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Pathfinder might be Nissan's most versatile SUV

October 13, 2006|by DAN LYONS / Motor Matters

The first Nissan Pathfinder was aptly named. Rolling into dealerships in 1986, Pathfinder was then the only Nissan sport-utility vehicle sold stateside.

The popularity of the breed spawned plenty of new models, and soon Pathfinder was shoulder-to-shoulder in the showroom with the Nissan Murano, Xterra and Armada. Pathfinder and Murano are midsize bookends in the Nissan lineup. The latter is a stylish crossover with a clear, on-road bias. The former is also a midsize, but one that doesn't mind getting its tires dirty. On or off pavement, Pathfinder is arguably the most versatile of all Nissan's sport-utilities.

The Pathfinder has traditional, square-shoulder SUV styling. Short overhangs front and rear are evidence of Pathfinder's off-road readiness. The big Nissan rolls on a truck-based, ladder frame, fitted with a fully independent, double-wishbone suspension. A special model is tailored specifically to trail busters.

The SE Off-Road model is equipped with a collection of features designed to make life easier when you leave the beaten path behind. Included among them are "Rancho" performance shock absorbers and skid plate coverage for the radiator, oil pan, fuel tank and transfer case. A four-wheel, limited-slip system helps minimize wheel spin when starting off on low-traction surfaces.


Two other features are useful when traversing steep terrain. Functioning in 4x4 high or low ranges, Hill Descent Control holds engine speed at a slow, steady rate on downhill runs, eliminating the need to constantly apply the brakes. It's engaged with the flick of a switch. Going up? On your way up a steep slope, Hill Start Assist allows the driver to release the brake without rolling back for up to two seconds - enough time to man the proper pedals before proceeding.

Pathfinder is available in 4x2 and 4x4 configurations. The All Mode 4x4 system allows the driver to choose from 4x2, 4x4 high and low, or automatic settings through an electronically controlled transfer case. Though it's not small enough to be considered nimble, Pathfinder's reasonable dimensions and traction enhancers make for easy maneuverability and stable handling off-road.

But just because it can make the grade in the outback, don't mistake this for a one-dimensional truck. Indeed, Pathfinder cleans up very nicely and drives better on road than most SUVs with this much off-road capability. Two reasons for this are found below skin level.

First, the four-wheel independent suspension has enough sophistication to adapt to city and suburb commuting as easily as backwoods rambling. Ride quality is comfortable on trips short or long, and handling is good for the breed. The other main contributor to Pathfinder's drivability is the powertrain. With its 270 horsepower and 291 lbs.-ft. of torque, Nissan's 4.0-liter V-6 provides snappy pickup and cruises easily at highway speeds. Connected to a wide ratio, five-speed automatic transmission, Pathfinder can be equipped to tow as much as 6,000 pounds. The big six is a fine performer, but there is no free lunch. EPA rates gas mileage at 15 mpg city, 21 highway.

Inside, Pathfinder offers versatile, usable space, whether your plans are for people or parcels. There's adult-size room in rows one and two, and kid-size space in row three. Cargo capacity ranges from 16.5 cubic feet in max people mode (with all three rows of seats up) to 79.2 cubic feet in max cargo mode (with second and third rows folded down). In the traditional setup, with two rows of seats in place, Pathfinder offers a generous 49.2 cubic feet of space for stuff. Seats fold flat to the floor, and the cargo bay is wide enough to accommodate a variety of shapes and sizes in the way back.

Drivers benefit from unusually good all-around visibility, which is rare for an SUV. Cabin ergonomics are well thought out, and Nissan offers a full complement of available options to suit the buyer's taste and budget.

Pathfinder's model range spans S, SE, SE Off-Road and LE trim levels. Prices start at $25,400 for a 4x2 S model, and the 4x4 SE Off-Road checks in at $31,450. Those buyers looking for an SUV that handles the demands of on- and off-road driving with equal ease would do well to check out Pathfinder. It's no longer the only Nissan SUV, but it might just be their best SUV.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2006

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