Has the Legendary Nissan Pathfinder Lost Its Way?
I was 15 years old the first time I attempted driving in the snow. My father owned a maroon 1989 Nissan Pathfinder 2-door that cackled when you accelerated thanks to a crack in the exhaust manifold. It still had now-extinct components like triangulated pieces of quarter glass on either side where the rear doors should have been, and threatened to flip over at the slightest provocation.
It was late winter in Durango, Colorado, and my old man had decided that I should be the one to navigate the treacherous drive back down the snow-covered mountain pass. After making sure that both hub locks had been manually engaged, I pulled the 4Hi selector knob back and away we went. It was a nerve-racking and exhilarating experience, and our scrappy little Pathfinder did its damndest to get us home without a scratch.
In retrospect, I could have been a harder on the brick-like SUV. But due to all of the raucous noise emanating from under the hood, I babied the throttle for fear of the damn thing exploding on us. Clatter aside, it was an adventure that I’ll never forget and every time I see a Pathfinder I think back to that snowy day in Colorado and all the fun my father and I had together.
Twenty years later, Nissan is still hitting the SUV market hard, with an approach that’s both practical and 4×4 focused. Last year, it announced that 2016 would be “The Year of the Truck” for the brand, a mission statement that sparked a firestorm of activity.
Nissan had already been riding high on the tailgate of the Titan, and sales numbers of the sharply restyled Rogue crossover have been nothing short of fantastic since its launch. As for the Pathfinder, sales remain good but not great, a reflection of the market’s interest in CUV and truck options over SUV nameplates from the 1980s.
Still, I was excited about the thought of jumping back behind the wheel of the vehicle that taught me how to brave the elements. Unfortunately, after some time with it I was left with the feeling that this heavily updated Pathfinder is now struggling to find its own path.
All those brick-like lines from the 1980s are long gone. In their stead is a familiar design language that spreads across Nissan’s entire lineup. From the company’s signature V-Motion Grille and boomerang LED lenses, to the floating roofline and 18-inch machined alloy wheels, the redesigned Pathfinder appears equal parts attractive and purpose-built. It may not be the most memorable car in Nissan’s lineup, but it certainly looks like it belongs.
Exterior pros and cons
+ If the outgoing model looked good to you, then the new one will likely be more appealing thanks to its fresh fascias and LED lighting.
+ It may not be the most aggressive looking SUV out there, but the Pathfinder isn’t exactly bland-looking either, a fact that will help it appeal to both male and female buyers.
+ Recessed windshield wipers, roof rails, chrome door handles, and privacy glass add extra exterior flair.
– Even on the Platinum line you don’t get things like polished dual exhaust ports, a spoiler integrated rear wiper, or consistently spread piano-black touches, so don’t expect them on the lesser SV model.
– Ride height remains a bit low for a vehicle that boasts this much off-road agility.
Nissan overhauled the Pathfinder’s 3.5-liter V6 and has given it the ability to tow up to 6,000 pounds once properly equipped. It also gets up to 26 miles per gallon on the highway, and averages around 22 once city driving gets factored in. This is all made possible thanks to the recent addition of direct injection, fresh piston designs, a bump in compression, and variable intake timing.
Buyers can now expect to see a total of 24 extra horsepower and 19 pound-feet of torque over the old model, and automated shift points have been introduced in the CVT gearbox. Speaking of previous models, the Pathfinder has retained its selectable 2WD, Auto, and 4WD Lock modes, making it the only vehicle in its class that permits full-time 2WD for maximum fuel gains.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Strong and fuel efficient, the revised 3.5-liter V6 generates 284 horsepower and 259 pound-feet of torque while playing host to 19/26 EPA ratings.
+ Stomps the Explorer, Pilot, and Highlander when it’s time to tow, with 6,000 pounds of total capacity and the ability run exclusively in 2WD mode for increased efficiency.
+ Still one of the most competent off-road SUV options in the segment, with terrain descent control and a third-generation Xtronic transmission allowing 4WD Lock mode to provide consistent power to all four wheels.
– Still without paddle shifters to wake up that sleepy CVT.
