The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder isn't built with the same kind of off-road hardiness and true-truck ability as before; this time the priority is the street, the highway, and to some degree, the curvy back road.
All Pathfinders are now powered by a very familiar engine and powertrain. Nissan’s 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, is what’s under the hood here, and it makes 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque, with the latest version here getting some new friction-reduction measures. Otherwise, it’s good to go on regular-grade gasoline and provides strong, smooth acceleration with the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).
The CVT is the latest high-torque unit, with a chain instead of a belt, and it has a wider ratio span than the previous unit used with V-6 engines. While that helps provide faster acceleration times as well as lower-rpm high-speed cruising, what suffers somewhat (as we've noted in Nissan's other newer wider-ratio units) is responsiveness. When you need a quick rush of power for squirting past traffic at, say, 30 mph, and the CVT is already lugging at low revs, there can be quite a delay from the time you kick the accelerator to the floor until revs ramp back up.
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 power steering feels responsive enough for its intent, with excellent weighting and decent on-center feel, plus good body control, for the most part. Quick maneuvers in one direction then the other, on small choppy back roads, revealed a little bit of bias transfer to the back that made it feel less dynamically inept than, say, the Toyota Highlander.
There's one letdown here. Apparently in order to meet mileage targets, the Pathfinder wears some relatively low-traction low-rolling-resistance tires (Continental Cross Contact LX 18-inchers for most of the models) that, we feel, detracts from the driving experience, giving us far less grip than it feels the suspension and reasonably well-controlled body could handle. Larger 20-inch wheels and tires are offered in top-of-the-line Platinum models, and while we didn't get quite the chance to give one of these a workout, we noted the same issue here.
On front-wheel-drive models you do get noticeable torque steer (a pulling to one side and/or the other on hard acceleration, even if you have enough traction.
Models with the so-called All-Mode 4x4-i system come with an Auto mode that sends most power to the front wheels except when it’s needed in back for more traction or stability; a 4WD Lock mode engages the equivalent of a center diff lock, sending an equal 50/50 to the front and rear axles, with the electronic system still managing distribution side to side. There’s also a 2WD mode that Nissan officials say can be engaged to boost your gas mileage slightly when roads are completely dry and clear.
In an early drive opportunity, we had a chance to take the Pathfinder on a steep, dry, and slightly rocky two-track, and found the Pathfinder's all-wheel drive capability to be beyond what most family shoppers will expect. There's less ground clearance than you'll find in a Subaru Outback, but the suspension feels up to the task on rutted surfaces.
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.