Pros: Get up and go, comfortable, quiet, consistent, deliberate
Cons: Poor radio, poor mileage, no LSD available, car frame, cost of repair, reliability problems
That's right. As much as I love pathfinders, and this is my third one, I have to say that I'm somewhat disappointed. I'll get to that later.
First, there are some fantastic things about the 2003 Pathfinder SE 4x4.
Handling and Performance
The new engine, also in the new maxima, is much more powerful than the legacy 3.3 or 3.0 engines. There is a lot of get-up-and-go which allows you to command the road with confidence. Merging and passing are no longer decisions that need to be made - you can just do it. Braking is equally good as this car can stop very quickly. The new pathfinder handles much more like a car than it used to, and this can be a good thing. Turning is very pleasurable and the good lateral support in the seats makes this even more true. There is less body roll than you would expect in a 4000 pound vehicle. The new pathfinder comes with larger tires than my last one - 255/65/16. These absorb a lot more road vibration and make driving more smooth and quiet.
The 4x4 system has been improved over my last pathfinder. The shift on the fly speed has been increased to 50MPH (the limit of how fast you are supposed to go in 4wd) and the requirement to reverse direction to unlock the front hubs has been eliminated (this was never a hard requirement as the front diff is full slip). Also, shifting into 4wd is still a manual linkage, and is smoother than ever. The automatic transmission shift smoothly and precisely most of the time.
Towing is smooth and assertive, and the 5000lb towing capacity is everything I've come to expect from a vehicle in this class.
Where did my Limited Slip Differential go!? The LSD is no longer offered as an option on the Pathfinder, no doubt because they want to sell you the Vehicle Dynamics Control package. This kills the pathfinder for use in the snow or off road. The good thing is that the rear end is a pumpkin and can be replaced with the LSD out of a 2002 for about $1000 in parts (if you buy them new from the factory). This voids the warranty on the drive shaft, rear end, and rear axles, but if you ever plan on driving in the snow or off road, you almost have to do this.
The transmission can get really spongy sometimes, especially when hesitating on acceleration. If you push down on the gas slowly, it will act like it can't make up its mind whether to downshift. As a result, you can watch the tach needle wander around between the gears. This also means that you're not getting much power to the wheels. The best thing to do is get on the gas like you mean it, and it'll snap down into the lower gear and get out of its own way.
The pathfinder, starting with the 1999.5, is also built on a car frame instead of a truck frame. This essentially makes the Pathfinder a crossover SUV instead of a real SUV, at least in my mind.
Finally, if you have to ask what mileage it gets, you can't afford to put gas in it. Premium is a requirement (although a guy I work with uses 87 with no problems.. yet). At $1.80+ per gallon, it costs nearly $40 to fill the tank. I'd rather have 230HP than 245HP if it meant being able to use 87 instead of 91+. With a 10:1 compression ratio, if you run 87 in this thing for a prolonged period of time, I imagine you'll start to see bad things happen.
CONSTRUCTION AND FEEL
The new pathfinder feels very solid. Most everything about this car feels deliberate. The doors make a nice firm sound when closing. Not harsh and not too soft.
Kudos on this: but the controls for just about everything are exactly where they were in my last pathfinder, which was 9 years older than this one! I love not having a learning curve. The only things they moved were the switch for the fog lights, gas door, and rear window release. Everything else is right where it's supposed to be.
The seats are very comfortable and the cloth fabric is first rate. The fabric on the seating surfaces (and the door highlights) is this interesting egg-carton looking texture that is dark silver in contrast to the charcoal colored cloth elsewhere. It's extremely attractive and really lends to the contemporary styling of the interior. There is also no cheap-feeling hard plastic anywhere. Everything is covered in this quasi-soft rubbery-feeling textured material that, like the seating fabric, is really top notch. There are also metallic accents throughout the interior that really tie things together nicely.
They've added auto-up and auto-down driver and front passenger power windows, which is really convenient. The rear seats also recline (yay!).
The stereo is absolutely horrible. When I test drove the car, it was on a local FM station that sounded okay, but as soon as I started listening to my CDs, I realized that this hot Bose system was not worth the $800 it cost. The response is way too boomy with very little control over equalization. They give you control over Bass and Treble (the Treble has almost no effect). There is way too much midrange bass (100-200Hz) and almost none of anything else. There is definitely not enough midrange to bring out the color in any acoustic music (which is just about all I listen to) or vocals. If you listen to rap, this is a great stereo. Anything else, the local family-owned (I hope) stereo shop will be your first stop after picking up your new pathfinder.
If you roll down the rear windows an equal amount (or close to it) there is a very unpleasant beat in the car. You have to crack the front windows to get rid of it.
The automatic climate control is on crack. You can't limit the (very loud) fan speed in automatic mode, nor is it easy to get into a mode in which the A/C compressor will not come on. If you want the defroster, you're forced to have the A/C running. Also, cycling through the "MODE" button will also eventually put you in an A/C mode, whether you want it or not. It would be nice if they had put a "manual" button on it in addition to "AUTO" and "ECON."
Also, if you actually do want the A/C to be on, you have to be in auto mode which means using the temperature setting to regulate the (very loud) fan speed instead of the fan speed switch (counter intuitive?). If you press the fan speed switch while in AUTO, it drops to manual mode and shuts off the A/C compressor. GAH!
I don't get road rage at all the New Jersey drivers around here, I get road rage at the climate control.
Finally, what is with that roofrack? It looks fantastic, but it's almost impossible to use. Thule and Yakima both make racks that will fit those gigantic crossbars (and the Nissan factory accessory is a Yakima), but it takes a lot. My suggestion is to use a Thule 889 and buy extra spare parts from their website to put the rear loadbar on. Then, it acts just like any regular Thule rack.
