SUV style, passenger car comfort. by Ray Thursby
Like other areas of the automotive market, the sport-utility world is changing. It's a quiet kind of revolution, one that indicates manufacturers are paying close attention to the needs and wants of today's customers.
Not so long ago, sport-utility vehicles were evolutionary updates on pickup trucks. That was certainly the genesis of the original Nissan Pathfinder, and the same formula worked for early Chevy Blazers and Toyota 4Runners as well.
Now, increasingly sophisticated buyers are looking for something different. The hard-riding but off-road capable mid-size sport-utes of past years won't satisfy them; what they want is a machine with car-like comfort, equipment and driving characteristics, without giving up the traditional SUV high stance and suitability for those rare off-road forays.
Introduced last year, the latest Pathfinder reflects the requirements of this evolving market. Its direct competition comes from the Toyota 4Runner, also a year-old design; other candidates for consideration include the Blazer (or GMC Jimmy or Olds Bravada), Ford Explorer or Mercury Villager, Isuzu Rodeo/Honda Passport and Jeep Cherokees, Grand and regular.
But combining the attributes of a passenger sedan with those of a sport-utility vehicle entails compromise. Knowing your own priorities before stepping into a showroom is vital; old- and new-style sport-utes do many things well, but not necessarily the same things.
What we have here, at least visually, is a brawny station wagon with extra ground clearance. With no shared sheet metal between Pathfinder and Nissan pickups, the family resemblance is gone. Though the new entry retains the distinctive triple slots above the grille, it has a more rounded nose with faired-in headlights and a wagon body with the hard edges smoothed out.
Automotive resemblances don't stop with the sheet metal. The Pathfinder eschews the body-on-frame construction common to most sport-utes, using instead a unit structure that Nissan claims is more than twice as rigid as its predecessor, as well as considerably lighter. That should keep squeaks and rattles to a minimum, as it did during our test.
There are three models -- XE, SE and LE, in ascending order -- and the fancier versions carry more bright trim than most passenger cars; their grilles, bumper tops and running boards are plated or polished. Equivalent pieces on XE models are black (though, curiously, the XE rides on chrome wheels), creating an immediately apparent distinction between the models.
Both XE (from $23,919, including destination) and LE (from $33,339) versions are available with rear- or four-wheel drive. The latter is a part-time system with shift-on-the-fly capability, and we recommend the optional limited slip rear differential if you're planning to challenge mucky forest trails.
The sporty SE (from $28,369) is a 4WD-only model that essentially splits the difference between XE and LE and offers extra ground clearance -- 8.3 inches, versus 7.5.
As the wide range of listed prices suggests, the various Pathfinders run the gamut from relatively basic to fully loaded, though there's not a "stripper" in the bunch. All have a V-6 engine, ABS, AM/FM/CD audio system and rear wash/wipe as standard, but to get air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and locks, plus leather seats and automatic transmission without exhaustive option-shopping requires purchase of an LE version.
Our tester was a top-of-the-line LE, with 4WD.
The Inside Story
Is it a car or a truck? From the inside, you'll be hard-pressed to tell which category the Pathfinder fits best. Granted, the seats are higher off the ground than they would be in, say, a Nissan Altima, but the dashboard, seats and all other trim pieces convey a sense of passenger car ambience and comfort.
Like most sport-utes, getting into or out of a Pathfinder requires a long step up (or down), but once inside you'll find all the right stuff in all the right places. Dials (speedometer, tachometer, water temperature and fuel level) are large, as are buttons for most other necessary functions and rotary dials for climate control. The radio buttons are a little too small, and the electric mirror switches are hidden from view by the wheel, but by and large, the designers have done their work well. Everything else is sited for easy use.
Seating quality and noise isolation fall into the car-like class as well. A quiet, comfortable environment is one of the Pathfinder's greatest assets, followed by generous cargo space, enhanced by the vehicle's increased dimensions. On the debit side, taller occupants may find a little less headroom than they'd like, and all adults will wish the rear seat offered more leg room.
Very little needs to be added to complete the Pathfinder's cabin, especially when it's an SE or LE; most of us will be quite well served by an SE with added air conditioning. In fact, we prefer the lesser model's cloth upholstery -- especially for the first sit-down on cold winter mornings. On the other hand, we like the LE's power glass sunroof and excellent Bose sound system.
One standard feature that might work better on the option list is the heavily tinted privacy glass for rear doors, quarter windows and liftgate. Some buyers might find it a trifle dark for night driving.
On the plus side of the driver sightline ledger, the 1996 redesign moved the spare tire from the liftgate to an underbody storage nook, a change that also makes it easier to get in and out of the rear cargo hold.
Ride & Drive
Though not quite up to Rolls-Royce legendary quietness standards -- neither are Rolls-Royces, for that matter -- the Pathfinder is a quiet operator on paved roads. Wind noise is exceptionally low, and the engine is well-muted. The tires generate some sound (unavoidable with all-season rubber) but even that is minimal.
On pavement, the Pathfinder's suspension delivers a comfortable ride. Soft springs and generous wheel travel smooth out all but the worst bumps; the sole negative in this area is body roll during cornering, a common trait for sport-utility vehicles. Steering is good as well, striking a nice balance between precision and low effort.
Performance is still another Pathfinder plus. Even with a load of passengers and/or cargo, acceleration is brisk and there's enough torque to pull a 5000-pound trailer.
Good as the five-speed manual transmission is, the four-speed automatic (standard with the LE) struck us as a better all-around match to our tester's luxo character. It shifts crisply yet unobtrusively, and subtracts less from straight-ahead performance than many automatic-equipped sport-utes. We put this down to the power traits of the V-6 engine. Its peak horsepower output isn't extraordinary, but its robust torque comes on early and peaks at a relatively low 3000 rpm.
Like virtually all sport-utility vehicles, the Pathfinder's fuel economy is just so-so, even with a manual transmission. But that doesn't seem to matter much to most SUV buyers.
In most respects, the Pathfinder seems to be exactly what a new generation of sport-utility buyers is looking for. It has style and comfort in abundance, and combines them with the stance of a traditional go-anywhere vehicle. There are better choices for truly demanding off-road use, but the Pathfinder is a good choice for the vast majority of owners who will never use their vehicles for stump-jumping or cliff-crawling.
Pricing qualifies as premium, nudging into the luxury range for the LE, but standard equipment levels are commensurately high, and, like all Nissans, the quality quotient is first rate.
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