It's appropriate that Nissan is launching its fourth-generation Pathfinder just in time for the presidential election – the popular people hauler has flipped-flopped more times than a Washington politician.
The Nissan Pathfinder started off life as a traditional body-on-frame SUV in 1986 before being moved to a unibody setup for its second generation. However, Nissan couldn't leave well enough alone and moved the Pathfinder back to a truck-based framed in 2005. That didn't stick, though, and the Pathfinder is now back on a unibody platform for the 2013 model year.
Balance of compromises
Unlike most modern SUVs, the Pathfinder actually has an off-road pedigree, which was a concern for Nissan when switching back to a unibody platform (and a front-wheel drive one at that). However, Nissan felt a unibody construction gave the new Pathfinder the best blend of car-like comforts and SUV capabilities.
By ditching its truck-based roots, the 2013 Pathfinder was able to shave about 500 lbs. from its waistline, helping it to best-in-class fuel economy numbers. The car-based Pathfinder also boasts much improved interior packaging and a more comfortable ride.
In exchange for those unibody perks, the Pathfinder has given up some of its go-anywhere toughness – especially in front-wheel drive guise. However, Nissan's 4x4-i all-wheel drive system is on offer.
On and off-road
We put the new Pathfinder through its paces on the winding roads of Napa Valley and came away quite impressed. Although not exactly a utility version of the 370Z, the Pathfinder exhibited excellent on-road manners with good steering feel and minimal body roll - no doubt the result of its crash-course diet.
The Pathfinder is also a happy cruiser, isolating all but the biggest road imperfections from the cabin. However, wind noise from the A-pillars can be a bit intrusive, particularly during gusty weather.
The 2013 Pathfinder is equipped with a CVT, so wind noise isn't the only obtrusive sound that can fill the SUV's cockpit. Under normal loads the CVT keeps the Pathfinder's 3.5-liter V6 luxury-car quiet, but acceleration can lead to prolonged periods of the engine buzzing along at high RPMs. There is an upside to the CVT, though, as it is one of the main reasons the Pathfinder can hit 26 mpg on the highway.
The Pathfinder holds its own when pavement turns to dirt, but don't expect to do any serious off-roading.
The Pathfinder's All-Mode 4x4-i system features a 2WD mode, but it can also be switched to Auto or Lock. When in Auto mode, the system defaults to front-wheel drive, but can send up to 50 percent of the engine's power to the rear wheels if slippage is detected. When serious traction is needed, the Lock setting automatically splits power 50/50 between front and rear. Unlike its predecessor, no two-speed transfer case is on offer.
Although the Pathfinder's days of crossing the Rubicon Trail are long gone, it should handle just about anything the average family – and winter storm – can throw at it.
On paper the Pathfinder's 260 horsepower, 240 lb-ft of torque 3.5-liter V6 may appear a bit underpowered, but the 4,100 lbs. curb weight makes for brisk acceleration. In fact, under hard acceleration it's possible to experience mild torque steer.
We weren't able to conduct a thorough fuel economy test but the Pathfinder was able to register in the upper teens during a day of mixed driving. All Pathfinder models are rated to tow 5,000 lbs.
In order to reflect its car-base roots, the Pathfinder adopts car-like styling for the 2013 model year. Up front, Nissan's truck front grille largely remains, now flanked by wider headlights and a more sculpted hood. Wide fender flares have been nixed in favor of body-long character lines, not unlike the styling seen on the new Altima sedan. Out back, the 2013 Pathfinder is far more curvacious than the outgoing model and seems to mimic Mazda's latest design language.
As previously mentioned the 2013 Pathfinder is longer than wider than the previous model, but also sits 3 inches lower, giving the utility vehicle a more planted look.
Climb aboard and you'll find an upscale interior that looks a class above the Pathfinder's segment.
Anyone that's ever been in a modern Infiniti will recognize the Pathfinder's center stack, complete with a 7-inch LCD display (standard on SV models and above). We found the controls easy to use (a knob for volume, tuning and temperature control, hallelujah!) although a bit far down to use comfortably while driving.
The Pathfinder's twin-gauge cluster is easy to read and incorporates a useful center screen borrowed from the latest Altima. We like the design and easy-to-use controls of the Pathfinder's steering wheel, but found the plastic trim sharp to the touch. However, our test vehicle was a late pre-production model, so it's possible that issue could be resolved by the time the Pathfinder hits showrooms.
Most of the Pathfinder's other interior plastics are hard to the touch, but are at least nicely grained.
The Pathfinder's front buckets proved comfortable over a several-hour drive, and an available second-row entertainment system should keep rear passengers just as happy. The Pathfinder's EZ Flex seating system makes getting in and out for the third row a snap, although limited space means the seat is best reserved for short trips. Both third and second row seats fold flat for extra cargo room.
Prices for the entry-level, two-wheel drive Pathfinder S will start from $28,270, undercutting the previous model by $1,020. The uplevel Pathfinder SV adds niceties like Nissan's Intelligent Key, auto on/off headlights and a Rear View Monitor system, bringing the price of entry to $31,530. The SL model – which Nissan expects to be the volume trim for Pathfinder – carries an MSRP of $34,470 and includes a remote start, heated leather seats for first and second row passengers and a power liftgate.
For those looking for all-out luxury, the top-spec Pathfinder Platinum will retail from $39,170. Added equipment includes cooled front seats, an 8-inch display with navigation and Nissan's Around View Monitor, Bose audio and 20-inch wheels.
All-wheel drive can be added to any trim level for $1,600 when the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder arrives in showrooms later this year.
Leftlane's bottom line
We may not be completely sold on the Pathfinder's CVT gearbox, but it's hard to argue with class-leading fuel economy (20/26mpg for FWD and 19/25mpg for AWD models). Throw in a dash of off-road capability, excellent on-road manners and handsome styling and the Pathfinder might just have enough to become the new segment leader.
2013 Nissan Pathfinder base price range, $28,270 to $39,170.
Words and photos by Drew Johnson.