One of the most popular imported sport utility vehicles in recent years has been Nissan's Pathfinder. As with many other Nissan products, the test vehicle has to be admired for the tight, precise way it is assembled. It is user-friendly, functional, devoid of meaningless gimmicky items, and it is a solid, sturdy and versatile off-roader. But it isn't perfect.

The Pathfinder came up a bit short in two important areas: performance and value.

The test Pathfinder, an SE model with a price tag of nearly $25,000 came fully loaded. But that doesn't translate to a good value; other vehicles, such as the Ford Explorer and Oldsmobile Bravada offer the same equipment and better performance for around $2,000 or $3,000 less.

ENGINE, PERFORMANCE All Pathfinders are equipped with a 3.0-liter, 153-horsepower V-6. This engine is fabulous in the Maxima, which weighs about 3,100 pounds. But in the four-wheel drive Pathfinder SE - weighing more than 5,000 pounds - the fuel-injected V-6 is dull and lifeless.

The engine groans and strains when attempting to pass slower highway traffic. The test vehicle came with a four-speed automatic transmission. Perhaps the standard five-speed manual would bolster performance.

According to an enthusiast magazine, the Pathfinder will do 0 to 60 mph in 11.7 seconds; the Bravada, in 10.5 seconds; and the Explorer, in 9.8. Both the Bravada and Explorer are larger than the Pathfinder and have larger engines, but fuel economy in both the Olds and Ford is slightly better.

Using the air conditioner in city driving the Pathfinder returned 15 miles per gallon - exactly the EPA rating.

The Pathfinder generally is quiet except when called upon for strenuous activities. The four-wheel-drive mechanism lets the driver choose between a high and low ratio and between two-and four-wheel drive. Shifting between these modes is easy, and there is no additional mechanical noise in four-wheel drive.

STEERING, HANDLING Every Nissan vehicle I have driven this year, from the $45,000 Infiniti Q45 luxury sedan to the $12,000 Sentra, has had at least one thing in common: excellent handling. The Pathfinder is no exception.

Nissan got the ride just right. The suspension system dispenses with bumps nearly effortlessly. In rough terrain, passengers are likely to detect nothing more than a soft bouncing sensation.

In the city, the Pathfinder is an excellent urban assault vehicle. The Pathfinder can handle potholes, curbs and speed bumps easily. The power-assisted rack and pinion steering system is tight and crisp, but the steering ratio is not engineered for sharp turns.

If necessary the Pathfinder will take a curve quickly. The test vehicle came equipped with four-wheel disc brakes with ABS active only on the rear. Stopping power is plentiful.

FIT, FINISH, CONTROLS For the most part, the interior of the Pathfinder is competent and user-friendly. Most switches are easy to reach and use. The analog gauges are nicely laid out and are glare-free. There was a rattle coming from the rear area that I could not track down.

The air conditioner worked erratically. With one or two passengers the Pathfinder's air conditioner cooled the inside in a relatively short time, but with a full load of passengers it took more than 10 minutes to cool - and even then it wasn't very cold.

There is ample room for three rear passengers.