First Drive: Nissan’s Pathfinder Gets Off-Road Ready for 2017
Nissan’s large SUV has been a staple of the Nissan brand for decades, and unlike the long defunct Honda Passport or Mitsubishi Montero, continues to rake in solid sales every year. While I wouldn’t call it an industry changing success story, Nissan does deserve a respectful nod of recognition for keeping the badge a solid option in America’s increasingly competitive SUV market over all those years.
I am not a fan of sugarcoating things when it comes to reviewing a vehicle. Automakers make mistakes just like everyone else, and regardless of which focus groups weigh in, or what engineer inputs coincide with detailed design sketches, a final product can still be way off the mark when it hits dealer lots. Take the overhauled 2017 Nissan Pathfinder for instance. When a full refresh came along this year, we were excited about the stats we saw, yet we know all too well that reading about and driving a car can be two totally different experiences. So as my fellow members of the media openly dissected the SUV, I stepped back to assess why it was not winning everyone over.
Forever the optimist, I always try to dwell on a vehicle’s strengths during a review, as well as noting the potential refreshes that may be in store down the line. The 2017 Pathfinder has some formidable weapons in its arsenal and evolutionarily speaking, it’s easily the best model to date, boasting far more standard amenities and appeal than its predecessor.
The new Pathfinder is more tightly wound and energetic than ever before. It’s a sharply redesigned SUV that has more brawn than expected, loads of tech touch-points, and a healthy amount of off-road ingenuity that makes it far more capable than one might suspect. It may not be the ideal answer to the sleekly crafted Mazda CX-9 or the sensationally capable Honda Pilot, but the Pathfinder certainly retains the upper hand in other areas, giving reason for us to start this review off on a high note.
Kicking things into high gear, Nissan’s engineers have creamed the competition with an overhauled 3.5-liter V6 that can tow 6,000 pounds and gets up to 23 miles per gallon on the highway, making it both stronger and more fuel efficient than equally sized/powered SUVs. This means the Explorer, Pilot, and Highlander are all left in the dust when it’s time to tow, with 5,000 pound limitations, and everything save for the 4,000 pound hauling Acadia gets spanked on the highway when in rear-wheel drive trim.
The Pathfinder also corners and rides a lot tighter than expected, due primarily to the 11% stiffer front springs and 7% tighter rear coils, so body roll is down 10% over the outgoing model, which makes for a very enjoyable drive. Understeer has also been minimized, and while electronic steering inputs may still feel a hair disjointed at times, turn-ins are still precise enough to instill confidence on winding roads. This SUV also sports some concrete off-road endowments, and in 4WD trim brandishes things like hill descent control settings, a 4×4 low-end lock for increased torque, and a rear-wheel drive setting for increased highway mileage. Off-road, the Pathfinder handles itself nicely, and its downhill crawl control system worked flawlessly, despite some audible fanfare.
The cabin of the Platinum model carries some clever and luxurious Infiniti touches, and buyers will likely be pleased to unearth things like a warming, power adjustable steering wheel, heated/vented front seats, a heated second row bench, illuminated stow spaces, large cup holders galore, and some great contrast colors across the dash. There also is a fair deal of cargo room in the back, and my lanky ass even fit comfortably in the third row, which shocked me considering how small it appeared at first glance.
Speaking of seats, the Pathfinder also sports some of the easiest folding chairs in the biz, and just two fingers allow you to slide, flip, and fold headrests and entire rows alike out of the way with ease. It even allows child seats to remain in place when accessing the third row, a godsend for parents the world over who curse every time someone needs to climb into the way back. Unlike the new Mazda CX-9, where sliding the second row required two hands and some strain, the Pathfinder transforms without issue, and rocks a panoramic sunroof in the rear for added flare, or when the peanut gallery wishes to gaze at the heavens.
As clever and capable as it may appear, not everything is on the money with this one. The Pathfinder benefits from a new aerodynamic and stylish front fascia that is a far more broad-nosed, LED-lit take on the SUV as it reduces drag courtesy of a redesigned grille and lower bumper. But it also doesn’t harbor any major design cues that make it pop. 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.
Venture inside the cabin and you’ll soon discover that the Pathfinder’s slight but notable design woes have unfortunately followed it indoors. For as good as those plush ventilated seats are, with all that space and clever seat-folding engineering, the cabin of the Platinum pales in comparison to the majority of its competition. While pricing has yet to be released, the cabin doesn’t have the charm of Japanese Rosewood and the aerospace aluminum inlaid cockpit of its more illustrious rival: the Mazda CX-9.
Tech issues were an Achilles’ heel for the Pathfinder too. Even though Nissan should have all the kinks figured out by the time the Pathfinder lands at local dealerships this year, the way in which this system works when compared to say the Maxima is a major letdown. While touchscreen movement issues and pinch-to-zoom problems were all pre-production run related, it was the center-mounted command knob that I found the most annoying. This design does not allow pulling or pushing of the knob in any particular direction, instead limiting you to twisting a ring or mashing buttons around it, which feels archaic and clunky next to the Pathfinder’s recently overhauled competition.
Mechanically, I was frustrated to find that there are no manual shift controls on the Pathfinder, so selecting a lower gear is completely out of the question unless you plan to slap it in “LOW” for a bit of engine braking. This is not what you would expect to discover on a Platinum model, as its integrated rear tow package and top-tier performance bragging rights are suddenly undermined by an engineering oversight that severely hampers powertrain control.
On the topic of engine braking and towing, after closely looking over the stock disc diameters and undersized calipers on the Pathfinder I would not feel comfortable towing anything sizable for long distances with it. I’m not saying that this SUV couldn’t slow a 6,000 pound boat, as well as a car full of kids and beach supplies to a complete halt on a severe slope. I personally wouldn’t want to push the Pathfinder and its brakes to the kind of extremes that Nissan says it’s capable of for fear of cooking the rotors and pads, even when others may feel that the vehicle’s brake feel is more than adequate.
But despite these qualms, I still feel that Nissan is pointed in the right direction with this refresh, especially in the powertrain and sculpture departments. The 2017 Pathfinder has a lot going for it when it comes to family appeal and ease of use, and although it has some missteps, its towing capacities, competitive fuel efficiency, tautly-drawn suspension, and off-road engineering make me a believer. It’s a large SUV that’s fun and easy to drive, with an interior that’s quiet and kid friendly, safety options galore, and in Platinum trim features plenty of Infiniti luxury, which all remain sizable selling points to buyers in this segment.
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