2013 Nissan Pathfinder First Drive

Blurring the lines between crossover and SUV. Again.

What It Is
Nissan's foray into the three-row crossover segment.
Best Thing
Everything on your family crossover checklist? It's all here.
Worst Thing
Why's the Sentra have a soft-touch dash and LEDs when the twice-as-much Pathfinder doesn't?
Snap Judgment
In one fell swoop Nissan has shot into contention for the best mainstream crossover out there.


The Nissan Pathfinder ain't what it used to be.

With a name like the one it has, you'd expect it to be a rugged, go-anywhere sport utility vehicle, bound to venture the Arctic Circle or crawl down the Rubicon Trail. Come on, it's supposed to find paths, right? Otherwise, it'd be called a Roadmaster, Turnpike Cruiser, or--gasp--even a Town Car.

But in changing with the times, Nissan has softened the venerable off-roader into a crossover, eschewing its truck-based roots for architecture shared with the Nissan Altima midsize sedan. And in doing so, it's become far more capable at doing what it'll actually be used for: Hauling around families through the miscellany of life. Still, Nissan says there's some hope left for the Pathfinder off the beaten path or towing a trailer, even in its latest iteration. We'd surely find out how well that claim stood with our time driving it in Napa Valley, perhaps the most scenic--and most hilly--region in all of California.

In evaluating the Pathfinder, it's important to note what it's going up against and why. Late to the dance, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder enters competition with the likes of the hot-selling Ford Explorer--which switched to a car-based architecture for 2012--and the Toyota Highlander, which tagged in for the 4Runner as Toyota's all-weather family hauler a few years back. All of them are, on-paper, significantly better vehicles than the ones they replace in every respect, sans off-road ability.

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But facts are facts: the outgoing truck-based Pathfinder was a dying breed, as its crossover competitors have already quadrupled its sales through most of 2012. The Pathfinder needed to change. But in becoming a lighter, more fuel-efficient crossover, has Nissan lost the point? Or has it gotten good enough to challenge the competition, if not overtake them?

Walkaround

When you look at it, it's hard to think it could be anything other than a Nissan Pathfinder. It has a chunky, squared-off chrome grille and sculpted fenders. Yet, it looks sleeker, almost as if Nissan designers looked at the Toyota Highlander too long and grafted Pathfinder details to it. It's longer than the outgoing model, and doesn't look as robust; it looks more like a high-roof wagon, like the rest of its competitive set. And for the first time since the five-door Pathfinder debuted in 1990--four years after the Pathfinder hit the U.S.--the rear door handles have been moved from the door pillars to the doors themselves.

I'm hesitant to call it generic, because it isn't. But the Pathfinder doesn't quite pack the visual punch of the outgoing model. It doesn't look like you want to take it to sand dunes to play with it alongside ATVs. It looks like a mall-mobile, which perhaps is what Nissan was going for. Inoffensive and handsome sell in the auto market; ask Toyota about its 400,000 annual Camry sales.

And who could blame Nissan for wanting a piece of that large crossover segment?

Perhaps the only thing it can be faulted for is that the loaded $44,000 model looks indistinguishable compared to the $29,095 base version. Having some LED accents in the headlights and LED tail lights would have rectified that plenty, especially since the far more basic 2013 Nissan Sentra has them as standard for half the price.

Sitting Down

Despite the exterior looking something like a Nissan-ized Toyota Highlander, the interior of the two vehicles couldn't be more different. Where the Toyota feels plush with soft, shapeless seats, the Pathfinder comes across as more purposeful, with more supportive--and firmly bolstered--front buckets that keep you in place. After sitting in the Pathfinder for the better part of 200 miles over the course of the day, not once did I feel uncomfortable or fatigued.

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Moving back to the middle row yields much of the same. Albeit slightly lower than the middle row of the Highlander, the Pathfinder's bench proves to be just as comfortable as the front. Unlike many of its competitors, the Pathfinder doesn't have the option of two buckets in the middle row. But it does have a trick EZ Flex seating system that not only slides the bench up 5.5 inches to allow for access to the third row but also folds the bench in such a way that it you can keep a forward-facing child seat in place while using it. Excluding the Honda Odyssey minivan, no other three-row family vehicle makes managing seating with small kids so simple.

