Drowning in a sea of SUVs?

While Nissan is trumpeting a powerful new engine for its 2001 Pathfinder, there is little else to differentiate this Japanese-built four-door utility vehicle from a swarm of competitors. Where the entry-level Xterra has personality in spades, its elder sibling looks and feels more generic - despite a mild face-lift in 1999 and an all-new instrument panel this spring, plus a generous assortment of gadgets and power accessories. At $30,000, this Pathfinder is no path-breaker. Nor is it a bargain. Or so Paul thinks.

She: You can tell a lot about a person by what they drive. I often wonder about the message I send behind the wheel of my yellow Beetle that reminds me of one of those yellow happy faces. My friend Liz - Liz the Bold - drives a `97 Pathfinder. She ditched a nursing career to hook up with an Internet company. She grew her hair long - well into her 40s. She wears off-the-shoulder dresses - to work. And for fun, she's the coxswain for a mostly male rowing team. How cool is that? And she loves her Pathfinder.

He: I don't think she'd see much of a difference between her `97 Pathfinder and the 2001 model we tested. The basic design of the current Pathfinder actually dates to 1996, and it's starting to look and feel its age. Instead of tweaking it here and there, Nissan needs to do a total redesign. There are just too many newer, fresher and more interesting SUVs out there.

She: Now hold on. I found the new Pathfinder to have a certain kind of honest charm. It is a lot more "trucky" than some of its competitors, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee. I like looking out over the hood of the Pathfinder. There seems to be a lot of squared-off sheet metal in front of you. It reminds me of my old 1994 Blazer. And there are old-fashioned levers and controls to play with. Instead of a rotary switch or push button, you shift from two-wheel drive into four-wheel drive with a shift lever next to the transmission. And some people will like the fact that you can get a manual gearbox with the 2001 model.

He: I thought the five-speed was a novelty, and not much practical use in everyday driving. The new engine is a twin-cam 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 250 horsepower and 240 pounds-feet of torque with the manual transmission. If you order the four-speed automatic, the engine is tuned a little differently to deliver 240 horsepower and 265 pounds-feet of torque. That's a lot more muscle than last year's 170-horsepower 3.3-liter V-6. Despite the additional horses, our test vehicle with the five-speed too often felt sluggish and underpowered. That's truly amazing for an engine that purports to be the most powerful six-cylinder in the class.

She: The new Pathfinder almost had a split personality. You've got truck-like features, but the top-of-the-line SE version we drove is decked out with lots of amenities. Standard features now include goodies like a six-disc in-dash CD changer, a Bose audio system with six speakers and halogen fog lights. Our test vehicle had a base price of $29,349 and was equipped with a $1,099 sunroof package that included lighted vanity mirrors, a temperature gauge and a digital compass.

He: I was pretty impressed with the ride quality, considering the Pathfinder started life as a truck. The coil-spring suspension helps soak up bumps and potholes, and front and rear stabilizer bars keep body roll to a minimum. The SE comes with fat 255/65/R16 tires, which also help cushion the ride. But I've also taken Pathfinders well off the pavement, and they're extremely competent. The truck we tested is so fancy, though, I'd almost hate to get it dirty.

She: Part of the charm of the Pathfinder is that it's somewhat unusual. It's not like the Ford Explorer, which is everywhere, so you see yourself coming and going a thousand times a day. I think basically you're just afraid that if I like the Pathfinder, I'm going to end up like Liz and ditch you, dye my hair tinum and start wearing sarongs. Is that what's bothering you, honey?

He: That's sarong answer.

2001 Nissan Pathfinder

Anita's rating: above average

Paul's rating: acceptable

Likes: Larger, more powerful engine. Relatively comfortable ride for an SUV. All the amenities of a near-luxury passenger car. Five-speed manual transmission can be ordered. Has sort of a primitive trucky charm (Anita).

Dislikes: Still feels underpowered. Strictly middle-of-the-pack styling. Not much else to set this sport-ute apart from the competition. No bargain at nearly $31,000.

Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle

Price: Base, $29,349; as tested, $30,968 (including $520 destination charge)

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6; 250-hp; 240 lb-ft torque

EPA fuel economy: 16 mpg city/18 mpg highway

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,380 (*Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower,depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Kyushu,Japan