Things can change fast in the auto business. Back when the current Pathfinder was launched, in 2004 as a ’05 model, truck based SUVs represented around half the market. Today, the landscape is dominated by car-based crossovers and yet, there’s still a lot to be said about driving a proper Sport Utility.
|1. A 266-hp, 288 ft-lb 4.0L V6 is standard, while LE 4WD models come with a 310-hp, 388 ft-lb 5.6L V8.
2. Somewhat unique for a body-on-frame truck, the Pathfinder has a fully independent suspension.
3. V6 models get a 6,000 lb tow rating, while V8s are rated for 7,000 lbs.
4. Pricing starts at 27,440, with our SE 4×4 tester at $30,610.
This author remembers driving the 2005 Pathfinder when it was first launched, so testing the 2010 version was like revisiting and old friend. Some things have changed, like trim levels, which now comprise S FE, S, SE and LE, but a lot hasn’t. This third generation ’Finder is still what it was in the beginning – unapologetically a truck with a choice of two or four-wheel drive. It’s styling has been only mildly updated (2008), which means Tonka truck looks and big fat tires protruding from fairly muscular fenders are still the order of the day. Like every four-door Pathfinder that came before, it also features somewhat hidden rear handles, giving it the look of a classic two-door design.
Inside, despite getting on in years, the Pathfinder remains highly versatile. Three rows of seats mean seven-person capacity and both the second 40/20/40 split bench and 50/50 third row can fold flat into the floor, freeing up a whopping 79.2 cubic feet in cargo space (it’s 16.1 cu-ft with all seats in the up position). Other neat interior features include no fewer than 12 cargo tie downs, eight cup holders (two for bottles), a dual-storage glove box, standard tilt steering wheel and cruise control.
Both front seats are big and comfortable without being too softly sprung. Rake adjustment and lumbar are also good with 8-separate positions on the driver’s chair. We drove our test Pathfinder on several longer journeys and not once did we feel the need to stretch our backs. The tilt column allows for a good driving position and power adjustable pedals (offered on the SE and LE), are a nice for added pilot comfort. In back, the second row is also a comfortable perch and the third row, despite somewhat challenging access (particularly for taller souls), is still a better place to be than in quite a few other vans and SUVs. An optional 7-inch LCD entertainment screen is available for rear passengers on the LE model, with the DVD system housed in the center console, though it does reduce storage space.
Most controls are well laid out and easy to use, in contrast with some newer SUVs, especially the HVAC system. LE models can be fitted with an optional satellite navigation system that is relatively straightforward, if a bit archaic compared to some newer setups now on the market. If there is one criticism of the interior, it concerns the fit and finish. Not the seats – LE versions in particular have nicely appointed leather chairs, but the plastics – which seem to fall short in terms of quality, lending a very early 1990s cabin feel in some respects.
RUGGED AND READY
In terms of engineering, the Pathfinder features body-on the-frame construction, with a shorter version of the F-Alpha boxed steel frame used on the bigger Armada and Titan pickup. It also utilizes fully independent suspension (somewhat unique in the true truck class) and a sturdy driveline in the shape of a standard 4.0-liter V-6 engine and five-speed automatic transmission. The V6 is essentially an outgrowth of the dual overhead cam VQ35DE that powered the old Maxima, 350Z and Infiniti G35 among others, featuring a longer stroke to improve torque. Nissan rates it at 266 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 288 ft-lbs of torque at 4000. The result is a fairly powerful engine, however for a truck such as this, it is a bit peaky, requiring fairly high revs to make the most of its ability. This becomes particularly apparent when passing other vehicles on steep grades, especially when laden or with a trailer behind. However in most regular driving conditions it’s more than adequate. The five-speed automatic is fairly smooth, though downshifts can be a bit slow at times. A manual feature enables the driver to shift gears, enabling you to make better use of the engine’s power band, though it can be a little nannying at times.
LE models are also available with a version of the Armada’s 5.6-liter V8, rated at 310-hp and 388 ft-lbs of torque, though only in 4WD form. We haven’t driven a V8 Pathfinder, but suffice it to say it’s likely quite the sleeper, since this engine delivers fairly spritely performance in the bigger trucks (like the Armada we tested recently). It’s also rated to tow up to 7,000 lbs (the V6 has a 6,000 lb rating).
Fuel economy is a bit of a sore point – even on the rear-wheel-drive; V6 engined S FE (Fuel Economy) mode, where the name is a bit of misnomer. The best you can expect from this truck is around 17.5 mpg, while the others will struggle to get more than 16 mpg – around 15 mpg on the four-wheelers. (The V8 LE will likely be even thirstier). Making things worse is that both V6 and V8 models are designed to run on 91 octane premium gas, so best look elsewhere for longer commuter runs.
FULLY INDEPENDENT SUSPENSION, BUT STILL VERY MUCH A TRUCK
Ride quality is fairly good, not in the same level as some crossovers, but better than a lot of truck based machines, though over larger bumps the Pathfinder can be a bit jarring, especially with the larger wheels. Interior noise is also fairly minimal, though the built-in roof racks can cause a bit of whining, especially at freeway speeds on very cold days.
When it comes to handling, fully independent suspension or not, there’s no mistaking the Pathfinder as anything but a truck. Having said that, the steering is fairly direct (better than some Nissan cars we’ve driven in fact), but going wide into corners and a slight tail out exit are the norm. With 8.7-inches of ground clearance and fairly high center of gravity, the Pathfinder does roll noticeably as the speeds increase, the big 275/75/16 tires wanting to tuck under, but its still more sporting than some other trucks. SE and LE models are available with 17 and 18-inch wheels and tires, which deliver slightly improved grip through the corners. Thanks to four-wheel discs and four-channel ABS, plus electronic distribution, braking is quite impressive. Serious stops are straight, smooth and linear, with a noticeable absence of any serious front-end dive, at least by truck standards.
For several years, Nissan pitched the Pathfinder as a serious back road basher, even offering a specific SE off-road package; that added unique tires, Rancho shocks and hill descent control. Unfortunately it’s bitten the dust for 2010. Two-wheel drive models struggle to find traction on anything other than hard surface and given the Pathfinder’s weight (4,400 lbs+), are best left for tarmac driving, even though they look the part. The 4×4 SE we tested however; did rather well. Thanks to standard front and rear skid plates, plus a frame design that tucks everything above the line of the lower rails, there’s nothing that will likely be taken out by a tree stump or three when negotiating a trail.
Nissan equips 4×4 Pathfinders with a two-speed transfer case, either manual shift-on-the- fly, or automated (LE). It’s fairly seamless in operation, though engaging low range still requires shifting the transmission into neutral first. Traction is rarely a problem in a 4×4 Pathfinder and decent ground clearance means in most instances you’re not likely to get stuck or wedged, even when going up or down steep hills. Dual throttle mapping on the V6 also really comes into its own when off-road, providing extra low rpm thrust to get you moving, especially helpful on more hilly terrain.
As for pricing, the 2WD only S FE begins at $27,440, the S at $29,440, the SE from $30,610 and the LE from $36,910, though a fully-laden V8 model can go for $43,000 or more, which is rather expensive, especially considering you can get a very well-equipped Armada for that price, delivering a lot more capacity with roughly the same running costs.
Although now among the senior members of the current mid-size SUV segment, the sturdy Pathfinder still has a few trump cards. Sturdy, truck like construction, good 4×4 capability and ample interior space continue to make this proper rig a very practical alternative to many crossovers; but its relatively clumsy on-road handling and appetite for fuel might be tough to live with for some.