There are some who are still smarting over Nissan’s decision to turn the Pathfinder from an off-roader into a soft-roader in 2013. Those same people will probably defecate kittens when they learn that the Pathfinder will be available in a hybrid version for 2014.
|1. Hybrid pathfinders are powered by a supercharged 2.5L 4-cylinder mated to a 15 kW electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack to produce 250 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque.
2. Fuel economy is rated at 25 MPG city and 28 MPG highway for FWD models (25/27 for AWD), roughly a 25 percent improvement over the V6.
3. With no base S model, the Pathfinder Hybrid SV starts at $35,970 or roughly $3,000 more than the equivalent V6 model.
A SUPERCHARGED HYBRID
The Pathfinder Hybrid’s drivetrain is built around a supercharged (yes, supercharged!) version of Nissan’s 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine. A 15 kW electric motor is sandwiched between the gas engine and the Pathfinder’s CVT automatic transmission, adding 20 horsepower to the engine’s 230 for a total system output of 250 hp (ten fewer than the V6-powered Pathfinder).
A pair of clutches separates the three elements, which allows electric motor to power the Pathfinder Hybrid independently of the gasoline engine. (It also allows Nissan to sneak the phrase “dual clutch” into their PR and marketing materials, though the Pathfinder Hybrid’s arrangement has nothing to do with the dual-clutch transmissions found in performance and economy cars.)
From the transmission back, the drivetrain is identical to that in the V6-powered Hybrid, including optional “4×4-i” all-wheel-drive system. The electric motor draws its power from a 144-volt lithium ion battery pack that fits under the third row seat, and since the Pathfinder was designed from the get-go with a hybrid option, there is no impact on interior space. Towing capacity is reduced, however, from 5,000 lbs to just 3,500 lbs.
EPA fuel economy estimates are 25 MPG city and 28 MPG highway for front-wheel-drive versions and 25/27 with all-wheel-drive, a significant step up from the V6-powered models, which are rated at 20/26 and 19/25.
COULD THE FUEL ECONOMY BE BETTER?
In theory, the Pathfinder Hybrid can stop its gas engine when it’s not needed; in practice, this happens far less often than it does in other hybrids. The air conditioning compressor is run off the engine, so if the A/C is on, the engine won’t shut off at stoplights. And while the Pathfinder Hybrid will run on battery power alone at highway speeds — we repeatedly saw the tach drop to 0 while cruising at 65 — it won’t do it at steady speeds in town.
We asked a Nissan staffer about this curious behavior, and he said it was an intentional choice: Clutching and declutching the engine at low speeds creates too much vibration and harshness. “This vehicle isn’t being purchased by Prius owners,” he told us. “It’s being bought by Pathfinder buyers who want better gas mileage. We want to give them a smoother driving experience.”
And on that, the Pathfinder Hybrid does indeed deliver. The vehicle we tested was a top-of-the-line Platinum model stuffed with every feature the Pathfinder offers, including buttery-soft leather seats, a power tailgate, Bose stereo, and touch-screen navigation. The Pathfinder Hybrid offers an active noise cancellation system, and it did a stellar job keeping the interior as quiet as a library. It’s a very nice vehicle — so nice we have to wonder how Nissan plans to sell the Infiniti version (the QX60, formerly known as the JX35).
IN A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN?
Size-wise, the Pathfinder feels bigger than the Toyota Highlander, which happens to be the only other seven-seat SUV to offer a hybrid option. In terms of seating, it’s closer to the General Motors Lambda triplets (Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia), with a third-row seat that is tight but useable, plus 16 cubic feet of cargo space with all three rows in place. But the Pathfinder doesn’t feel as large or ungainly as the Lambdas, and it’s far easier to park, especially when equipped with the Around View Monitor, which uses strategically mounted cameras to give a virtual overhead view.
ON THE ROAD
The hybrid powertrain does a good job motivating the 4,700 lb. Pathfinder. The off-the-line launch is a bit slow, but then again it’s got quite a lot to do, what with a gas engine to restart and all those clutches to close. Once on the move, acceleration is virtually indistinguishable from the V6; of course it doesn’t hurt that the supercharged four-cylinder by itself develops more torque (243 lb-ft) than the standard V6 (240 lb-ft).
Handling and braking are virtually identical to the regular Pathfinder. Body control and grip are quite good; as big and tall as the Pathfinder feels, it’s a pleasant surprise to push it hard into a corner and have it respond with very little body lean. Shame about the electric power steering, though: It has a nice heft to it, but it feels vague and imprecise on center, and requires constant correction on the highway.
And what of the real-world fuel economy? We took a relatively brief drive that mixed city, highway and suburban roads, and while we thought the limited auto-stop functionality would hinder the MPG figure, the Pathfinder surprised us by returning 26.3 MPG — just as promised.
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Nissan is offering the Pathfinder Hybrid in the same trim levels as the regular Pathfinder save the base-model S. The Pathfinder Hybrid SV is priced at $35,970 (including the mandatory destination charge), the SV at $38,910, and the Platinum at $43,610, with four-wheel-drive versions priced $1,600 higher. That puts the hybrid price premium at $3,000.
Will buyers make that money back? If the EPA fuel economy figures are right, the Pathfinder Hybrid will burn about 110 fewer gallons of gasoline than the V6-powered version over a 12,000 mile year. At $3.50 per gallon, it would take nearly eight years for the hybrid drivetrain to pay for itself. So economically, the Pathfinder Hybrid doesn’t make much sense… but it is marginally better for the environment than the V6-powered Pathfinder.
The Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid is in the envious spot of having no direct competitors, at least not right now. Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid doesn’t offer nearly as much passenger space, and 8-seaters like the GM Lambdas and the Honda Pilot don’t offer a hybrid option (though that may change when Honda’s updated Pilot arrives in the next year or so). The closest rival may well be the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which offers a powerful and fuel-efficient diesel engine, though no third row of seats. We’re big fans of diesel-powered SUVs, which frequently deliver better real-world fuel economy than their EPA numbers would suggest, but so far the rest of the country doesn’t seem to be sold on them.
Overall, we came away with a favorable impression of the Pathfinder Hybrid. It offers plenty of space, a high-lux cabin, and decent driving dynamics while returning the same fuel economy as a much smaller vehicle. If you can accept a complete deviation from the Pathfinder’s legacy, you might like it, too.