Pros: Flexible three-row layout; high-quality interior; smooth transmission; carlike underpinnings improve ride and handling

Cons: Modest maximum cargo capacity; engine labors with a full load; no longer an off-road champ

What's New: The Pathfinder is all-new for 2013.

Introduction

If you're old enough to remember the Pathfinders of yesteryear, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder will take a little getting used to. Derived from the same front-wheel-drive platform as the Altima sedan, Nissan's sleek, new people-mover bears little resemblance to its boxy predecessors, which featured rear-wheel-drive platforms with available low-range gearing.

Although we've got a soft spot for those old Pathfinders, we understand that they weren't compelling for most families. Yes, the most recent model offered a third-row seat, but it was held back by poor fuel economy and truck-like handling. As for the earlier, smaller Pathfinders, there's just not much demand anymore for tough two-row SUVs with modest dimensions. They were cool back in the day, but times have changed.

So what does the reinvented Pathfinder bring to the table? Well, standard three-row seating and plenty of technology features, for starters, as well as improved driving dynamics and gas mileage. Nissan throws in a smooth ride and a high-quality interior too. Indeed, we think the Pathfinder is appealing enough to steal some sales from its uptown sibling, the pricier Infiniti JX.

In sum, don't expect the 2013 Pathfinder to take you too far off the beaten one, but do expect a modern, thoroughly competent three-row crossover. It's a must-drive in this popular segment.

Comfort & Utility

The three-row 2013 Nissan Pathfinder is offered with either front- or all-wheel drive in four trim levels: S, SV, SL and Platinum.

The S starts with 18-inch alloy wheels, tri-zone automatic climate control, electroluminescent gauges, push-button ignition, cruise control, two 12-volt outlets, a tilt-telescopic steering column, a 4-in color driver information screen, manual front seats with adjustable driver lumbar support, cloth upholstery and a 6-speaker audio system with a 6-CD changer, an auxiliary input jack and steering-wheel-mounted controls.

Note that neither iPod/Bluetooth nor towing preparation is offered on Pathfinder S, the only trim deprived of these features.

The SV adds automatic headlights, roof rails, keyless entry, Bluetooth phone connectivity, a central 7-in information display, a rearview camera with rear parking sensors, two more 12-volt outlets, a power driver's seat, leather steering-wheel and shift-knob trim and a single-CD audio system with a USB/iPod jack and auxiliary video inputs.

The SL tacks on fog lights, a power liftgate, chrome exterior accents, leather upholstery and door trim, wood-tone inserts, a power passenger's seat, heated front and rear seats, remote start, a universal garage-door opener, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and welcome lighting.

The Platinum tops the range with exclusive 20-in alloy wheels, a heated steering wheel, a hard-drive-based navigation system with an 8-in touchscreen, the Around View 360-degree parking camera system, cooled front seats, a 120-volt outlet, a power tilt-telescopic steering wheel, driver memory functions, a 13-speaker Bose audio system, Bluetooth streaming audio and DVD playback capability.

Some higher-end standard features are available as options on cheaper trims. Notable extras, depending on model and package, include a dual-pane panoramic sunroof, towing preparation (the Pathfinder can still tow up to 5,000 pounds) and an entertainment system with twin 7-in screens in the front headrests.

In our interior evaluation, we found the Pathfinder's materials surprisingly similar to those in the related Infiniti JX. Compared with the Toyota Highlander, for example, the Pathfinder seems significantly nicer inside. We also like that most of the controls are a cinch to figure out, even when the navigation system is specified.

While the front seats aren't memorably contoured, they do provide that elevated view of the road that crossover drivers know and love. In back, the standard EZ Flex second-row bench is one of our favorites, featuring sliding and reclining outboard seats that afford simple third-row access, even with a child seat installed. The third row is best left for kids, but you can make it reasonably hospitable to adults by sliding those versatile second-row seats forward through their 5.5 inches of travel.

Cargo space measures a handy 16 cu ft behind the third row, 42 to 48 cu ft behind the second row (depending on equipment level) and 79.8 cu ft with both back rows folded down. Given that the similar Highlander offers over 95 cubes of maximum space, we're not blown away by the Pathfinder's practicality, but 80 cubes is still a lot of stuff.

Technology

We're disappointed that the base Pathfinder S can't be equipped with iPod or Bluetooth connectivity, as many vehicles at its $28,000-plus price point come standard with these tech features and then some. To be fair, the Pathfinder S does get an attractive 4-in information screen that's nicely integrated between the gauges, but we still recommend stepping up at least to the SV model if you're a fan of the latest technology.

Should you fancy a navigation system in your new Pathfinder, you'll need to splurge on the Platinum trim, as you can't specify navigation in anything cheaper. We'd like to see wider availability for this system, and while we're nitpicking, its familiar graphics from countless Nissan/Infiniti products could use a nip here and a tuck there. But we can't argue with the system's functionality, which includes voice-recognition software, hard-drive music storage and turn-by-turn voice directions.

Also worth mentioning is the optional entertainment system. It's even more exclusive than the nav, as you can only have it if you order the top-shelf Platinum with the Premium package, but its Tri-Zone design allows front and rear passengers to enjoy different media at the same time. The price is sobering. We'd be tempted anyway.

Performance & Fuel Economy

All Pathfinders are powered by Nissan's venerable 3.5-liter V6, which is rated at 260 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque in this application. A gearless continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is mandatory. Front-wheel drive is standard and all-wheel drive optional on every model.

The new Pathfinder is up to 500 pounds lighter than the outgoing model, but it uses a smaller V6 (the old Pathfinder also offered a 5.6-liter V8), so low-end torque predictably suffers. Nonetheless, the eerily smooth CVT does its best to keep the V6 in its sweet spot, and it usually succeeds. If you're like us, you'll only wish for more grunt with a full load aboard.

Fuel economy is average-plus at 20-mpg city/26-mpg highway with front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive models drop to 19/25 mpg.

Safety

The Pathfinder comes with 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and six airbags, including side airbags for front passengers and full-length side-curtain airbags.

Happily, every Pathfinder comes standard with Nissan's nifty Easy-Fill tire alert, which activates while you're adding air and honks the horn when you've reached the recommended pressure reading. Proper tire pressure is a significant factor in vehicle control, so we consider this a very welcome safety feature.

The new Pathfinder had not been crash tested as of this writing.

Driving Impressions

Unless rock-crawling ability is a must, you'll probably find the 2013 Pathfinder a big improvement. Like the JX and more distant relatives such as the two-row Murano, the new Pathfinder pairs a supple ride with good cabin insulation, making for comfortable highway cruising and urban commuting alike.

Not surprisingly, the handling is tuned more for safety than for smiles, but the new Pathfinder evinces a reassuringly carlike stability at speed. Off-road performance is of course limited by the Pathfinder's clear preference for pavement, but at least the 4WD LOCK mode helpfully fixes front/rear power distribution at 50/50 for escaping unusually sticky spots.

Other Cars to Consider

Ford Flex - Days go by and still we think of Ford's gracefully aging three-row shaggin' wagon. If the Pathfinder's demure V6 gets you down, a Flex with Eco Boost may be the antidote.

Hyundai Santa Fe - Also new for 2013, the stylish Santa Fe is available with either two or three seating rows in multiple drivetrain configurations.

Toyota Highlander - Toyota's bread-and-butter crossover has clear advantages under the hood with either the all-world 3.5-liter V6 or the expensive but rewarding Hybrid power system.

AutoTrader Recommends

The Pathfinder SV has got the best mix, in our opinion. Unless navigation is a must-have, consider saving a bundle and going with this well-equipped, reasonably priced trim level.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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