The mid-size SUV market is a crowded place. From a handful of competitors 10 or 15 years ago, it's grown in numbers to rival the mid-size car market. How to stand out in such a teeming mass is the challenge Nissan faced when it undertook the update of the Pathfinder, its mainstay in the heavily congested mid-size SUV fray.
Nissan had the 4X4 technology, but that alone couldn't carry the burden. It needed a stronger drivetrain. The Pathfinder had long been an underdog, with barely competent power and an aging transmission. The new Pathfinder had to step up with a rejuvenated engine and a state-of-the-art gear set.
The solution turned out to be right at hand: the same V6 powering the 350Z, Nissan's performance star. With the displacement boosted to 4.0 liters and its horsepower and torque curves redrawn to workhorse geometry, the new Pathfinder engine not only substantially bettered its predecessor, it also stepped out ahead of the market's benchmark, the larger V8 in the number one-selling Ford Explorer. Fuel economy is improved, too, by 2 mpg on the highway. The new, five-speed automatic, geared to capitalize on the engine's torque characteristics, completes the package. Electronic stability control comes standard, giving drivers a reassuring safety blanket by controlling skids.
Get up and go is one thing. Looking and feeling good in the process is another entirely, and Nissan had fallen behind the curve here, too. For years, the Pathfinder had made do with modest, cosmetic makeovers of stale design motifs, while the market was moving toward more expressive exteriors and roomier, more accommodating interiors.
Again drawing on the new Pathfinder's stablemates, Nissan dumped its predecessor's size-limiting, frame-less body construction in favor of a larger, honest, body-on-frame truck design. This opened the door to a complete re-vamp of the Pathfinder's exterior, to a bold, broad-shouldered shape more in synch with the company's all-new, full-size SUV and pickup.
Likewise with the interior: With more room, there could be more comfort and more conveniences, not to mention more passengers, something that has become critical as SUVs have grown to keep pace with growing, active families. The new Pathfinder shines inside, with upgraded, less busy, more intuitive digs.
The 2005 Nissan Pathfinder arrives in four trim levels, each of which can be ordered with two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, the latter either manually or electronically selected. All are powered by the 270-horsepower, 4.0-liter V6 engine with a five-speed automatic transmission.
The Pathfinder XE ($24,650), the base model, comes with air conditioning; cruise control; power mirrors, windows and door locks with keyless remote; halogen headlamps; AM/FM/CD stereo playing through six speakers; fabric upholstery; adjustable lumbar on the driver's seat; reclining backs on the middle row seats; roof rails; and a pre-wired tow setup including hitch. The XE also comes standard with Vehicle Dynamic Control and aluminum-alloy wheels. A choice of XM or Sirius satellite radio ($400) are available, but few options are available.
Stepping up to the SE ($25,850) adds power adjustable driver's seat; halogen foglights; running boards; roof rack cross bars; and middle seat fold-down center armrest. Three SE option packages are available. The SE Comfort Package ($1,350) has dual-zone, automatic air conditioning; adjustable pedals; multi-accessorized, auto-dimming rearview mirror; upgraded sunvisors; leather trim (but not seats); and painted silver interior accents. The SE Premium Package ($1,700) adds a two-way power sunroof; automatic headlamps; programmable remote garage door opener; the Bose stereo with six-disc CD changer and eight speakers plus subwoofer; redundant steering wheel-mounted audio controls; and capabilities for MP3 and satellite radio. The Mobile Entertainment System ($1,600) delivers a DVD player with a rear-passenger, seven-inch color monitor and two infrared headphones.
The Pathfinder SE Off-Road model comes with B.F. Goodrich Rugged Trail P265/75R16 tires on distinctive wheels; Rancho off-road shocks; skid plates. The 4X4 SE Off-Road model ($30,450) also comes with Hill Descent Control (which limits downhill speed without driver intervention) and Hill Start Assist (which briefly holds the Pathfinder on a slope while the driver releases the brake pedal and applies the accelerator). The Off-Road model features robust, waffle-texture fabric upholstery. An optional Leather Package ($1,400) includes leather-trimmed and heated front seats, four-way power adjustable front passenger seat, leather-trimmed doors and heated outside mirrors. The Mobile Entertainment System is also available.
The Pathfinder LE tops the lineup with leather upholstery, wood-toned trim, a sunroof, the Bose system with six-disc changer, eight speakers and subwoofer, and 17-inch wheels and tires. The LE-exclusive Navigation Package ($2,000) includes a DVD-based navigation system with a seven-inch, color LCD display.
Safety features include dual, two-stage frontal airbags; antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution; and electronic stability control, which Nissan calls Vehicle Dynamic Control. Available on all four trim levels is an Air Bag Package ($700), providing front-seat side-impact airbags and full-coverage, side curtain airbags. We recommend opting for this last package as it can provide head protection to you and your passengers if someone crashes into the side of your vehicle or you roll over. And we strongly recommend always wearing your seatbelts as they are your first line of defense in an accident. A monitor is included with the Navigation Package that checks the pressure of each tire.
