Winding paths and trails suddenly have been straightened out a bit with Nissan's new 1996 Pathfinder sport/utility vehicle.

Figuring that there's nothing wrong with making a good thing bigger and better, designers have given the Pathfinder a bored-out V-6 engine, a longer wheelbase and an extra 2.2 inches in width.

Add a redesigned interior that was created at Nissan Design International in La Jolla (pronounced la-hoy-ya), Calif., and you have a four-door, five- passenger vehicle that is almost as much a car as a sport/utility.

Offered in XE, SE and upscale LE form, the price of four-wheel drive models starts in the mid-$25,000 range for the base and ends a touch more than $32,000 for the LE.

Even though the four-wheel drive option increases the price by $2,000, it is the preferred sales package.

"We mainly sell four-wheel drive," said Tim Torrance, sales manager for Collins Nissan. "I'd say it's due to the climate. The extra $2,000 doesn't seem to have too much of an effect."

The new Pathfinder's wheelbase is 2.0 inches longer (106.3 inches) than that of its predecessor, and its body has been stretched 6.7 inches -- to 178.3 inches overall length.

The vehicle has been designed to offer more passenger comfort and convenience, plus added cargo space. The convenience factor has been handled by moving back the rear wheels 2 inches. This has greatly enhanced access to the rear seats.

By going up in size, it gave exterior stylists a bit more freedom to execute a more aerodynamic look, while blending in familiar Pathfinder styling.

The A-pillar design has been shaped to eliminate wind noise and control rain flow. Integrated gutters help keep rain off the side windows, and a special triple door seal like that used on the new Maxima provides better noise insulation.

If you build a sports/utility that feels like a car, then obviously you have to impart car-like features to the vehicle's controls and accessories.

The driver's cockpit layout is straight out of Nissan's automobile offerings. While the folks in La Jolla gave the instrument and console panels individualistic Nissan styling, it still is state-of-the-art, featuring bucket seats divided by a center console that holds the gearshift levers.

Special attention has been given to the front bucket seats, which are similar to those used in the Nissan Maxima. They contain fatigue-reducing foam construction that provides added comfort on longer drives.

A 60/40 split rear seat, which also is a state-of-the-art concept, folds flat for added cargo flexibility.

The instrumentation consists of a speedometer, tachometer, temperature and fuel gauges, plus an odometer. Considering that a five-speed manual transmission is offered (as well as a four-speed automatic), I sure wouldn't mind an oil pressure gauge.

The new Pathfinder ought to be as strong as a bridge. The base of the vehicle is an all-new MonoFrame uni-body which has 2.3 times the bending stiffness and almost three times the torsional rigidity as the previous design.

This stiff, integrated body platform provides the best foundation for the new strut-type front suspension, which replaces the previous wishbone design. Shocks and springs have been placed further outboard to give the sport/utility sedan-like stability.

Nissan had on hand a 3.0-liter, single overhead cam V-6 engine, and it probably would have been cheaper and easier just to bore a bigger hole in the cylinders to go out to 3.3 liters. Rather than compromise the cylinder wall thickness, a new wider block was cast to accommodate a bigger bore and new pistons.

With the addition of a new camshaft profile, power now reads 168-horsepower and 196 foot-pounds of torque. That doesn't make a drag machine out of the vehicle, but it still accounts for a 110 mph top speed and a 0-60 mph time of 11.2 seconds in four- wheel drive. You can knock off morethan a second for 0-60 mph in two-wheel drive.