibody construction, the Pathfinder evinces good chassis rigidity, and build quality on this sample was far better than on the last one I tried. There were no thumps or rattles or groans, even when we were bulling our way over challenging ter
With MacPherson struts up front and a solid axle plus coil springs in the rear, the Pathfinder still isn’t going to win any deportment awards for its off-road demeanor, for it is after all, more of a foul-weather friend than a jungle stomper. On paved and maintained roads, it rides well and isolates passengers from the occasional surface problem.
Only the top-level LE can be had with a full-time all-wheel-drive system which can transfer as much as 50 percent of the available torque forward under the direction of a gaggle of sensors. The lesser models have a part-time 4WD system brought into play via a floor-mounted lever at speeds up to 50 mph. Actuation was nearly instantaneous and practically imperceptible. A low-range transfer case setting is also available, engaged while stopped and in neutral, for enhanced engine braking or tough going.
All series have the same largish disc brakes in front, drums rear, with four-wheel antilock standard. Stopping distances were comfortably short, and pedal feel was good, with nice progressivity and easy modulation. The antilock was an unobtrusive friend when I woke it up on wet pavement.
The front cabin was decently roomy, with just barely enough headroom, while the back would be cramped for normal-sized adults. Passenger volume is just 92.9 cubic feet, like a compact car. With the 60 – 40 second seats up, there’s a generous 38 cubic feet of gear space available, which can balloon to 85 c.f. if the seats are folded. Nissan rates the machine at 3,500 pounds’ towing capacity with manual transmission, 5,000 with automatic.
Standard this year are a rear-window deflector, halogen fog lights, steering-wheel audio controls and a fine six-speaker Bose audio system, with a six-disc in-dash CD changer. Clarity and tonality of this rig were excellent, although FM reception was only mediocre, despite the presence of both in-glass and mast antennas.
Fit and finish were very good overall. The Pathfinder did very well in government crash tests, garnering four stars (out of five) for driver protection, and five for the co-pilot in frontal impacts, five stars for both in side crashes. It gets appreciably better than average ratings from those who respond to Consumers Union reliability surveys.
Base price on the five-speed SE is $29,349. That is a well-equipped machine, with the usual array of power assists, air conditioning, limited-slip differential, antilock, cruise control, privacy glass, tow hooks, cargo tie-downs, remote keyless entry, security system, cargo cover, tilt wheel, 12-volt power taps, rear defroster and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. The only addition to the tester was the sunroof package (power sunroof, dual lighted vanity mirrors, HomeLink transmitter, compass and outside temperature gauge) for $1,099. Total, with freight, was $30,968. The new-found power makes it a lot more competitive in this league.
“The Gannett News Service”