Nissan wants no one to mistake the re-positioning of the 2005 Pathfinder. Any car-like pretensions previously associated with the Pathfinder are now the sole domain of the Nissan Murano, a sleek, curvaceous crossover utility that was recently introduced. The new Pathfinder is intended to be a no-compromise, fully off-road-capable SUV, and its dimensions and styling make this imminently clear.
To achieve this, the Pathfinder's underpinnings have been dramatically altered. Its predecessor's car-like unibody, where the various body panels and connectives give the chassis its form and rigidity, has been replaced by truck-like body-on-frame construction based on a ladder-type frame adapted from the car maker's full-size Armada SUV and Titan pickup. Thus, if the new Pathfinder looks larger, that's because it is, by six inches in overall length, and by five inches in wheelbase. It's an inch wider, too, and almost five inches taller.
Similarly, the bloodlines of the bold, brash front end draw directly on the Armada and Titan, closely mirroring as well the new midsize Frontier pickup. Angular chrome verticals bracket the familiar Nissan logo centered in the grille. Crisply outlined headlight lenses fold around the edges of the fenders. A strong, chin-like bumper houses a wide, low air intake, with small, round sockets for the optional fog lights just inboard of the fender blister creases.
From the side, those fender blisters encircle substantial tires and give substance to the mostly smooth body panels. The trademark sloping C-pillars with high-mounted rear door handles are angled less severely. The roof line, mimicking the Armada's, bows slightly over the forward passenger compartment then flattens aft of the C-pillar. A vertical track carried over from the previous generation splits the rear side door windows allowing the forward two-thirds of the glass to lower fully into the door, a nice feature. Short overhangs front and rear spotlight the new Pathfinder's off-road promise. Openings in the ends of the roof rails at first seem mere styling exercises, but actually offer convenient hand-holds when loading and offloading sport gear.
The rear bumper copies the larger Armada's, with a low lift-over between upturns at each end tying into the large taillights. The backlight's (or rear windscreen's) bottom edge tracks the bumper's geometry as part of an elongated pentagonal outline, picking up on the geometric theme first appearing on the company's more assertive off-roader, the Xterra.
The interior is as new as the exterior, with elements patterned after the full-size Armada and Titan, although appropriately downsized.
The steering wheel could have come from virtually any recent model Nissan. Two metallic-looking spokes, holding the cruise and redundant audio controls when ordered, at a clock face's 9 and 3 and a broad brace at 6 support a thick rim. Large, round speedometer and tachometer complemented by four smaller gauges, two of which are inset in the lower quarters of the speedo and tach, monitoring the engine's vital statistics fill the top half of the steering wheel opening. A column stalk to the left manages the exterior lights, and one to the right runs the windshield wipers and washers. Outside mirror and pedals are adjusted with buttons located on the lower dash to the left of the steering column. To the right, the ignition key slot has relocated from the steering column to its rightful place in the dash.
The stereo sits uppermost in the center stack, above the climate control panel, both fitted with delightfully basic, intuitively shaped knobs and buttons and easily deciphered displays. In models with Nissan's All-Mode 4X4 system and electronically controlled transfer case, a large rotary selector sits in a panel at the base below a smallish storage bin. Stacked vertically to the right of this are two of the four accessory power outlets. Atop the dash above the stereo a shallow tray occupies the space reserved for the optional navigation system's pop-up display. That display, by the way, offers one of the cooler perspectives; called the Birds Eye, it shows a quasi-3D point of view, with map details tracking away to a virtual horizon. A bi-level glove box fills the lower part of the dash to the right of the center stack.
Dash panels are uniformly textured, flowing smoothly out from the base of the windshield around and down on each side of the center stack to the knee bolsters filling the space between the stack and doors. The center console is finished in a bright metallic with two sandwiched cup holders between the shift gate and the center console storage bin. The bin is deep and wide, with receptacles for coins, a power outlet and slots for CDs; the underside of the console lid holds clips for a couple pens or pencils. Cupholders for second-row occupants fold out of the back side of the center console.
The added inches to the body of the new Pathfinder make room for a third-row seat, allowing it to carry up to seven passengers. But there's also more room in the front seats. Head, hip and leg room is up in the front and, now, middle seats by at least an inch in all measures except middle seat head room, which drops by 0.1 inches. Rear seat hip room grows the most, by fully six inches.
Front seats are comfortable and supportive, on road and off, but would benefit from a deeper bottom cushion for added thigh support. Rear doors offer easy foot access, and seatbacks are adequately bolstered, at least for the two outboard passengers. Anybody sentenced to the center-row center seat had best hope the trip is short. Access to the third row is gained via a relatively easy folding of the middle seat, but climbing in provides a good gauge of how comfortable it's going to be back there. Put another way, limber, small-to-medium statures fit best. Grab/assist handles are plentiful, except for the driver's door. And the liftgate has an inside pull-down, sparing fingers contact with road grime, although a remote inside release for the liftgate was either non-existent or very well hidden.
