The 2014 Nissan Pathfinder is squarely in the sweet spot of the mid-size crossover world: a large three-row vehicle that can carry seven people, with car-like ride and handling, optimized for use on suburban pavement and--to a lesser degree--curvy back roads and muddy athletic fields or graveled parking lots.
The standard powertrain in all Pathfinders is the familiar Nissan 3.5-liter V-6, which appears in products from the 370Z sports car to the Maxima sedan. In this use, it's rated at 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque, with updates to reduce friction and provide maximum power on regular gasoline. It's paired to Nissan's familiar Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), now driven by a chain rather than a belt. It has a wider range between the lowest and highest ratios, which improves acceleration and lowers engine speed during highway cruising. But responsiveness can suffer, and the Pathfinder sometimes has quite a delay as the engine speed spools up to deliver more power if it's been loafing along at low revs.
New this year is a second powertrain option, the Pathfinder Hybrid. This pairs a supercharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a 15-kilowatt (22-hp) electric motor sandwiched between the engine and a modified version of the CVT, with a clutch on either end. The combination of engine and motor is rated at 250 hp, just 10 hp shy of the V-6 output.
The hybrid Pathfinder suffers from the same transmission lag, and occasionally feels underpowered. But its oddest feature is that the engine start-stop function appears not to work--at least in our prototype Pathfinder Hybrid--when the air conditioning is on, presumably so the engine can keep the compressor running. It's a problem Ford fixed on its Escape Hybrid back in 2009, but to keep costs down, Nissan hasn't fitted electric air conditioning. That means that in hot weather, the hybrid system forgoes the fuel-saving benefits of shutting down the engine when the car has stopped.
With a small single electric motor in a large, heavy vehicle, the Pathfinder Hybrid also has no ability to propel itself on electricity alone. Like Honda's mild-hybrid IMA system, the electric motor is strictly there to help out a smaller gasoline engine. Nissan says the hybrid model will be much closer in price to the gasoline version than in competing products--presumably meaning the Highlander Hybrid--but we wonder whether buyers will expect "hybrid" to mean some ability for all-electric running.
With either powertrain, the Pathfinder droves more like a softly sprung sedan than a large utility vehicle--and it's easy to forget how much metal is following behind you. It's lighter than some competitors, so there's less sense of heft behind the wheel. We did notice some torque steer in front-wheel-drive models, but not in the all-wheel-drive versions, which send most of the power to the front wheels until it's needed in back for traction or stability. The driver can select a 2WD mode for front-wheel drive only, maximizing fuel efficiency, or a 4WD Lock mode to distribute power equally front and rear (the system still modulates power delivery side to side).
The response of the Pathfinder's hydraulic-electric power steering is quick, it's well-weighted, and it has decent on-center feel. Throw the Pathfinder quickly back and forth on choppy roads, and you'll get better control than some more inept competitors (the last generation of Toyota Highlander stands out there). The one drawback is that the low-rolling-resistance tires fitted to most models don't offer nearly as much grip as you'd expect from the well-controlled body. The problem occurs with both the standard 18-inch and optional 20-inch wheels.
The optional tow package gives the V-6 Pathfinder towing capability up to 5,000 pounds, or 3,500 for the Hybrid, with different programming for the CVT when the loads on the transmission are heavier. Most family buyers will never test the limits of the Pathfinder's all-wheel drive; while the crossover has less ground clearance than, say, a Subaru Outback, it handles rutted surfaces with assurance.