There is an imported sport-utility vehicle that could give the Big Three's best-selling sport-utility vehicles - Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevy Blazer - a serious run for the money. It's the all-new Nissan Pathfinder, a refined,
luxurious and capable off-road vehicle. Nearly all of the old model's shortcomings have been addressed: The new Pathfinder is safer, better-looking and more user-friendly than last year's version. It has to be. The new Pathfinder soon will be
pressed into service at Nissan's Infiniti luxury division as the QX4. After driving the Pathfinder for a week, it seems to me that the sport- utility was designed from the start to be an Infiniti but that the Nissan version arrived first. This is one
of the most refined sport-utilities I have tested recently. I wonder how the QX4 will differ. Except for wood trim on the dash, there is very little that needs updating or upgrading. PERFORMANCE, HANDLING The Pathfinder is outfitted with a
powerful 3.3-liter V-6 engine that develops 168 horsepower. The engine has been enlarged 10 percent since last year's model. Performance at all speeds is excellent. The engine runs so quietly at idle that you have to strain your senses (or glance down
at the tachometer) to check if it's on. The engine pulls hard from a stop all the way to the 5,900 rpm limit. There is more than enough power to pass slower traffic on the highway. Our test Pathfinder came with a four-speed automatic transmission.
A five-speed manual is optional. However, if you drive a sport-utility vehicle on the road, as most people do, you'll probably want to stick with the automatic. I didn't test the four-wheel-drive system extensively, but four-wheel drive is great if
you live in areas where the roads are poorly paved or if you frequently drive in snow. When you drive off-road, speed is not as important as traction. So I shifted into four-wheel drive and testedthe Pathfinder at slow speeds in an area with thick
sand and on a bumpy, winding dirt road in Longwood. The Pathfinder feels tough but civilized in four-wheel drive. The drivetrain makes a bit more noise, but performance doesn't suffer much with the system engaged. The system is shift-on-the-fly, which
means you can shift without stopping. I like the Pathfinder's refined drive train, but the suspension system is where Nissan engineers did their best work. The vehicle is one of the few sport-utilities that feels just as good on bad terrain as it does
on the road. The '96 Pathfinder has a new strut-type suspension system that replaces last year's wishbone suspension, while rear suspension consists of a solid axle and springs. It's an excellent setup. The hard edges are shaved off most bumps.
The suspension system doesn't feel as if it travels much, so the vehicle is easy to control. Unlike many other sport-utilities, the Pathfinder doesn't lean much in corne
rs. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering also gets high marks. The wheel requires just the right amount of pressure to turn, and response is quick and precise. The four-wheel anti-lock brakes - front disc/rear drum - provide plenty of stopping
power. There is one minor flaw in the Pathfinder's performance. Whenever I accelerated around a corner at low speeds, such as at a stoplight, the right rear tire squealed as if it were losing traction. I'm not sure if our test vehicle had a defective
rear tire or if that is normal for the model. Size is just right. I liked the Pathfinder from the moment I started the engine. Once in the driver's seat, I knew that Nissan got the dimensions just right. Nissan made the Pathfinder 6.7 inches
longer and 2.2 inches wider for 1996. As a result, the Pathfinder is not too wide, too long or too high off the ground. The vehicle's design and layout automatically make you feel comfortable. Even though our test vehicl
came with two tubular steel step rails below the doors, you don't need them to climb in. The interior is a bit higher than your average car, but you don't really have to climb up and in. The Pathfinder has a stylish dash, cleanly designed instruments
and a pair of sporty bucket seats. The air-conditioning system in our test vehicle was superb. Its three rotary controls were easy to reach and use. Our SE came with an automatic setting for the air conditioner: You just pick the temperature and the
system adjusts the fan speed. The '96 Pathfinder also has two air bags; last year's model had none. Our test vehicle came with the tire stored underneath the body, out of the way of the tailgate and out of the interior. Last year's model had the
spare tire bolted to the tailgate, where it blocked vision and was easy to steal. Still, there is more room for improvement in the rear. I found it somewhat bothersome configuring the Pathfinder for loading cargo. First you have to take off the
rear-seat head rests, then flip the lower portions of the rear seats forward and fold down the top half of the rear seats. Although this is not a strenuous task, it requires moving from one side of the vehicle to the other, and it takes a few minutes.
In a Ford Explorer, you can fold the rear seats forward in seconds. The Pathfinder is not as user-friendly. But once the seats are down, there is a long cargo area. Using the vehicle, I helped a friend move. We stuffed a desk, a table and several
other items into the rear with no problem. Our test vehicle performed flawlessly and was a tremendously enjoyable vehicle to drive. It's one of the best all-round vehicles of the 1996 model year. Specifications: 1996 Nissan Pathfinder SE
LENGTH Overall 178.3 FRONT COMPARTMENT Headroom 39.5 Leg room 41.7 REAR COMPARTMENT Head room 37.5 Leg room 31.8 WARRANTY Three-year, 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper; five-year
60,000-mile rust protection; 24-hour roadside assistance. MECHANICAL Drivetrain layout: Front-mounted engine and transmission, four-wheel drive. Brakes: Power-assisted four-wheel disc with ABS. Engine:
168-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6 with 12 valves. OTHER MODELS XE 4-Door $24,399 LE 4-Door $32,129 Truett's tip: Nissan's all-new Pathfinder is a quiet, refined and nimble off-road vehicle that is poised to take on the best from
Ford, Jeep and Chevrolet.