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The Nissan Pathfinder is a mighty familiar SUV nameplate in the U.S. market. It's been around more than a quarter century; yet this year it warrants a complete reintroduction.
Current or former Pathfinder owners looking to rekindle their relationship with the new version are likely to be sorely disappointed, as the 2013 Pathfinder doesn't exactly follow in the previous model's footsteps. This is no longer a musclebound truck; and Nissan wasn't shooting for rock-crawling ability, or powerboat-towing prowess.
Those who clear their preconceptions will find who Nissan was opening the doors to: families, and especially families who need a little extra space. For that, you'll likely find the Pathfinder to be an attractive, well-thought-out vehicle that performs better (and more efficiently) than a number of other family crossovers on the road—where it matters.
The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder has made that transition to a passenger-oriented uni-body design—now with just a dash of ruggedness—and its styling, with a soft, rakish tall-wagon look, communicates exactly that. It's a little more swept-back, rakish, and curvaceous compared to other large crossovers, with a much more swept-back stance compared to most rival models; altogether it's more wagon-like to our eyes than any of its rivals, like the Highlander, Pilot, or Explorer—not a bad thing, really. The Pathfinder's heavily sculpted front fenders and rear fender accents give the design the right degree of 'pop,' and they fit right in with the design aesthetic of Nissan's latest passenger-car models like the Altima and Sentra. Inside, there's some trickle-down design and appointments from Infiniti for sure, but unremarkable materials and a limited set of just two rather drab interior colors makes the cabin feel unexpectedly conservative.
Provided you keep to the streets and highways—as Nissan is anticipating that the vast majority of Pathfinder owners will do—this is a vehicle that responds far better than last year's model of the same name. All Pathfinders are now powered by the familiar 3.5-liter 'VQ' V-6, which has been used in everything from the 370Z to the Maxima and Murano, all in somewhat different tunes. Here it makes 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque, is good to go on regular-grade gasoline, and provides strong, smooth acceleration with the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). With a wider span than the previous unit—and a sturdy chain instead of a belt—this CVT allows quicker acceleration and lower revs when cruising, although we note that there's quite a delay for quick bursts of power for passing. Otherwise when you're behind the wheel of the Pathfinder, it's quite easy to forget that you're driving any kind of utility vehicle. The Pathfinder responds in corners much more like a softly spring sedan than an SUV, and it drives without the nagging sense of heft that heavier models like GM's full-size crossovers (which weigh several hundred pounds more) have. The hydraulic-electric steering in particular is excellent.
Models with four-wheel drive come with an Auto mode, as well as a 4WD Lock mode that sends an equal 50/50 to the front and rear axles, with traction-control electronics managing distribution side to side. There’s also a 2WD mode that can boost your gas mileage slightly when roads are completely dry and clear. There's still some trail ability here, but don't expect much more than you'd get in, say, a Subaru Outback (there's actually less ground clearance). When equipped with the tow package, the Pathfinder can pull up to 5,000 pounds, and the chain-driven CVT will settle to a different cruising RPM depending on loads.
The new Pathfinder feels like it was designed for passenger comfort, interior space, and interior flexibility above nearly all else. It fits in for height and width within a few inches of the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, and Toyota Highlander, yet it's quite a bit longer than any of those models—a few inches shorter than the super-roomy GM full-size crossovers (Traverse, Acadia, Enclave) and around the same length as the Mazda CX-9. Most of that length goes to the cabin, and it follows that the Pathfinder actually fits three usable rows of seating. Second-row bench accommodations can be slid back up to 5.5 inches when there's nobody back in the third row, though adults may find it hard to get comfortable as they're quite short, flat, and van-like, as well as surprisingly low—inviting a sort of legs-splayed position. The third row is low and hard, with barely enough headroom for an average adult—in other words, it's roomier than the typical third row. And the second row has a trick ‘Latch and Glide’ function that lets you leave child seats in place while tilting the second row forward.
Ride quality is another strength for the Pathfinder. It's smooth and refined—Nissan has paid extra attention to secondary vibrations—and you don't hear or feel minor road coarseness. Wind noise is also kept under wraps even at Interstate cruising speeds, and the V-6 here is one of the few engines mated to a CVT that doesn't drone insufferably when accelerating rapidly.
Nissan boasts that the Pathfinder provides “premium features for all passengers,” and especially if you spring for one of the higher trim levels, and some key options, that's true. Opt for the top-of-the-line Pathfinder Platinum and for a bottom-line price of about $42k (4WD) you get the tow package, cooled front seats, the Bose audio system, navigation, and an Around View Monitor, all with a higher-resolution eight-inch WVGA display. With the available Nissan Navigation System, you also get traffic information, Bluetooth streaming audio, and voice recognition. Also on offer is a tri-zone entertainment system that lets you play separate programming for each of the two seven-inch rear screens (DVD, gaming input, or photos), all while front-seat occupants can listen to their own programming. All that's missing on the Pathfinder is the taste of high-tech convenience features—like adaptive cruise control, or a blind-spot system—that are starting to jump from luxury brands down to the mainstream.