With the rearmost seats upright, cargo area is a mere 16.5 cu. ft. This is, however, nearly 3 cubic feet more than the seven-passenger Ford Explorer will hold. Collapsing the Pathfinder's third-row seats boosts cargo capacity to 49.2 cu. ft., more than 5 cu. ft. roomier than a comparably configured Explorer. Beyond that point, though, those seats exact a price even when folded
Bigger is better as far as interior space and comfort are concerned but could be problematic vis-a-vis ride and handling, given the '05's abandonment of the previous generations' unibody construction. Kudos go to the suspension engineers, then, for taming the new, truck-based foundation. The longer wheelbase, for starters, mellows pavement heaves and minimizes the head toss on rippled roads, while the wider track lessens body lean in turns. Turning circle, though, suffers, as it's almost two feet larger than the '04's.
Close body panel tolerances and multiple door seals tame wind noise. Strategically positioned sound deadening mutes road and tire noise, including that from the Off-Road model's more aggressive treads. The roof rack's cross bars generate some whistle, which is most noticeable with the sunroof's inside shade retracted.
Transmission shifts, up and down, are smooth, virtually invisible, executed by the slick computerized engine management system that now incorporates drive by wire. This latter allowed programming the throttle for a more measured tip in when the Pathfinder is in 4X4 mode. An extended exploration in the SE Off-Road of a muddy, technical, single-vehicle track in a heavily wooded area on Bainbridge Island across the bay from Seattle proved not only the effectiveness of this alternative throttle programming, but also the surprising dexterity of this larger and heavier Pathfinder in the rough. Crawling over downed trees, crossing axle-deep water holes and descending sloppy slopes were accomplished without stress, strain or undue slippage, with credit due in part to the SE Off-road's impressive 9.2 inches of ground clearance.
Power from an enlarged and truck-tuned version of the 3.5-liter V6 in the Nissan 350Z, while not in the stump-pulling class, is more than adequate. In fact, in horsepower it's 31 up on the Explorer's V8, in torque up nine lb. ft. Power builds smoothly, too, pulling solidly to the upshift limiter, programmed to step in at 5600 revolutions per minute. A welcome side benefit is the healthy exhaust note accompanying the engine's ups and downs.
At highway speeds, steering fed back a comforting on-center feel. The engine moved the Pathfinder's nearly two-and-one-half tons at significantly extra-legal speeds with the same aplomb as slogging through muddy ruts. Swiftly executed lane changes excited no disconcerting tail wagging. Brake pedal feel was solid.
The 2005 Nissan Pathfinder is what the original promised and should have become, had the market's sirens not distracted its creators: a truly capable, and truly midsize, SUV.
All the elements are there: A robust powertrain, with the proper choices of 4X4 mechanicals. Fresh and eye-pleasing styling. Accommodating interior. And some nice-to-have amenities.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Bainbridge Island, Washington.
|Model Line Overview|
|Base Price (MSRP)|
|Nissan Pathfinder XE 4X2 ($24,650); XE 4X4; SE 4X2 ($25,850); SE 4X4; SE Off-Road 4X2 ($28,450); SE Off-Road 4X4 ($30,450); LE 4X2 ($32,550); LE 4X4|
|4.0-liter, double overhead cam, 24-valve V6|
|Safety equipment (Standard):|
|dual, two-stage frontal airbags; three-point seatbelts and height-adjustable head restraints at all seven seating positions; three child safety seat tether anchors; antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution; electronic stability control (VDC); tire pressure monitoring system; engine immobilizer vehicle security system with alarm|
|Safety equipment (Optional):|
|front-seat side-impact airbags and full-coverage side curtain airbags ($700)|
|3 years/36,000 miles|
|Specifications As Tested|
|Model tested (MSRP):|
|Nissan Pathfinder SE Off-Road 4X4 ($30,450)|
|six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo; cruise control; power windows, central locking and outside mirrors; 8-way power adjustable driver seat with manual lumbar; tilt steering wheel; remote keyless entry; running boards; roof rack with crossbars; easy-clean cargo floor; BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires, Rancho performance shocks, unique blue seat cloth; SE Comfort Package with dual-zone automatic air conditioning, adjustable pedals, automatic day/night mirror with digital compass and outside temperature gauge, leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob and silver-painted center gauge cluster|
|Options as tested:|
|Airbag Package ($700) includes front seat side impact and side curtain airbags; SE Premium Package ($1,700) includes power tilt-and-slide sunroof, automatic headlamps, programmable remote garage door opener, Bose 8-speaker and subwoofer AM/FM/CD stereo with 6-disc changer, steering wheel secondary audio controls and MP3 and satellite radio capabilities|
|Gas Guzzler Tax:|
|Price as tested (MSRP)|
|4.0-liter, double overhead cam, 24-valve V6|
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm):|
|270 @ 5600|
|Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm):|
|291 @ 4000|
|EPA fuel economy, city/hwy:|
|Head/hip/leg room, f:|
|Head/hip/leg room, m:|
|Head/hip/leg room, r:|
|79.2 cu. ft.|
|independent double wishbone, coil-over shocks, stabilizer bar|
|independent double wishbone, coil-over shocks, stabilizer bar|
|P265/75R16 B.F. Goodrich|
|disc/disc with ABS and EBD in.|