Compared with the competition, Nissan was way, way behind the curve when it came to capitalizing on the sport-utility-vehicle craze. Economic hardship required the company to rely on the Pathfinder and its Infiniti derivative, the QX4, for far too long. By the time Nissan launched its entry-level SUV, the Xterra, for the 2000 model year, Toyota had been selling the RAV4 for four years.

An influx of cash from new owner Renault allowed Nissan the luxury of designing and building more vehicles. Nissan and Infiniti now offer a total of six SUVs, and a new car-based, sub-Xterra model may soon be added.

The problem with having lots of SUVs - and it's a problem Toyota and Lexus have encountered with their eight sport-utes - is that, at some point, you are competing not only against other manufacturers but against yourself.

Case in point: The all-new 2005 Nissan Pathfinder. The original Pathfinder was a compact, nimble, rugged SUV that remains a very good used-car buy. But as Nissan has sent the Xterra slightly upmarket, it had to make the Pathfinder bigger and more deluxe to create some level of product differentiation.

But as it made the Pathfinder more upscale, it now treads close to the same territory as the Nissan Armada, the company's SUV flagship.

The Pathfinder shares the angular, slightly lumpy styling of the Armada, which is not exactly setting the market on fire. The Pathfinder is, in fact, built on the same basic platform as the Armada, as is the Titan pickup truck.

At first glance, the Pathfinder does not appear to be that much smaller than the Armada, but at 187.6 inches in length, it's 9.3 inches shorter and nearly 800 pounds lighter. On the road, the Pathfinder feels bigger than it is too. Besides the dimensions, the biggest difference between the two is the engines: The Armada has a 5.6-liter, 305-horsepower V-8, while the Pathfinder has a 4.0-liter, 270-horsepower V-6. The Armada is bigger inside, but both vehicles offer three rows of seats.

Nissan has priced the base models of the Pathfinder very aggressively, with the XE model starting at just more than $25,000. That's the rear-drive model; if you want four-wheel-drive, it's $2,000 more. At that price, the Pathfinder is a very attractive buy. When you start adding equipment, though, the difference between the Pathfinder and Armada shrinks. The test Pathfinder was the top-of-the-line LE, with rear-wheel drive. Base price was $32,550, and with shipping, a $2,000 navigation system and a $1,600 rear-seat DVD entertainment package, the total was $36,710.

Base price of an Armada SE is $33,600. If you can live without the Pathfinder LE's leather upholstery, power sunroof and the aforementioned options, the Armada SE is the better buy, especially if you tow. The Pathfinder tows up to 6,000 pounds, but the Armada tows as much as 9,100 pounds.

That said, maybe you don't want a vehicle that big, so the Pathfinder may be preferred. The front and middle seats are plenty roomy, but the third seat is best for children or midgets.

Although the 4.0-liter V-6 may seem smallish for a vehicle that supposedly can tow 3 tons, don't be put off: It's one of the most powerful, gutsiest V-6's ever. Nicely matched to the five-speed automatic transmission, there's all the power you need. After all, 270 horsepower is 35 more than the 4.7-liter V-8 in the Toyota Land Cruiser has. It also results in fuel mileage that is, well, less terrible than some SUVs: 16 mpg in the city, 23 mpg highway.

I like this Pathfinder LE a lot, but approaching $37,000 for a rear-drive SUV, I'd be tempted to drop down to a less deluxe model and get four-wheel drive. For a rugged, truck-based SUV like this, I'd rather have some off-road capability than heated power mirrors and a power passenger seat.

Feel free to disagree.


Base price: $32,550.

Price as tested: $36,710.

EPA rating: 16 mpg city, 23 mpg highway.

Details: Front-engine, rear-drive SUV with a 4.0-liter, 270-horsepower V-6 engine and a 5-speed automatic transmission.

Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith's TV reports air Wednesdays on Central Florida News 13.