Lighter, more powerful and all new. by Mike Knepper
Depending on how you keep score, a quick roster check reveals over 40 entries in the steadily escalating sport-utility game. And that's not counting all the permutations of two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, two-door, four-door, etc. With that much competition, the manufacturers are not holding back when it comes to developing improved models.
Case in point: Nissan's new compact sport-ute, the Pathfinder.
The original hit the trail in 1986. It was a respectable entry in the still small field. It had contemporary styling, good off-road capability and better-than-expected on-road comfort and manners.
The new Pathfinder is better on all counts.
Leading the lengthy list of improvements is a new 3.3-liter V6 engine, unitbody construction, a longer wheelbase, lower curb weights, strut-type front suspension and more interior room and cargo capacity.
In its initial conception, the Pathfinder was designed to be more car-like in looks than Jeep-like. By that we mean it had the more rounded, softer contours of a sedan than the angular, military look of the competition. In fact, Nissan says it led the segment transition from trucks with a back seat to a more balanced merging of sports and utility, although we suspect both Jeep and General Motors would take issue with this position.
When it came time -- perhaps even past time -- to develop a successor, Nissan felt it had the edge in off-road ruggedness, driver control and occupant comfort, so all that was necessary was to improve on what it already had. But Nissan went much further than that; the new Pathfinder is really all new.
The new look maintains a strong resemblance to the original. There are the signature grille slots, the integrated door handles and distinctive sloping C-pillar. Overall, of course, the new look is much more aero. And it conveys a sense of muscular mass, which is a good thing to have if you're a sport utility.
The new unibody construction makes the vehicle quite a bit stiffer than the previous body-on-frame, which means doors can be opened and closed without sticking or binding when the vehicle is teetering on uneven ground.
The more rigid body, Nissan explains, provides a better platform for suspension components for a more comfortable ride and improved tire contact. The unibody construction means more room in the engine compartment for easier maintenance, more room in the interior and less weight, which helps fuel economy, performance and handling.
Nissan joins Jeep as the only manufacturers offering unibody construction in this size class. Most still use body-on-frame, an approach with proven credentials for absorbing off-road punishment. How well the Pathfinder will stand up to hard use remains to be seen, although few are likely to find their way into the wilds.
The new engine is based on the previous 3.0-liter V-6, but has been completely re-engineered. Horsepower has jumped from 153 to 168, which is a nice improvement. But the magic of re-engineering is especially felt in the torque curve. The old engine pumped out 180 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm -- not exactly stump-pulling numbers. The new engine, on the other hand, develops 196 lb-ft at a low 2800 rpm, with 90 percent of that available in the 1500 to 1800 rpm range.
Again, not that many Pathfinder owners are likely to do any serious off-road driving, but this improvement nevertheless means the vehicle will be a bear in the mud, sand or whatever. Also, the towing capacity of models equipped with automatic transmissions is increased, from 3500 pounds to 5000 pounds.
The engine uses a fuel injection system Nissan calls SOFIS (for Sophisticated Optimized Fuel Injection System). SOFIS optimizes the fuel/air mixture under all driving conditions by sensing and correcting fuel flow delays inside the intake ports.
The extra horsepower is easily noticed on the highway; less strain, less noise at launch and cruise, better acceleration, better 50- to 70-mph passing response.
You can have a Pathfinder in either 2WD or 4WD, which is par for the entire sport-utility class. For four-wheeling there's a new transfer system that allows shift-on-the-fly into four-wheel high-range at speeds up to 50 mph. Going to four-wheel low requires stopping. A limited slip differential is standard on the top Pathfinder LE 4WD, optional for the basic XE and sportier SE versions. Nissan does not yet offer a full-time 4WD system.
The new front suspension has been designed to maintain off-road ruggedness while improving on-road comfort and control. The previous suspension used wishbones and shocks. The new design is strut-type with shocks and springs as integral components. The new front suspension has longer up-down travel, which means a smoother pavement ride and improved stability off road. A wider tracker results in better cornering stability.
The rear suspension is a revision of the previous five-link design. Shocks and springs are placed further outboard for greater stability and body roll control. There is also a rear stabilizer bar.
Two transmissions are available, of course -- a standard five-speed manual and an optional four-speed automatic. The automatic has auto/power mode selection. LE models are automatic only.
Anti-lock brakes are standard on all Pathfinder models, and the system employs a bit of trickery. Off road, most ABS systems are compromised by bumpy surface conditions and are almost constantly pulsing when the brakes are applied. The Pathfinder has a combination computer processor/G-sensor that reads the surface -- changes in height and roughness -- and adjusts the braking control accordingly.
In the safety picture are dual airbags, door beams, height-adjustable upper front seatbelt anchors and child safety rear door locks. Anti-theft and remote keyless entry are standard on the SE and LE, optional on the basic XE.
Our tester was an SE 4X4 with five-speed manual transmission.
The Inside Story
The interior of the Pathfinder is the handiwork of Nissan Design International in La Jolla, California, which did its work well. It's very attractive and, except for the tiny controls on the radio, very user-friendly. Actually, instrument panels seem to be popping out of the same box no matter the manufacturer. There's a sameness, a been-here used-that feel as we move from test car to test car.
The seats could have come out of the Maxima sedan they are so comfortable and, in leather, very handsome. However, rear seat leg room is still a weak point compared to the Pathfinder's domestic competitors.
Some highlights: 60/40 split rear seat, large rear door map pockets, concealed side storage bin, four cupholders, two 12-volt DC outlets, tilt/sliding glass sunroof, standard CD player with six speakers, and a cargo area cover.
Ride & Drive
Today's sport-utes have to be versatile, bred as they are for sedate motoring about town and/or braving the wilds. The difference between them comes down to styling, power and ride quality. Particularly ride quality, and specifically ride quality over everyday surfaces, because that's where sport-utes actually spend their lives. Only five percent or so ever leave the pavement.
We give our Pathfinder very high marks for its everyday ride. It's very car-like, thanks to the new front suspension, longer wheelbase and more rigid body shell. No pitching over undulating pavement, no jarring crashes in and out of potholes, no constant jiggle down the interstate. And, as promised, it's quiet in there.
Acceleration from stop is good, the V-6 smooth and quiet. The automatic shifts smoothly, and the five-speed manual transmission has a very positive engagement feel as it goes from gear to gear. The steering is nicely assisted, and quick, lending a sporty feel to the driving experience.
The step-up, for climbing in, is moderate, and a running board or step rail is standard on some versions. Persons of small stature should have no trouble being quite comfortable with a Pathfinder on a daily basis.
It's a classic case of good getting better. The new Pathfinder is solid, handsome, has good -- though far from class-leading -- power, and the ride is among the best in the compact sport-utility segment, which includes such standouts as Toyota's 4Runner and the Jeep Grand Cherokee as well as the best-selling Ford Explorer.
The Pathfinder would be a good choice for comfortable and versatile everyday transportation. It's quiet, mannerly and well made, and when the pavement ends it's both comfortable and capable.
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