OTHER COMMENTS AND CONCLUSIONS
The 2003 pathfinder is definitely the strongest contender I've seen in the crossover SUV market. While it is no longer in my mind a real SUV/Truck, it does have great utility for around-the-house chores or the occasional trip to the local family-owned and operated lumber/hardware store. It is also a comfortable choice for those long trips.
Just be judicious in the snow, and only go offroad if you absolutely have to.
Fuel mileage is not as good as the sticker says. You can probably expect 17MPG on the highway and about 10MPG in town if you use premium that has 10% MTBE (which is everything around Philadelphia). It probably gets better, and closer to EPA estimates, using real gas.
The price was great - just over $26k after rebates and discounts. I'm very pleased they've made so many refinements without drastically jacking up the price.
** 12/02/2003 UPDATE **
My Pathfinder now has 14k miles on it, so I thought I'd give a bit of an update. Overall, I'm fairly happy with the vehicle. Mileage has improved somewhat to about 19mpg on the highway, two better than the 17 it got when it was new. I can probably thank Mobil-1 for some of that.
I have a persistent 'Service Engine Soon' light that is being caused by a small leak in the evaporative emission control system. I have a service appointment this week to have it repaired - I believe it is just a bad gas cap gasket.
I have become more accustomed to the radio, although now that it is getting cold I have discovered that my particular unit cannot play CDs when it is cold. It just skips over and over, and eventually spits out the CD. They're going to look into that as well.
Here's the big negative. After only 14k miles, the interior rattles very badly! Every time I hit a small bump, I hear squeaks and rattles everywhere. I cleaned everything out of the glove box and all of the compartments thinking it was just junk I had in the truck, but not so! It sounds like everything is loose. I'd hate to imagine if I went offroad frequently - it would probably be even worse. The dealer told me that this is "normal" and is not covered under warranty. This is not "normal" by any means.
Will post an update about my service experience later.
08/14/2004 - 30k Mile Update - Well, I found a new dealer to take care of my check engine light. The first dealer I went to kept simply turning it off, so it would just come on again the next day. The dealer had the truck for 5 days and finally diagnosed a bad gas cap (which is what I had told them when I brought it in). No more check engine light - thank goodness. They also replaced the CD player under warranty and also tightened down a lot of the interior paneling to get rid of the noises. I'm happy with what they did. The 30k mile service was $400 and included a lot of little items. The truck definitely felt new again when I got it back. Kudos to Ardmore Nissan!
07/01/2005 - 50k Mile Update - Still going okay, except there are a couple of new problems. First, the driver's side window auto-up sensor is broken, so it always re-opens the window after closing it because it thinks something is caught in the window. I took it to a dealer and got an estimate of... get this... $1200 to fix!!! $1200!!! So, I just don't use the auto-up feature anymore. Seriously, that's just outrageous. There are some good things to say. Mileage is even better now. I've been consistently getting 21 on the highway and 16 in town.
03/15/2006 - 65k Mile Update - Serious problems with this vehicle. There is something seriously wrong with the drivetrain that has conveniently come up just after the drivetrain warranty expired, and even more suspiciously just a couple of thousand miles after the 60k mile service. This winter, I started to notice that the transmission would not go into overdrive until the car had been running for a while. I was told repeatedly by two dealers that this was "normal" and that the transmission needed to warm up before the computer would let it go into O/D. Of course, this is the very first winter when this has happened, which they tried to explain away as it being a colder winter, even though this was the mildest winter on record. Anyhow, they managed to placate me against my better instincts for the time being. One of the unfortunate side effects of this problem is that mileage has plummeted to 13MPG highway and 10MPG city. This past week, the transmission problems have become even worse. Not only does it take 15 minutes of driving (even in warm weather) for the transmission to go into overdrive, but now it will not come out of O/D when throttle is reduced to zero. The engine nearly stalls when coming to a stop, but luckily it manages to unlock itself before that happens. Also, on the shift from first to second, the transmission momentarily lets go alltogether, causing RPMs to swell between shifts. I wonder if the Nissan dealers will tell me that's also "normal."
In addition to the transmission seemingly dying, the CD player doesn't work (AGAIN), with the same exact problem as before. It starts by not being able to play CDs when it's cold, and then gradually expands into not being able to play CDs at all. This is the FOURTH radio that has been in this truck.
Alternator troubles... in the recent heavy snow, the alternator kept cutting out, and the discharge indicator on the dashboard DID NOT LIGHT. So, whatever was happening that caused the alternator to stop charging, it was not something that the computer was able to see.
Cold starts... even after having been tuned up at the 60k mile service, it takes much more effort to start the car, even when warm. Also, performance is noticeable diminished (compared to a 2003 that a co-worker owns that has less than 20k miles on it). Throttle response is poor in comparison to the younger pathfinder. I just did not notice it due to a gradual onset. This may also have something to do with poor mileage.
In general, I have two major issues. The first is the reliability, but I think that stems more from a systemic problem with the way Nissan does business. I discovered that the Nissan dealers here do not perform scheduled maintenance as is described in the owners manual. For example, at the 30k mile service, the manual indicates that the transmission needs to be serviced, but the dealer I took it to did not perform the service. When asked why, they said it was not something they do at 30k because they don't feel it is needed. I took it to a different dealer for the 60k mile service, and they did not service the 4x4 bearings, which is indicated in my owners manual. They claimed they just like to wait until they do a brake job because it saves them money to do it all at once.
In my epinion, there is no reason for this. Dealers should not take it upon themselves to go against the manufacturer of the product. I have not determined whether the problems with my truck are defects by design or defects by negligence on the part of the dealers who performed my scheduled maintenance. I will post a final followup to this when I received adequate response from Nissan North America. Their response thus far has been to ignore me.