The SUV started as nothing more than a pickup truck frame with a hard roof covering what was the bed. Big and clunky – but dry. That was the ’70s and in the decades following, the segment has exploded with SUVs of all sizes and makes. It’s now the single most popular automotive body style overall.
Two popular higher-end SUVs are the Toyota Highlander and the Nissan Pathfinder. If you are in the market for a larger family hauler these two would be an example of similar trucks you are likely to cross-shop – so here is the first step – our side by side take on these two market mainstays.
2018 is a carry-over year for both the Toyota and Nissan. However, in 2017 they both received significant updates. Of the changes, electronics, powertrain, and driver assist features topped the list. Body style changes were subtle because, frankly, the traditional three-box SUV design doesn’t have to change – it’s the essence of what makes these vehicles practical.
The Highlander’s look is described by Toyota as sleek and refined. This description speaks to the lack of hard body lines and a rear hatch that is raked forward giving the Highlander an “always in motion” look. They also added new front and rear fascia that incorporated new LED tail lamps, integrated signals, and a rear spoiler. The Nissan Pathfinder, on the other hand, is “blocky” in its look. However, they did add a new “V-Motion” grille and boomerang-shaped headlights for an aggressive front stance. New LED running lights and a new front bumper design with incorporated fog lamps completes the adventurous look they are after. In the rear taillight and bumper changes mirror the front end updates. New aluminum-alloy wheel designs are available with sizes up to 20-inches. Six exterior colors are on offer including a new hue – Caspian Blue.
|Vehicle||Toyota Highlander Hybrid||Advantage||Nissan Pathfinder|
|Engine||3.5L V6 Hybrid||-||3.5L V6|
|Horsepower||306 combined gas/electric||Highlander||284|
|Truck Capacity (cu-ft)||13.6 cu-ft, 82.6 cu-ft w/seats folded||Seats up: Pathfinder, Seats down: Highlander||16 cu-ft, 79.8 cu-ft w/seats folded|
|Towing Capacity (lb)||3500 lb||Pathfinder||6,000 lb|
|US Fuel Economy (MPG)||27 City, 29 Highway, 28 average||Highlander||25.5 City, 19 Highway, 21.5 Average|
|CAN Fuel Economy (L/100km): 8.1 city/8.5 highway /8.3 combined||Highlander||9.2 city /12.4 highway /11.0 combined|
|US Starting Price||$45,160.00||Pathfinder||$42,570.00|
|CAN Starting Price||$56,640.00||Pathfinder||$48,398.00|
The common elements of these two SUVs include seating for up to eight. Three rows of seats (the rear two sets of which, in each model, fold flat to make a cavernous cargo space). Four doors and a full rear hatch. The two offer FWD, AWD, and 4WD variations. They will both tow when properly equipped. This short list boils down the essence of each of these SUVs – they are about people, cargo, and all-weather traction.
But, now we dive into the presentation of the driver (and passenger) features and comforts each has – for most buyers this is the deciding purchase factor. In the cockpit of the Highlander, you’ll see a flat dash with buttons and dials controlling all driver operated functions. Clearly marked, easily seen and well spaced, the layout is very functional. The dash cluster (in the Hybrid) has the basic sweep gauges as well as one showing the power/eco-performance of the electric input. The center stack is built around an 8-inch touchscreen that has redundant controls for the HVAC, Nav and infotainment system. A long cargo shelf running from under the stack to above the passenger side glove box will be a welcome spot to toss stuff. It will also be frustrating to dig out that stuff when needed. This catch-all space seems to invite clutter.
The shifter is well placed, the armrest console is functional and it’s the right height. What isn’t functional are the control buttons that are under the shelf in front of the shifter. They are impossible to see without leaning right and looking into that hole – this is in contrast to the double row of buttons on the left of the steering column that is well placed and easily seen. The second-row captain’s seats in this Limited edition Highlander are heated and those passengers get their own HVAC controls clearly mounted in the rear of the center console. A gigantic sunroof stretches over rows one and two. The third-row seats three – kids, I’d say – for the few times most owners will need it; it will do.
