New & Used Nissan Pathfinder: In Depth
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The Nissan Pathfinder was once one of the toughest SUVs around, but is now more of a very car-like tall wagon. Though always a mid-sizer, the Pathfinder has changed pretty radically over the decades, reincarnating itself from rugged SUV roots into a polished crossover that can seat up to eight passengers, with several steps in between.
The Pathfinder has been part of Nissan's utility vehicle lineup since the 1980s and older and tougher Pathfinders competed more against the off-road-capable Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota 4Runner. Competitors for the latest Pathfinder include the GMC Acadia and Chevy Traverse twins, the Honda Pilot, the Toyota Highlander, and the Ford Explorer. The Pathfinder is currently twinned with the Infiniti QX60 crossover, which uses the same mechanicals but offers different styling, trim, and features.
When that first Pathfinder was launched back in the '80s, it was a hardscrabble truck model with seating for five in a very basic interior, crude appointments, and a rough ride. It wasn't until 1996 that it began to take on trappings of passenger friendliness. The previous-generation Pathfinder had been closely related to Nissan's Hardbody compact pickup, but that mid-Nineties Pathfinder traded the truck-based body-on-frame design for a new unibody that helped provide better ride and handling—though it still shared a 168-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6 with the pickups.
Things changed significantly in 2001 when the Pathfinder got a more modern engine. A 3.5-liter V-6 making 240 hp arrived to solve the power problem. While the Pathfinder was still capable off-road, the Xterra joined it in the Nissan lineup, offering a more rugged alternative to the ever-more-civilized Pathfinder. The Pathfinder retained its ability to tow and its somewhat stiff suspension, however, as well as its tight rear seat.
Before the current model, the Pathfinder was last completely redesigned for 2005, returning to body-on-frame construction that was once again closely related to that of the Frontier pickup as well as the Xterra. A 270-hp, 4.0-liter V-6 was standard, providing plenty of power for most needs, but a 310-hp, 5.6-liter V-8 was optional beginning in 2008. Those tempted by the V-8 in used examples should be forewarned that fuel economy is particularly atrocious with that engine.
That newly optional V-8 was accompanied by a design overhaul for the 2008 model year. Nissan gave the Pathfinder's front end a slight visual adjustment and made upgrades to the interior that year. The crossover saw few big changes through the 2012 model year, although the lineup did include SE Off-Road models in 2008 and 2009 with features aimed at trail enthusiasts, including a skid-plate package, off-road tires, and longer-travel Bilstein dampers.
The brand-new Pathfinder that arrived for the 2013 model year is a more carlike crossover vehicle. It shares some of its running gear with the smaller Nissan Murano, including the 260-hp V-6 engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT). It's offered with standard front-wheel drive or optional four-wheel drive (really all-wheel drive, but with a 4WD Lock mode). The latest Pathfinder handles and responds well on streets and highways, and trades the earlier models' towing and off-roading abilities for on-road ride and comfort, versatility, and seating space for seven.
A new Pathfinder Hybrid crossover was added to Nissan's lineup for the 2014 model year. The six-cylinder engine found in other versions is replaced in the Hybrid by a supercharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder and an add-on electric motor good for 15 kilowatts (22 hp) of power. The motor is located between a modified CVT and the engine, and the two power sources combine for a net of 250 hp. Unlike some other hybrids, the gas-electric Pathfinder can't run on electric power alone, but the assistance the motor provides helps to improve gas-mileage ratings by about 20 percent. That said, the Pathfinder Hybrid feels noticeably slower than the V-6 model, so the economy improvement is certainly a trade-off.
The same interior layout and powertrains can be found in the related Infiniti QX60, which was originally named JX when it debuted around the same time as the Pathfinder. The Infiniti offers a slightly higher level of luxury and features, although the two models drive very similarly. Because of the similarities, Nissan's version is certainly the better value for anyone considering the two.
The current Pathfinder scores well in crash testing, with a five-star overall rating from the NHTSA and a 2015 Top Safety Pick nod from the IIHS. It includes many safety features as standard or optional equipment, including blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, and a host of airbags over multiple rows.
For the 2015 model year, Nissan made only a few minor changes to the Pathfinder.