The cabin of the SV model may not be leather-trimmed, but it is very practical, and things like a heated steering wheel and heated seats can be easily added via a $400 Cold Package. Even non-Platinum buyers will be impressed with the SV version’s tri-zone auto temp controls, smart under-storage pockets, acrobatic-like second row, and quiet cabin. Unfortunately, while the second row is spacious and easy to maneuver around there are roomier third rows out there, and overall cargo volume is just average.
Interior pros and cons
+ Illuminated stow spaces, sizable undertray storage holds, large cup holders, and 79.8 cubic feet of cargo room once both rear rows are folded flat make for strong starting points.
+ Nissan’s EZ Flex seating design remains one of the best folding systems in the biz. Just two fingers is all it takes to slide, flip, and fold everything from headrests to entire rows out of the way.
+ Child safety seats can remain in place when accessing the back, 40/20/40 split benches still rule, and the third row will actually accommodate teenagers.
– Hard plastics aplenty (both in finishing trim and button/switch form), seating is firm and not very adjustable, and both center console and rear cargo storage areas are not segment leaders.
– Center console-mounted command knob does not permit pulling or pushing in any direction, instead limiting you to twisting a ring or mashing buttons, all of which feel archaic and clunky.
Tech and safety
Tech issues continue to be the Achilles heel for most Nissan and Infiniti products, and the Pathfinder is no different. Although an 8-inch touchscreen is now standard on all Pathfinder models, and is both easy to use and informative, it’s far from being a technological game changer. Plus, a tech package must be added if you want navi.
Movement and pinch-to-zoom issues are both abundant and obvious, and despite offering loads of useful specs, almost everything looks dated within the driver display and in the 8-inch center stack screen. But perhaps the biggest issue here is the lack of standard safety features. Pathfinder buyers must upgrade to higher trim levels and add various packages in order to get what the competition offers standard.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ An easy-to-use 8-inch touchscreen now comes standard on all models, the driver assist display comes loaded with data, and syncing devices via Bluetooth is a breeze.
+ Driver performance gauges show cornering G’s, steering inputs, a compass, fuel consumption averages, total range, and much more.
+ Safety-wise, the Pathfinder earns a Top Safety Pick rating from IIHS and an overall 5-star score from the government. Blind spot warnings, rear cross-traffic alerts, and hill start assist earn additional points.
– The center stack screen features dated graphics, slow response times, no pinch-to-zoom support, and Nissan’s Around View Monitor is still not a standard feature.
– Trails the competition due to its inability to offer standard tech safety suites across the entire lineup.
The redesigned Nissan Pathfinder offers a lot of the features SUV owners desire, and many of the practical touches parents demand, but it just doesn’t wow you. Despite having a quiet cabin and a CVT that doesn’t drive you mad with noise, the absence of manual shift controls means drivers are only left with a “LOW” setting for when engine braking is deemed necessary.
Although it has 11% stiffer front springs and 7% tighter rear coils, the Pathfinder SV corners and rides with a lot more slop than the Platinum model, due primarily to its smaller wheels and fatter tires. While these adjustments may mean body roll is down 10% over the outgoing model, electronic steering inputs remain overly doughy, so you’re left with one negating the other.
And then there are the brakes. They may work fine in stop-and-go traffic, but when a 6,000 pound boat, a car full of kids, and loads of gear need to come to a sudden halt, you’re going to be wanting something stronger. While this kind of heavyweight scenario happens only so often, you don’t want to worry about cooking the smallish rotors and pads on a trip to the beach and back.
Quite honestly, Nissan’s “Innovation That Excites” slogan doesn’t really translate well to this SUV. It may be the biggest and arguably best Pathfinder to date, but that doesn’t excuse it from all of the missteps it makes along the way.
But despite all these qualms, Nissan is pointed in the right direction with this refresh, especially in the powertrain and design departments. The 2017 Pathfinder has a lot going for it when it comes to family appeal and ease of use, and its towing capacities, competitive fuel efficiency, more tautly-drawn suspension, and off-road engineering leave us hopeful for brighter days ahead.
Unfortunately it’s nowhere near as practical or fun to drive as some of the recently refreshed and overhauled contenders in the mid-size SUV segment. So while the all-wheel drive SV version of the Pathfinder will get you down a snowy mountainside for $37,045, it probably won’t inspire anyone anytime soon.