2013 Nissan Pathfinder: First Drive

October 18, 2012
Have you reshuffled your priorities in a family vehicle over the past few years? Most busy parents have, and those who might have opted for a full-fledged SUV a few years ago probably aren't quite as smitten over the idea of a musclebound off-road truck. Meanwhile, rakish, crossover utility vehicles continue to be the family vehicles of choice—especially if they have the added flexibility of a third-row seat.

This week, in California's picturesque Napa and Sonoma counties, we got the chance to spend some time with the all-new 2013 Nissan Pathfinder, which has become a completely different, more carlike kind of vehicle, and found that while it now places passenger space, versatility, comfort, and value above some of those traditional truck and SUV priorities, what results is a far closer fit to what parents need.

Nissan isn't completely pulling the 'SUV' label from the Pathfinder, and in marketing it's calling it the 'Next-Gen SUV.' Some shoppers may still want towing ability, so they've managed to keep much of it (5,000 pounds) by going to a new-generation, chain-driven continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) instead of the belt-driven unit still used in the closely related Murano and Infiniti JX. The new CVT has a wider ratio span, which gives a lower launch ratio and a higher cruising ratio—for both better gas mileage and stronger acceleration, in theory. 0-60 times from the still-smooth but quite vocal 3.5-liter 'VQ' V-6 are now in the mid-seven-second range, although we noticed a surprisingly long delay for revs to rise again when asking for a quick burst of merging power from, say, 30 mph.

Still a Pathfinder, but it needs a path

What Nissan hasn't kept as much of is the Pathfinder's off-road ability. The 2013 model, if you order 4WD over the base front-wheel drive, has no low range, no skid plates, no hill descent control, or any other indication of serious intent. But it does have a 4WD Lock mode, which you may be limited to use anyhow as there's just 6.5 inches of ground clearance—less than a Subaru Outback. In all fairness, it's likely that more Outback owners than Pathfinder owners would actually take their vehicles off the pavement.

The new Pathfinder seems to apologize profusely for past Pathfinder inadequacies with handling that's near the head of the class among large three-row SUVs, as well as relatively precise, well-weighted electro-hydraulic steering. Nissan has cut up to 500 pounds versus the previous Pathfinder, and it drives like one of the lighter three-row vehicles (it is). Don't get us wrong; this isn't an enthusiast's drive, and the ride quality is soft and absorbent. It could be more capable and fun, but the grip was so limited from the low-rolling-resistance Continental Cross Contact tires on the Pathfinder SL test vehicle we spent the most time with, that unless you're okay shrieking the tires around your subdivision's streets and accidentally peeling out on a regular basis, we'd go so far as to recommend a new set.

Great mileage for such a big vehicle

The reason for those tires is likely that they enable some rounding-up for mileage; the 2013 Pathfinder includes near-best-in-class EPA fuel economy ratings of up to 20 mpg city, 26 highway with front-wheel drive. With a 19.5-gallon fuel tank, that's a driving range of around 500 miles, and in driving over about 150 miles that included mostly two-lane backroads, with a heavy right foot, we saw the trip computer settle to an average of about 21 mpg—great for such a big vehicle.

The Pathfinder's exterior is attractive, if not gorgeous for a big wagon, yet the interior is perplexingly plain, with the drab materials and hues potentially to blame. And comfort is a mixed bag; while we found plenty of space, split over all three rows, the second row in particular seemed unnecessarily low, hard, and flat. It does slide fore and aft up to 5.5 inches though. And a new Latch and Glide system permits you to flip forward the entire portion of the second row—with a child seat still mounted on the seat (but not the child)—for better access to the third row.

A great feature set—without the leading-edge items

With a feature set that's oriented toward comfort-and-convenience items and not gee-whiz technology, the new Pathfinder is going to please some and leave others feeling like there's something missing—tech features like a blind-spot system, adaptive HID headlamps, or a more sophisticated infotainment system. Perhaps that's to come, but the Pathfinder has a great set of features in its mid-range SV and SL trims. We'd probably settle for one of those, as while you get things like cooled front seats, Bose audio, and a cool Around View Monitor in the top Platinum, it's in Infiniti JX35 territory.

While we have some critical quibbles, we realize that what family shoppers want—more features, comfort, space, and safety—can take precedence. From what we've seen of the way the 2013 Pathfinder looks, rides, and drives it's near spot-on for those reshuffled priorities. This is a vehicle that will surely beat down a path to a much larger piece of the market.

See our full review of the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder for more details and observations, as well as pictures, specs, and pricing.
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