That’s not to say the Pathfinder has done it wrong. Far from it. The paths this SUV has found have ranged from rocky to paved. Nissan split the difference with the latest Pathfinder that bowed for 2022, but with subtle retro nods to the 1990s.
Like the 4Runner, the original Pathfinder was based on the automaker’s pickup truck, and it offered 4- or 6-cylinder power, two doors, and seating for four passengers in relative comfort. While the 4Runner had a removable rear shell, the Pathfinder had a fixed roof with a distinctive angular side window line. In contrast to its squared-off profile, front fascia, and cabin, the right triangle chopped out of a rectangular side window gave it a distinctive look.
A 4-door version arrived for the 1990 model year as Nissan watched families buy the Jeep Cherokee because of its easier rear-seat access. Nissan was ahead of the curve but left the Pathfinder mostly unchanged until a 1996 redesign.
1996: The Pathfinder Enters the Mainstream
The second-generation Pathfinder looked like a softer version of its predecessor, with smoother shapes but little significant difference in design language. However, what was underneath told another story. The Pathfinder moved to unibody construction, meaning its body and frame were a single unit welded together. It retained a solid rear axle and decent ground clearance for off-roading, but Nissan correctly predicted a shift toward SUVs intended primarily for on-pavement use.
That Pathfinder begat an Infiniti version called “QX4,” offering little in exclusive features aside from additional side cladding and softer leather upholstery. Consumers had no problem overlooking the thinly-disguised “luxury” SUVs of the 1990s, however, and the QX4 was by most accounts a success.
2005: The Pathfinder Endures Growing Pains
For round three, Nissan reinvented the Pathfinder. By the 2005 model year, gas was cheap, and everyone seemed to want SUVs. The Pathfinder grew by the better part of a foot this time to accommodate a newly available third-row bench.
Simultaneously (and confusingly), the Pathfinder moved back to a primitive body-on-frame construction while adding a modern independent rear suspension. The body-on-frame structure suggests a rugged nature, but an independent rear suspension limits wheel travel to the detriment of off-road capability. An independent rear suspension offers less intrusion into the cargo area — so the Pathfinder could comfortably accommodate a third-row bench seat.
Nissan’s decision to go body-on-frame finally made sense for the 2008 model year when an updated version gained the Titan full-size pickup truck’s 5.6-liter V8. Fuel consumption was dreadful, but the Pathfinder could comfortably tow 7,000 pounds in the correct configuration.
The updated model arrived just in time for the global recession, which sent buyers rushing toward subcompact cars rather than thirsty SUVs. That was a shame since the third-generation Pathfinder was a competitive SUV very much in tune with buyers’ needs in the early aughts… but then again, so was the Kia Borrego. And when was the last time you saw one of those?
2013: A (Long-Lived) Reinvention for the Modern Era
Nissan spent the early 2000s watching the Toyota Highlander mature from a mini-me 4Runner into a family-oriented crossover while the 4Runner stuck to its rugged roots. This time, the automaker recast the Pathfinder as a proper Highlander rival. It shifted back to unibody construction with a fully independent suspension, a front-wheel-drive powertrain with an efficiency-oriented continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), and an enormous cabin almost as spacious as a minivan.
Frankly, Nissan could have given the Pathfinder a new name, and it probably would have been just as successful. The new Pathfinder was perfect for its era, even if it was no longer an off-roader.
A short-lived hybrid version showed potential, but Nissan pulled the plug (instead of adding one, which would have been a great idea). Once again, Infiniti got its version, which was briefly called the “JX35” before being rebadged as the “QX60.”
2022: An Overdue Rework With Nods to the Past
This year, a new Pathfinder finally arrived, and it feels almost like a highlight reel from the nameplate’s past.
One thing is consistent: it’s a family-oriented crossover with modest 4-wheeling intentions. It sits about seven inches off the ground (nearly two inches lower than a Subaru Ascent), and its long overhangs stand all too eager to meet rocks and other obstacles when the pavement ends. Inside, there’s substantial space for six passengers, though eight can squeeze into seatbelts in a pinch. Even the third row offers decent accessibility and space for bigger kids, with some room behind for groceries or sports practice equipment.
Where the Pathfinder reminds us of its past is in its details. That dramatic C-pillar just aft of the back doors is no facsimile of the original, but its intentions are obvious to anyone in the know. Unpainted wheel arches serve as reminders of the first- and second-generation models. Instead of presenting a soft appearance, the current model looks relatively muscular with its bulging fenders.
The vintage cues are rarer inside, where the Pathfinder borrows switchgear and big screens from other Nissan models. The clunky gearbox knob accesses a genuine automatic transmission with nine forward gears. That may be less efficient than the old CVT, but it means much smoother and more refined driving. This 9-speed automatic is more or less the same ZF-designed gearbox employed in numerous other front- and all-wheel-drive models ranging from the Chrysler Pacifica and Jeep Cherokee to the Honda Ridgeline. Its behavior may be the most innocuous in the Pathfinder.
Another nod to the past arrives with the new Rock Creek trim level. Unlike its looks-only predecessor, it includes a slightly higher suspension, light-duty all-terrain tires, and a marginally beefier roof rack. The Pathfinder Rock Creek is not a 4Runner TRD Pro, but at least there is a hint of capability to go along with its rugged name. Just ignore those bead-lock-style wheels, which will not live up to their appearance.
Then again, that rugged style could be the gentle nod to the past that we need. See Nissan Pathfinder models for sale