Never the shy one, the Nissan Pathfinder bounds into 2008 with freshened styling, a subtly but substantially revised cabin, and technology upgrades such as a backup camera and hard-drive music storage.
All of which pale in comparison to the real headliner: The Pathfinder gets its first V8 engine option for 2008, a 5.6-liter from the Titan full-size pickup with 310 horsepower and more torque than GM's 6-liter or Dodge and Jeep's Hemi.
The Pathfinder was winning SUV comparison evaluations long before SUV became a household word, and this heavily updated fourth-generation version merely puts it in a bigger, seven-seat house. Built like a truck and unstoppable by most reasonable endeavors (Baja, anyone?) the Pathfinder is a capable mid-size SUV for those who require a genuine truck, compete rather than watch, yet still want some degree of style and comfort during the week.
If your off-road driving consists of graded dirt roads, you desire all-wheel drive for bad weather, or tow something as light as personal watercraft, Nissan's Murano might be better. But if your path has tree stumps, rocks, ruts, mud or all of the above, your boat or RV weighs a couple of tons, or you like your Xterra but want more luxury, the Pathfinder may fit.
However, don't let the truck talk fool you. Thanks to independent rear suspension and large tires, the Pathfinder rides well and the rack-and-pinion steering works precisely and turns tighter than many mid-size sedans. Also, the Pathfinder doesn't require a climb to get into and will fit easily in garages and standard parking spaces.
The mid-size SUV market isn't as huge as it once was, but many of the contenders, such as the Chevy TrailBlazer, Dodge Durango, Mercedes ML-Class, Mitsubishi Montero, and Toyota 4Runner, can't offer the mechanical combinations, nor in some cases the aggressive styling, that the Pathfinder does.
Nissan Pathfinder S ($25,700); SE ($29,000); SE V8 ($30,600); LE ($34,800); LE V8 ($36,500); S 4WD ($27,700); SE 4WD ($31,000); SE V8 4WD ($32,850); SE Off-Road 4WD ($33,900); LE 4WD ($37,000); LE V8 4WD ($38,700)
Only astute observers will notice the 2008 Nissan Pathfinder snout is two inches longer than the 2007 models, though faithful will notice the smoother tailgate, new wheel styles and side moldings, and near total absence of superfluous character lines. The large fender arches are integral with the sheetmetal and set off by indentations around their periphery to promote the muscular attitude.
The cleaner nose job sweeping into the front arches reminds of a Dodge Nitro, but Pathfinder's minimal overhangs, angular edges, semi-concealed rear door handles and vertical hatch maintain its roots as a genuine off-road worthy four-wheel drive.
Side steps (purposely left off the SE Off-Road) are well-integrated and allow easier entry/exit for shorter occupants without dirtying trouser cuffs of taller riders, the roof rack mounts are open at the ends for hand-holds and securing of cargo (the non-skid surface on rear bumper and side steps helps, too), and the aft-angled rear doors simplify access to the third-row seats.
Stylish wheels have always been a part of Pathfinder and the wheels on our example were no different, with machined spokes and painted backgrounds, all clear-coated.
Just a few mid-size SUVs remain with a combination of a truck-style frame and independent rear suspension (IRS), but not many can compete with the Pathfinder when the going gets rough: The Mitsubishi Montero doesn't offer a V8 and the V-6 can't match Nissan's; the Ford Explorer is not the trail-exploring tool the Pathfinder is, and its engines can't match Nissan's. Look underneath a Pathfinder and you'll find steel, and lots of it: a fully boxed frame essentially a smaller-dimension version of that employed by the Titan and Armada full-sizes, steel suspension arms, plenty of bracing, and all the important bits tucked up out of harm's way. Despite a V8 underhood there is still sufficient space for do-it-yourself maintenance or quick belt replacement. The Toyota 4Runner is among the few vehicles that can compete with the Pathfinder off road. Others include the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Land Rover LR3.
Since it's based on a truck and not a minivan, the mid-size Pathfinder won't have the room of the minivan. But inch-by-inch it's an efficient layout. Third-row room is more comfortable than the numbers suggest and better than many longer three-row SUVs such as the Jeep Commander that use a solid rear axle. And unlike the sloping hatch of many crossovers, the Pathfinder's upright hatch doesn't impinge on cargo room and sheds snow and ice much better.
Jump into a 2008 Pathfinder and you may well do a double-take: perforated heated leather front seats, mercurial-looking pewter console trim, and a central control area that appears capable of landing an aircraft. Check the window sticker. Repeat aloud, incredulity permitted, This is a Pathfinder?
Alright, so the basics are much the same as last year, it's just got new style to impress the eyes and offers more without adding confusion. Little changes in edges here and materials there make a synergistic improvement, suggesting Nissan got top dollar for its development buck.
Interior room is typical of a mid-size SUV, with legroom diminishing as you head rearward.
