By Nat Shirley
Sunday, Sep 1st, 2013 @ 1:45 am
 
Following its recent metamorphosis from rugged SUV to family-friendly crossover, the days when the Nissan Pathfinder might be used to blaze new trails through the wilderness are a rapidly fading memory.

However, with the introduction of the Pathfinder Hybrid for 2014, the CUV does chart a novel new course for Nissan's previously conservative gas-electric program.

How does the addition of electrification alter the Pathfinder's personality, and what does this new model tell us about the future of Nissan hybrids? We journeyed to Southern California, the heartland of the hybrid, to find out.

Finding greener paths
Up till now, Nissan has barely ventured into hybrid territory, instead choosing to explore the new world of zero-emissions motoring with vehicles like the Leaf. The brand's only previous gas-electric green machine, the Altima Hybrid, was sold in just a handful of U.S. states and actually used licensed Toyota Camry Hybrid technology.

That cautious approach is now a thing of the past, as the Pathfinder Hybrid debuts a completely Nissan-designed powertrain that will eventually spread to the engine bays of the Altima and Murano, as well as Infiniti's QX60 (nee JX35).

In a departure from the naturally-aspirated hybrid norm, Nissan's new setup utilizes a supercharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder for gasoline-powered motivation. A CVT handles "shifting" duties, and a 15-kw electric motor sits between the engine and transmission with a pair of clutches to disconnect it from the system and conserve energy as situations allow. Nissan says the goal of the powertrain is to produce V6-like output without a commensurate appetite for fossil fuel.

On paper, the system delivers the goods, producing a combined 250 horsepower and 243 lb-ft of torque - just 10 ponies less (and actually 3 lb-ft more) than the standard Pathfinder's 3.5-liter six. In the all-important realm of efficiency, the Pathfinder Hybrid is rated at 25/27 mpg city/highway mpg for both FWD and AWD variants.

That city figure represents a sizable improvement over the gas-only model, which returns 20/26 mpg in FWD form and 19/25 mpg with AWD, meaning that stepping up to the hybrid could make a great deal of sense for Pathfinder buyers who will primarily spend their driving time shuttling around suburbia.

Still, it's worth noting that the crossover's primary rival - the Toyota Highlander Hybrid - is good for an even loftier 28/28 mpg, at least in part because it, unlike the Nissan, can accelerate using only electric power. The Highlander also packs much more standard equipment, though a $41,030 MSRP means it's definitely the pricier of the two.

The Pathfinder Hybrid is expected to start around $36,000, or about $3,000 more than an equivalent non-hybrid model. Though it can't match the creature comforts of its cross-country competitor, it isn't a stripper either, with the entry-level SV boasting upscale interior materials in addition to a seven-inch infotainment display, proximity key, rearview camera and rear sonar system. Ritzier trim levels include goodies like tri-zone automatic climate control, heated front and rear seats, navigation and Nissan's trick 360-degree "Around View" camera system.

Inside and out
Hybrid-specific exterior paraphernalia is largely conspicuous by its absence - a few small Pure Drive/Hybrid badges and LED headlights are the lone visual elements hinting at the crossover's green credentials.

It's a similar story inside, with hybrid information screens for the infotainment and instrument cluster displays being the main differentiators. There's also a gauge beneath the speedometer that lets the driver keep tabs on whether the electric motor is hastening acceleration or feeding power to the lithium-ion battery pack.

Nissan managed to cleverly package said batteries beneath the third-row seats, preventing them from impinging on cabin space. That means that the hybrid retains a useful 79.8 cubic feet of interior real estate with the second and third seats folded flat; flip all the chairs up, and there's room enough for seven to sit in comfort, provided the rearmost passengers are of compact dimensions.

Out on the open road, we found that the Pathfinder Hybrid provides essentially the same pick-up as its V6 kin, albeit with a hint of blower whine that's certainly out of the ordinary - but not at all unpleasant - for a vehicle in this segment. The regenerative brakes are admirably refined in the low-speed situations that throw many other hybrids off their groove, and, while the steering is light and largely devoid of feel, it's at least unerringly accurate.

Leftlane's bottom line
Due to its largely carryover exterior and unusual supercharged soundtrack, this isn't the right vehicle for buyers who believe hybrids should be seen and not heard.

For those who don't need to advertise their membership in the hybrid club, though, the Pathfinder Hybrid adds a welcome increase in efficiency without compromising the standard model's space or acceleration. It also suggests that Nissan's hybrid future, once dim, has grown very bright indeed.

Photos by Nat Shirley