When the Nissan Pathfinder made its debut in the mid 1980s, it was bold and boxy. Now in its fourth generation, the new 2013 model is bold for entirely different reasons, and it's anything but boxy.

Bigger and Less Thirsty

The biggest change with the Pathfinder is that it no longer uses the more truck-like body on frame construction. Instead, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder is more like a crossover SUV, built on the underpinnings of a car but with an SUV body and 4-wheel drive. The result is a larger interior; a smoother, more refined ride; and a dramatically different look.

The Pathfinder also gets a new engine. Nissan dropped the old 4.0-liter V6 in favor of its 3.5-liter V6. This new engine is now good for 260 horsepower and it gets significantly better fuel economy. Nissan says a front-wheel-drive Pathfinder should get 20 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. That's 1 mpg better on the highway than competitors like the Honda Pilot and Ford Explorer and 2 mpg better than the Toyota Highlander and Chevy Traverse.

Both fuel economy and acceleration are helped by the fact that the new Pathfinder now weighs 500 lb less than the previous model. The new engine in the Pathfinder is now hooked up to a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), which helps improve both acceleration and fuel economy. In total, these changes result in a car that feels lighter, handles better and accelerates more briskly compared to the previous version.

Even though it's a little larger overall, the Pathfinder feels like a just-right-sized SUV. Crossover SUVs with three rows of seating like the Ford Explorer, Chevy Traverse and Honda Pilot all feel bigger and slightly "truckier."

Family Friendly

The revised Pathfinder interior boasts two noticeable improvements beyond just more size. First, the Pathfinder's interior looks and feels a lot more luxurious. Honestly, the interior feels more like an Infiniti than a family friendly Nissan. The all-new interior means features like the Glide and Latch second row of seats. There are all kinds of technology that go into this, but the bottom line is: Glide and Latch means you can slide the second row of seats forward to allow access to the third row without having to remove a child safety seat that might be secured in one of those second-row seats. It's one of those little things that parents will really appreciate and, frankly, could be a deal breaker or maker for many shoppers.

To make the seating more comfortable, the second row slides back and forth up to 5.5 inches. This makes it possible to add extra legroom for second-row or third-row passengers. With the second row pushed all the way back, there isn't much legroom in the third row. Slide the second row forward a little and it gets better. Still, the third row is best for kids. Total seating capacity is seven passengers.

High-end options like heated and cooled leather seats, Bose stereo, navigation, rear seat entertainment and a huge sunroof over the rear seats are available, too. Nissan's excellent Around View monitor is available as well, and the Pathfinder gets Nissan's easy-fill tire alert that honks the horn when you've added the right amount of air to each tire.

No Longer a Truck

But the Nissan Pathfinder hasn't lost all of its truck-inspired muscle. It can still tow 5,000 lb when you opt for the towing package ($400). There's also a 4-wheel-drive version available. It features a center console mounted selector so the driver can pick between 2-wheel-drive, auto, or 4-wheel-drive lock.

Clearly, the Pathfinder's loss of body on frame construction is a big issue for those who want to tackle serious off-road trails. But Nissan says they asked customers what they really wanted and most said more interior space plus better fuel economy were far more important that off-road ability. Certainly, crossover buyers want a vehicle that's good in the snow and rain and can handle mild off-road duty, and that's exactly what the Pathfinder provides.

For most shoppers, price is the real make-or-break factor when it comes to family vehicles. Base price for the S model is $28,270. That's about $1,000 less than last year's base Pathfinder. The SV is $31,530, the more luxurious SL is $34,470 and the top-of-the-line Platinum version is $39,170. These prices do not include an $825 destination fee. The 4-wheel drive version adds $1,600 to the price.

In the end, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder does a lot of things well. In practical terms, it's very similar to the Toyota Highlander. But compared to the Highlander, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Chevy Traverse, the Pathfinder feels a little more upscale. The big risk here is that Nissan has now made the Pathfinder just like every other SUV on the market--long on features, short on off-road ability. To our way of thinking, it's the right move.

author photo

Brian Moody heads up the AutoTrader.com editorial team. An automotive writer and presenter for more than 12 years, he's contributed to such media outlets as CNBC, Edmunds.com, Fox Business, Speed TV and The Today Show.

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