Pros: Strong engine, solid construction, spacious cargo area
Cons: Cramped rear seat, requires premium fuel, slightly tippy handling feel and slightly jittery ride
Normally Im not very interested in SUVs, but the recent infusion of horsepower into many vehicles in this segment has gotten my attention. The Nissan Pathfinder was a case in point. For years the Pathfinder barely got by with a 3.3 liter six that produced 170 horsepower. Since this vehicle weighs a bit over two tons, I didnt have to drive it to know it would be way too lethargic to suit my tastes. I supposed it was like a 4Runner a friend of mine once owned. His right foot spent a lot of time pressed hard against the floorboard just to get the truck moving. Fuel economy was of course awful. Then, in the spring of 2000 the Pathfinder received a new engine, a DOHC 3.5 liter good for 240 horsepower, a huge 70 horsepower jump. Now, even 240 horsepower isnt going to produce neck-snapping acceleration in a vehicle this heavy. But it should be enough to eliminate any sense that the truck is struggling to just get around in traffic. To find out, I took a loaded top-of-the-line Pathfinder LE for a test drive.
Nissan Pathfinder Reliability
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Styling and Accommodations
When the redesigned unit body Pathfinder was introduced in 1996, I thought it was a pathetic looking SUV. SUVs are supposed to look tough and rugged, and the Pathfinder looked wimpy. Late 㣾s top-of-the-line Pathfinders were often shod with smallish lacy-spoke alloys that might look OK on a touring sedan (though Id still personally prefer a more open, thicker spoked wheel design in nearly all cases) but were simply out of place on a truck. I guess this was done to communicate the Pathfinders superior ride and comfort compared to other SUVs at the time, courtesy of its unit body construction. Well, I guess I wasnt the only one who hated the look of the Pathfinder with these wheels, because they are now gone, replaced by some appropriately rugged-looking alloys. Though the Pathfinder is still no beauty, it has an honest, purposeful ruggedness to it that seems fitting for this type of vehicle. Somewhat like a Jeep Cherokee, with a touch more refinement.
The interior styling is similarly nothing special. Courtesy of the blocky dash and console it has an appropriately trucky look and feel to it. Even in the top-of-the-line LE I drove, complete with leather and such, it doesnt look or feel especially luxurious. But this is a truck, after all, so thats OK. Especially since the materials are a grade above those found in any domestic mid-sized SUVno cheap feeling plastics here. That honest and rugged with a touch of comfort thing again.
The driving position is high, as youd expect in an SUV. Thats why many people buy them, after all. That said, the driving position felt higher in the Pathfinder than in most of the other SUVs Ive driven recently. Maybe not Mitsu Montero or Ford Expedition high, but higher than mid-sized domestic SUVs. The interior also felt narrower than those in the 2002 Ford and GM competition. Im a bit puzzled by these sensations, because the exterior height and width are similar to the Explorers, but they were definitely there. Overall, the driving position and interior proportions felt more like those in the first generation of compact SUVs. More trucky somehow. On a positive note, visibility is excellent, and the cabin is not so narrow as to feel cramped, just cozy.
Front seat comfort didnt leave much of an impression either way. The seats felt sufficiently supportive for typical on-road SUV driving, nothing more, nothing less.
Rear seat comfort is a weakness. This is a smaller vehicle than the Ford and GM competition, and the difference is clearest in the rear seat. The cushion is low to the floor, so it provides no thigh support for non-short adults, and space back there is just adequate for moderately sized adults. Ford and GM have a clear advantage here. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is about the same, though, and actually provides less foot room because of intrusive front power seat motors.
Its a real shame the seat itself isnt very roomy or comfortable, because it does have one nifty feature: it reclines. For whatever reason domestic SUVs never have this feature. It would be nice for rear seat passengers to have on trips.
The cargo area is very spacious and well-shaped. Although the Pathfinder is significantly shorter in length than the GM and Ford products, and is about the same length as the Jeep Grand Cherokee, it ranks with the best in this segment in cargo room. Clearly better than the Jeep. So it seems that the short length mostly affected the rear seat.
On the Road
The real story is, of course, the engine. Some reviewers have gotten all carried away. You would think they were driving a Porsche. In reality, the new engine still lacks the low-end grunt of the larger Jeep V8 and the new GM six. The Pathfinder will no longer embarrass itself, but it still trails those SUVs a bit in full-throttle acceleration. That said, it picks up in the midrange, and gets fairly entertaining at high RPM. In other words, if you push it it will respond appropriately.
The new six makes fairly refined, typically Japanese noises. No domestic burbly exhaust here. None of the roughness present in the Explorer six, either. In other words, it feels quite a bit like the similar engine in the Maxima, just with another half ton to haul around and an extra half liter to do it with. And come to think of it, this engine is going into the 2002 Maxima and Altima, so it should feel and sound like a good car engine. Truck folks might be a bit disappointed, but for a car guy like me trucky engine noises are not missed. As I suspected, its no hot rod, but its just powerful enough to never feel underpowered and to even get a bit entertaining.
The new engine has one major strike against it. While the old engine used regular unleaded, the new one requires premium. Domestic SUVs, even the new DOHC GM six, only require regular.
The LE I drove has the fancy automatic 4WD system also used in the Pathfinder. This system looks much like that in the Ford and GM products. Though I did not take the Pathfinder off-road, I suspect it would perform well there.
Ride and handling are generally good for an SUV, with a few minor faults. The Pathfinders tall and narrow proportions make it feel just a bit tippy, a common trait with mid-sized Japanese SUVs. Nothing unsafe, but definitely not car-like. On the positive side, the unit body means there is none of the body-on-frame shimmy present in the Explorer, and the responses feel a bit more direct solid than the GM products (which have a bit of a rear end sway in aggressive driving). The steering is a bit more direct in feel than in domestic SUVs, but still nowhere near sport sedan territory. The brake pedal has a nice, firm feel.
The Pathfinder used to excel in the ride department. Though I drove the top-of-the-line LE, it was clear that some more recent designs, most notably the new GM products, have surpassed it. Despite the aim to endow the Pathfinder with a car-like ride, it still felt a bit jittery on many road surfaces. In short, it still rides more like a truck than like a car. Better than the Ford and the Jeep, but worse than the GM products. The noise level is similar to that in the better SUVs, which is to say fairly quiet but no Lexus.
With the recent updates the Pathfinder is a thoroughly competent vehicle. Styling and materials match the honest, rugged, yet also refined quality of this truck. Even in LE form its not really a luxury vehicle, but it contains no rough edges in any area while maintaining a fairly trucky feel. The major negatives are limited to a cramped rear seat and the requirement of premium gas. The driving position is a matter of personal taste. A test drive will determine if it suits you. If these things are not a problem for you, and you prefer how the Pathfinder looks and drives, then it is a good choice.
To learn more about my reliability research and sign up to participate in it, or to perform thorough, up-to-date new car price comparisons, visit www.truedelta.com. A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews can be found on my profile page.