And that brings us to the third row, which is a bit of a mixed bag. Using the second and third rows' reclining and sliding functions, it can be perfectly usable for someone under 5-foot-8, perhaps your mother-in-law. But it takes some finagling to set up, and your passengers might become impatient with the "Now you slide the row up and recline it so Grandma has a little more room in back" treatment. It can be done--and the Pathfinder can be a perfectly competent hauler of seven people--but we'd recommend the third row only for kids.

Otherwise, the interior feels intuitive and well-finished. No matter if you get the base model or opt up for a Pathfinder Platinum, you're not going to be disappointed.

Driving

Where most crossovers are floaty or choppy over the road--almost trying to give passengers the worst part of the SUV ownership experience--the Pathfinder thankfully bucks this trend. It doesn't drive like a truck; it drives like a car on platform shoes. Steering is light and precise, and the suspension soaks up bumps in the road with a control you'd more expect on a premium German sedan. And thanks to a plenty of sound insulation, it's pretty darn quiet, too.

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In switching to a crossover, we expressed concern that the Pathfinder might not be able to hold up to the rigors of its predecessor. Then we drove it up some steep, muddy hills with its all-wheel-drive system locked on a 50-50 front to rear power split. We found that this thing can definitely still find paths, and it'll do so in even greater comfort than what the outgoing Pathfinder could. Nissan expects some Pathfinder loyalists to defect to the Toyota 4Runner or potentially a Chevrolet Tahoe if they're still in need of a three-row hardcore off-roader, but that number will be small. The Pathfinder should really be driven to be believed: It's still plenty worthy of its namesake.

And then there's the engine and transmission. For the Pathfinder, Nissan had to beef up what was a small steel belt into Medieval chain mail for the continuously variable transmission (CVT) to cope with the added weight of the Pathfinder and the performance from its 260-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6. If you're thinking it's all a carryover from the five-passenger Nissan Murano, you'd be mistaken. The Pathfinder is built for more rugged duty with the ability to tow up to 5,000 pounds.

But the CVT works much differently from a traditional automatic transmission, keeping the engine at a steady speed instead of shifting gears to pick up the pace. Initially, it feels a little disconcerting, but its operation is smooth and surprisingly refined. And when coupled to that V-6, we found the Pathfinder to be punchy and far more fuel-efficient than we expected. We never saw less than 22 mpg in an all-wheel-drive Pathfinder and were nudging nearer to 24 mpg in the front-drive version.

Summary

Call it gimmicky, or just call it smart, but the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder offers so much "Why didn't anyone else think of that?" packaging in it that we wonder how long it will be before it jumps into contention with the top of the class, sales-wise. Further, anyone who cares about driving and feeling a modicum of connectedness to the road will undoubtedly have to compare the Pathfinder to its biggest competitors. And you know what? The Pathfinder might come out the best of any of them.

There are things we don't like about 2013 Pathfinder--the hard plastic dashboard and lack of visual zing stand out most prominently--but as family haulers go, there's very little to fault. As much as Nissan has been hitting doubles and triples lately, the 2013 Pathfinder is a certifiable clear-the-fences-and-end-up-in-the-parking-lot homerun.

The Pathfinder has always been a strong product for Nissan because of the automaker's willingness to adapt it to a changing market. The first Pathfinder was minimalistic when SUVs were still in their infancy. The second one was far more car-like, with premium features and a more stylish wrapper. The third one was developed when gas was still cheap, and with V-8 power, it excelled at being a lot of truck in clever, yet thirsty, package.

But today, gas is expensive, and families are looking for a better value than ever. No one really goes off-road anymore, much less cares about it. In spite of this, the 2013 Pathfinder provides a combination that should be able to satisfy the most rigorous of demands a family can throw at it--and a lot more.

Welcome to the dance, Nissan. It looks like you've finally gotten your groove back.

Basic Specs

3.5-liter V-6, continuously variable automatic transmission, front- or all-wheel drive, 260-hp, $29,095, 20 mpg city/26 mpg hwy (FWD), 19 mpg city/25 mpg hwy (AWD)

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