When we heard that the new Path-finder would bear a strong family resemblance to the full-size Armada SUV, we were afraid. Very afraid. The old Path-finder was a good-looking truck, whereas the Armada is the Shrek of its field.
Fortunately, the new Pathfinder has real character, even though the styling is hardly beautiful. Like every new mid-size SUV, it is bigger inside and out, more powerful, and heavier, and it features a third-row seat.
Unlike the old Pathfinder, the new one uses body-on-frame construction. It has upper- and lower-control-arm front and rear suspension, with coil springs and antiroll bars at both ends. Ground clearance varies between 8.5 and 9.2 inches, depending on the model.
The Pathfinder is the first recipient of the latest VQ V-6 engine. Displacing 4.0 liters (in-stead of 3.5), it has been tuned to produce good midrange torque, with 80 percent of the peak 291 pound-feet being available below 2000 revs. It also makes 270 horsepower and mates to a five-speed automatic transmission.
Nissan expects that around 30 percent of Pathfinders will be rear-wheel-drive, but there's a choice of two all-wheel-drive systems: a part-time system that can be shifted on the fly and an on-demand version that shunts up to 50 percent of the torque to the front wheels in case of wheel slippage. All Pathfinders have a standard skid-control system and antilock brakes; all-wheel-drive models also have "Active Braking Limited Slip," which uses the traction-control system to move up to 50 percent of the engine torque to any one wheel. SE Off-Road models with 4wd have hill-descent control and hill-start assist, plus skid plates, Rancho performance dampers, adjustable pedals, and rear A/C. Pathfinders can tow up to 6000 pounds, and a receiver-type hitch is neatly integrated into the rear bumper.
Inside, the Pathfinder is spacious and versatile. The second- and third-row seats fold flat to give a very usable load area. With the third row folded, there's a gargantuan 49.2 cubic feet of stowage. The cabin is nicely finished, with some pleasing chrome and alloy accents, but it ain't no Volkswagen Touareg.
The base XE comes reasonably well equipped, but the SE adds running boards, an easy-clean cargo area, and an eight-way power driver's seat. A six-disc in-dash CD changer, a moonroof, and dual-zone climate control are included in options packages. The upscale LE has cheesy wood-grain trim, leather seats, a power passenger's seat, and full length curtain air bags. A navigation system and DVD entertainment system are optional.
This impressive mid-size SUV rides nicely, steers well, and has good passing performance, although the V-6 lacks the low-down steam of a big American V-8. The five-speed automatic is well matched to the engine, and it's pretty good on back roads. You'll definitely notice the 4400-to-4800-pound bulk as it pummels into deep dips. Off-road, the awd systems will conquer most obstacles, but the increased size means this Pathfinder isn't as nimble as the old one.
The mid-size-SUV market is crowded, but the Pathfinder is up near the top. The suspicion, however, is that most potential buyers will be swayed by the styling and seating versatility rather than its ability to go trampling trails.