Pros: Off-road capable; strong engines; high tow limit; good visibility; abundance of safety features

Cons: Rough, trucklike ride; limited cargo space; tight third-row seating; lackluster interior; shortage of creature comforts; low fuel economy

The Nissan Pathfinder is a traditional SUV offering seven-passenger seating. But its true intentions are less about carting the family and more about serving its owner as a heavy-duty utility. The trucklike Pathfinder is a specialist when it comes to hitting the off-road, hauling a weighty load or towing a trailer.

But for that reason, it's also one of a dying breed of body-on-frame utilities that have decreasing value to practical-minded family buyers since the widespread emergence of crossover vehicles that offer more space and amenities, better fuel economy and a carlike driving experience.

Still, for those who need both a family vehicle and a serious workhorse, the Pathfinder will deliver on both fronts. And although it isn't the ideal daily driver, there are few utilities that will allow you to transport seven people and simultaneously tow a 7,000-pound boat. The Nissan Pathfinder is one of them.

For 2012, the Pathfinder remains mostly unchanged. It gains a few new features such as standard navigation on the uplevel LE trim, as well as an optional moonroof and rear DVD system on the mid-level Silver edition.

In the end, the Pathfinder is better suited for work and recreation than for daily transport. But if you don't mind a lack of refinement and a rugged personality in your family vehicle, then the Pathfinder will serve you just fine.

Comfort & Utility

After all these years, the Nissan Pathfinder is starting to show its age. The cabin is antiquated and lacks a sense of style. Materials are mid-grade, with decent fit and finish. You probably won't have many complaints about its overall craftsmanship, but you won't be impressed by it, either. The focal point of this interior is a button-busy center stack. On the positive side, forward visibility is excellent, and there are plenty of handy storage compartments throughout.

The Pathfinder's front seats are supportive and almost furniture-like. They're more than adequate for bouncing around in the unpaved wild or cruising along the highway. Front occupants will enjoy plenty of head and leg room.

The second-row seat is also comfortable from a padding standpoint but falls short on space. Rear passengers will find a shortage of both legroom and elbow room. This seat is much better for two or three children than for adults. The two-person third-row seat is also cramped.

The Pathfinder offers plenty of versatility for cargo, thanks to the 40/20/40 split folding middle row and the rear seat's 50/50 break. With all seats folded down, there's almost 80 cubic feet of storage room. That may sound like a lot, but it isn't when compared with many of the Pathfinder's mid-size and large crossover competitors.

The 2012 Nissan Pathfinder is available in five trim levels: S, SV, Silver, LE V6 and LE V8. Standard convenience features for the base S includes power mirrors and windows, cruise control and a six-speaker stereo. The SV adds running boards, dual-zone climate control and power-adjustable pedals. The midrange Silver Edition includes heated front seats, push-button start and leather upholstery. Both range-topping LEs are outfitted in the same way, except for the engine under the hood. Their equipment includes a memory driver's seat, wood trim and a roof rack that helps make up for some of the lack of rear cargo space.

Technology

Technology is not the Pathfinder's strong suit. While the base S model offers a standard seven-inch monochrome multi-information display, the SV upgrades with a color version of the same thing, plus a backup camera system. Bluetooth connectivity is not available until you get to the mid-level Silver Edition trim. And the range-topping LE includes a navigation system with a digital music storage component. The only stand-alone tech-centric option for the Pathfinder is a rear DVD system.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 2012 Nissan Pathfinder gets its power from one of two engines. The smaller is a 4.0-liter V6 producing 266 horsepower and 288 lb-ft of torque. The other is a 5.6 -liter V8 good for 310 hp and a stout 388 lb-ft of torque. Energy is channeled via a five-speed automatic transmission to either the rear wheels or all four wheels. While the S, SV and Silver trims offer an available part-time four-wheel-drive setup, the uplevel LE models can be equipped with an optional full-time system.

EPA-estimated fuel economy for the V6-powered Nissan Pathfinder is 15 mpg city/22 mpg highway for the rear-wheel-drive version and 14/20 mpg with four-wheel drive. Maximum towing capacity is 6,000 pounds.

The Pathfinder with V8 achieves fuel economy of 13/18 mpg regardless of drive configuration. Maximum towing is 7,000 pounds.

Safety

Standard safety features for the Pathfinder include ABS, stability control, traction control, six airbags and active front head restraints. For 2012, the Pathfinder earned the highest possible front and side crash test scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Driving Impressions

First and foremost, the Nissan Pathfinder delivers plenty of power regardless of which engine is present. It feels strong from the line and never seems to be under strain, even when hauling or towing heavy objects and loaded down with several passengers. The Pathfinder's robust power delivery benefits from smooth, well-spaced gear changes thanks to its capable five-speed automatic.

When hitting the off-road, the Pathfinder is very much in its element. No obstacle seems too large, steep or overwhelming to get around or through. The Pathfinder is able to climb, crawl and push through rocks, mud, sand or even moving water. Much of this is due to Nissan's XN all-mode four-wheel-drive system, which does an exceptional job of distributing torque to all four wheels.

The Pathfinder's road manners, while truck-like, are better than one would expect. The highway ride is not harsh or uncomfortable, but rather somewhat smooth and controlled. That said, it's nowhere close to the plush feel of many of today's more refined crossovers. The Pathfinder exhibits quite a bit of body roll in corners, but although it's not very agile or quick-footed, its steering is notably responsive.  

Other Cars to Consider

Dodge Durango - The Durango is less expensive and wins on fuel economy and ride comfort. Its third-row seat is also more spacious and useable than the Pathfinder's.

Ford Explorer - The Explorer offers more interior refinement, creature comforts and technology, and it has an adult-size third-row seat. But the Pathfinder is a better workhorse.

GMC Acadia - Beats the Pathfinder in fuel economy, refinement, interior space and ride comfort. The Pathfinder leans much further in the direction of heavy-duty utility.

Honda Pilot - The Pilot delivers more passenger and cargo room, a higher level of comfort and more upscale amenities.

AutoTrader Recommends

Our recommendation for the Pathfinder is the LE V6, which is loaded with all the features of the lower trims, it also adds larger 18-inch wheels and a roof rack, both enhancing the Pathfinder's rugged character. On the inside, the LE has navigation, increasingly considered a must-have for road trips.

The LE V6 benefits from the Pathfinder's smaller engine choice, which offers better fuel economy while still being powerful enough to handle big jobs. And since a primary reason to buy a Pathfinder is its tough and hardy work ethic, it's essential to choose the optional four-wheel drive.

author photo

Shamit Choksey has a love for automobiles that worked into an early career writing and developing cop shows for network television. Later, diving even further into the world of wheels, he became a writer/producer for the Emmy-nominated PBS/Discovery Channel series "MotorWeek." These days, Shamit lives in Southern California, serving as a media consultant and journalist within the automotive industry. Incidentally, his wife and two sons are not impressed by any of this.

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