The dash of the Nissan Pathfinder is deeper and rounder with a multitude of controls, some with triple redundancy, like the radio that can be tuned on-screen, with traditional rotary knobs and or on the steering wheel. In fact, the Pathfinder center stack is far too busy, requiring repeated glances away from the road when looking for the right button, many of which are small. The standard 8-inch screen mimics the 8-inch DVD monitors in the back of the driver and passenger headrests. Woodgrain and brushed nickel accent strips, balance the look of the dash. Unlike the Toyota, storage in the dash is limited; however there are no buttons are hidden around the shifter. The armrest console though is larger and inset pockets on the doors and console make up for the lack of dash space.
The second row features a new tilt and glide system giving easier access to the 3rd row – which once again is where only kids should go. Well, maybe your mother-in-law. The second row is heated, also has HVAC controls, power plugs and of course the head-rest video babysitters.
Both Nissan and Toyota materials, accents, stitching and color schemes are understated and solid. Nothing to excite the senses here – but practicality is the focus and both nail the “look” of it and the execution as well.
In the Highlander driver-assist and safety technology gets top billing starting with Toyota’s bird’s eye wiew monitor; blind spot monitor and rear cross traffic alert. A nice feature is the one-button video circle check. With this, an on-screen image cycles through every camera view, letting you see everything around the Highlander before you turn a wheel. Standard tech on every Highlander includes a pre-collision system; pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, auto high beams, dynamic radar cruise control, eight airbags, backup camera and tire pressure monitoring system. The Hybrid feature on this Highlander adds high-torque electric motors and a sophisticated power management system to this SUV. Benefits? It saves fuel and adds power – of course, the price rises accordingly. The Hybrid also utilizes a CVT transmission (an eight-speed is used in the gas-only version).
See Also: Are Hybrids Reliable?
Nissan has also added driver-assist features to this newest Pathfinder starting with moving object detection that works with the around view monitor. This adds another layer to the blind spot warning and rear cross traffic alert systems. To put these warnings front and center the Pathfinder has added an advanced drive-assist display, located in the instrument display. Standard tech on every Pathfinder includes tire pressure monitoring, dual-stage airbags including curtain and seat-mounted side impact bags. It also has vehicle dynamic control, traction control system, intelligent cruise control and electronic brake force distribution.
The 3.5L V6 in the Pathfinder has been massaged to add 19 lb-ft of torque along with e-VTC (a fully electronic intake). This engine also uses direct injection and drives an Xtronic transmission (CVT) that simulates shifts very naturally. The chassis gets revised suspension, stiffer front, and rear springs- all of which have changed its driving dynamics for the better.
First and foremost, both of these SUVs are very quiet. This suggests quality as does the very restrained engine and transmission noise. As for the on-road performance, the Toyota with its Hybrid assist gets the Highlander off the line quicker, but the Pathfinder isn’t far behind. Both trucks are planted and have very little roll in corners or on-ramps. They both feel good on-road and seeing that neither of these vehicles are ever going to be driven like sports cars, trying to find the outer edge of performance is pointless. Instead, as family haulers, they both feel confident with good steering response and acceleration/braking feel. There is an overall aura of security while driving these trucks. For off-road capability I’d give the edge to the Highlander, but only slightly. On the other hand if weekend towing is an activity you pursue, Pathfinder has added 1,000 lbs of capacity for a new total of 6,000 lbs. The Highlander Hybrid is rated at only 3,500 lbs.
The Verdict: 2018 Toyota Highlander vs Nissan Pathfinder
These trucks are packed with all the electronics that contribute to safety as well as the systems that entertain and make any road trip comfortable. This is the market they want and they both have offered a contender to anyone who is cross-shopping. The tipping point will be the price for some, but not all. The towing factor may be the enticement or the video components, and there is a noticeable fuel consumption difference. Style-wise, differences are subtle although I prefer the simpler Toyota layout. Frankly, this contest could go either way and it will come down to the needs of the individual buyer; each of whom has needs as different as what these trucks are trying to be.