by Ray Thursby

Brawn, style and luxury.

Base Price $24,669
As Tested $34,847

The Nissan Pathfinder has matured over the course of its long life span. Before the current sport-utility craze took off, it was little more than a Nissan pickup truck with a glorified camper shell added. But most of its competitors then offered little more. In time, the Pathfinder grew in size, complexity and feature count to become an all-around vehicle aimed at pleasing a much larger audience. It is no longer sufficient to build a vehicle that carries people into the woods; any machine worthy of consideration nowadays has to get them in and out of the wilderness comfortably, serve as daily transportation, and look good.

That small dose of history is meant to suggest that the folks at Nissan have paid attention to the world around them, and have adapted the Pathfinder to meet changing needs. The current Pathfinder provides the SUV buyer with a sophisticated unit-body structure intended to be strong and quiet. The suspension was designed to handle streets and trails alike. It's equipped with all the comforts of a loaded midsize sedan along with the spaciousness of a station wagon. Getting those disparate virtues to coexist in a single vehicle is a tall order.

Now in its fourth model year, the present Pathfinder differs little from the version offered last year. Or the year before when it was last redesigned. Frankly, little in the way of alteration was needed. Pathfinder acquits itself well against its competitors -- most notably the Ford Explorer, Chevy Blazer, Toyota 4Runner, Isuzu Rodeo and Honda Passport.

Walkaround

Nissan designed the Pathfinder to look like an SUV, not a truck or high-riding station wagon. Rounded corners and attractive proportions between body and greenhouse serve the Pathfinder well, as do curved roof pillars. Horizontal body creases emphasize length. The rear door handles are camouflaged in the C-pillars, giving it the sporty look of a two-door. All elements of the Pathfinder's exterior design are clean, efficient and attractive.

Three trim levels comprise the Pathfinder lineup: XE, SE and LE. The SE and LE carry more bright trim than most passenger cars; grilles, bumper tops and running boards are plated or polished. These pieces on XE models are black, creating an immediately apparent distinction between the trim levels. Up-level versions ride on alloy wheels, while the XE's uses chrome-plated steel rims.

Pathfinder XE and LE trim levels are offered as rear- or four-wheel-drive models. The SE comes standard with four-wheel drive. Nissan's four-wheel-drive system is a part-time unit -- the driver shifts between two- and four-wheel drive. Shift-on-the-fly capability allows the driver to do this while the Pathfinder is in motion.

Pathfinders run the gamut from basic to fully loaded. Basic is a relative term, though, as all have a V6 engine, ABS, air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette stereo system (a CD player comes with LE and SE models) and a rear washer/wiper as standard equipment. The loaded LE comes with power windows/mirrors/door locks, leather seats and other convenience features. The other two models offer some of these features as options.

Ordering these extras is easy. Most of the desirable add-ons can be grouped in packages. A Convenience Package brings the XE within shouting distance of the LE, a Sport Package adds trim--and a limited-slip rear differential for 4x4 models. The SE can be ordered with leather upholstery and/or a sunroof. The LE offers an optional package that includes a sunroof and power front seats.

Price may be an issue for some buyers. Over time, the tab for a well-equipped Pathfinder has crept upward, to the point where a heavy dose of extras push the Nissan past the Explorer/Blazer level. Four-wheel drive models start at $26,149, and it is possible to spend upwards of $30,000 for a cushy 2WD version. The maximum tab for a Pathfinder hovers at $35,000.

The Inside Story

The Pathfinder cabin has been brought a long way from its truck-oriented roots. Granted, the seats are higher off the ground than they would be in a Nissan Altima, but the dashboard, seats and other trim pieces seem to have been selected for looks rather than hose-it-out-when-dirty utility. And that suits us just fine.

Getting in or out requires a long step up or down, but once inside you'll find all the right pieces in all the right places. The speedometer, tachometer, water temperature and fuel level gauges are large. Big buttons are used for the necessary functions. Sensible rotary dials operate the climate control system. The radio buttons are too small and the electric mirror switches are hidden from view by the steering wheel, but overall Nissan's designers have done their work well.

A quiet, comfortable environment is one of the Pathfinder's greatest assets. The seats are as accommodating as they appear to be. Plush pile carpeting is underfoot; SE and LE trim levels offer higher quality carpeting than the XE. An excellent heating/ventilation/air conditioning system keeps interior temperatures at the desired level. This pleasant environment is complemented with generous cargo space.

On the debit side, taller occupants may find a little less headroom than they'd like, and adults sitting in the rear seats will wish for more head- and legroom.

All Pathfinders come well equipped, especially SE and LE trim levels. We prefer the SE's cloth upholstery -- especially when climbing in on cold winter mornings. Seat heaters warm the seats quickly on the LE, which comes standard with heated leather seats -- an option on SE 4x4 models. Another nice option is the power glass sunroof/Bose audio package on SE and LE.

Ride & Drive

If Nissan owners conform to the general SUV-buyer profile, most Pathfinders will spend the bulk of their lives on the highway. We spent most of our test drive on paved roads. But we added a foray into the California desert, an unplanned run through a mountain snowstorm and a daylong run around an off-road obstacle course in Canada.

The Pathfinder is a competent performer, especially in the highway cruise mode. Soft springs and generous wheel travel smooth out all but the worst bumps. In hard cornering, the body leans a fair amount, but the Pathfinder handles well. The steering strikes a nice balance between precision and low effort. Braking is competent and without drama, since anti-lock brakes are standard equipment.

The Pathfinder performs well even when packed with a full load of passengers and cargo. The engine is responsive and quiet and it's strong enough to pull a 5000-pound trailer. At high altitudes the engine is taxed a bit, so a little planning is needed when attempting a pass in the mountains. The base 5-speed manual transmission shifts well. Even better is the 4-speed automatic, which comes standard with the LE package. The automatic matches the Pathfinder's character well upshifting and downshifting responsively for efficient, pleasant city driving. Automatics are preferred by many experienced drivers for off-road use. Sport-utility vehicles are not noted for fuel efficiency. Our 18-mpg average during testing was par for the SUV course.

At an off-road course in Canada we found the Pathfinder offered plenty of ground clearance and suspension articulation to handle obstacles that appeared impassable to our eyes. Shifting it into low range was useful for creeping over extremely rugged or slippery ground. The Pathfinder copes well with sand, mud and snow. Traction never seems to be a problem. The Pathfinder is extremely stable on uneven ground -- as we discovered on the side of a sand dune that proved steeper than it looked. One feature the Pathfinder lacks is push-button or rotary-switch activation of four-wheel drive.

In cruise mode, the Pathfinder is quiet, a benefit of its rigid unitized structure and well-placed sound insulation.

Final Word

There's no denying the Pathfinder has a lot going for it. Style, quality and comfort are provided in abundance, combined with the stance and the hardware of a traditional go-anywhere vehicle. If not the top dog in its class, the Pathfinder remains a solid contender, worthy of attention.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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