Front seats provide support and a good view all around, though a few may complain about the thick pillar just behind the driver's door. A tilt steering wheel complements adjustable pedals for a wide range of driver positions and sizes. Steering column stalks are nicely positioned and damped and logically laid out.
Materials appear well-crafted and chosen, with easy-clean surfaces on the indented door panels. The shifter would feel at home in an expensive luxury car, though we would prefer the shifter on the left side of the console rather than the far side. The driver faces gauges that include oil pressure and volts, the better for keeping tabs on things when four wheeling. The central screen displays images from the rearview camera whenever you shift into Reverse, a feature that's available even if you don't order the optional navigation system. Two gloveboxes are provided, and one of them locks.
A bank of white-on-black switchgear for audio and climate falls mid-pack for intuitiveness (non-navi models have two adjacent Back buttons) yet is quickly mastered. In a system more manufacturers should consider, radio stations are memorized in three lettered groups and not by AM, FM, or XM, so you can mix and match bands as you choose. That's much better for switching among your favorites.
The second row seats three, with only a modest bulge in the center floor and scalloped front seatbacks for more knee room. With full roll-down windows and overhead AC ducting (controlled from front or back, driver's choice) there's no claustrophobia, partial recline improves comfort, and third row riders have a good view and their own vents. Every rear seat has an adjustable headrest that keeps a low profile and, unless there's a center passenger, the view through the well-swept deep rear window is preserved for the driver. Each section of the middle row folds individually, and a simple latch pull pops the outer seats forward for third row access.
The third row is split 50/50 and raised or dropped with one touch from the cargo area. You can put small adults back there because of the low floor line, or if you want the skis indoors, fold the left side seats and sit on the right.
Cargo space is moderate when all three rows are up but expands exponentially as seatbacks drop. There are small netted pockets to the left and in the hatch (along with the first aid kit), a full-width grocery net, room for some small gear or your personal effects under the floor, a rubberized deck material for fast clean-up, and tie-down points in the floor, sides, and roof to restrain anything you load. A side benefit of the independent rear suspension is a load floor just 30 inches from the ground, and the hatch glass can be opened separately for tossing lighter stuff in.
The invigorating drive that characterized the first Pathfinders remains, it's just been refined without giving up the performance the Pathfinder-faithful crave, both on trail and on highway.
Nissan's 4-liter V6 is a proven performer and award winner, similar to the engine used in the 350Z, G37, and every moderate-size Nissan and Infiniti sedan. Properly tuned for truck use by favoring torque over horsepower, it makes 266 hp and 288 pound-feet of torque here, about the same as some domestic V8s, and is more than capable of propelling the Pathfinder with verve, smoothness, efficiency (bearing in mind these are 2.5-ton trucks, on big tires, etc.) and noise only when you get on it.
However, for the first time in a Pathfinder you can now get a V8, and Nissan figures a fifth of Pathfinder owners will tow or want to make the power statement. This is a walk softly and carry a big stick kind of statement.
Stolen right from the Titan and Armada, the 5.6-liter V8 purrs quietly in the background until the reins are let go and all 310 hp and 388 pound-feet of torque come on line. These numbers obliterate most in the mid-size frame-and-body SUV class and any with IRS, and with the five-speed automatic ideally matched the Pathfinder goes quickly, right now. Of course there is a penalty with EPA numbers of 12/18 mpg City/Highway for a 4WD V8, but those use the new-for-2008 methodology and our example bettered 17 mpg in mixed use. For a 5,000-pound four-wheel-drive, that's quite competitive.
Genuine 4WD SUVs don't typically deliver the utmost in cornering prowess because the required responses and tires are often contradictory to off-highway traction. Just because a Pathfinder has the same 50/50 weight distribution of a BMW doesn't mean it changes directions like one; conversely, if a BMW tried to follow a Pathfinder down a rocky trail, it would soon come to a grinding halt. However, trail tuning and four-wheel drive do often deliver a surprisingly soft ride on pavement (relative to the truck-based design and aggressive tire tread), especially on pot-holed, frost-heaved or otherwise neglected roads. Body/frame isolation is good, much like that of a Toyota Sequoia or Lexus LX470, and big tires equal big sidewalls, so small impacts like lane-divider dots tend to imperceptibility.
A V8 lifts the tow rating from the V6's 6,000 pounds to 7,000, which we didn't get to use. We did manage to fully load one and found the rear suspension touched the bump stops a bit earlier, as expected, yet composure remained stable and not one of the passengers complained about the ride.
The steering wheel is answered promptly and thick anti-roll bars minimize body roll (lean) without limiting the axle articulation desired for off-road use; there are vehicles that use more sophisticated devices for the best of both worlds but they cost much, much more than a Pathfinder and frequently will get no farther down the trail. If you've ever driven a softly sprung French car, many designed for also-marginal roads, you'll feel right at home.
Brakes respond equally well, and hitting them hard will produce some nose-dive typical of well-sprung SUVs; repeated heavy braking produced no fade even with a full load on board.
The 2008 Nissan Pathfinder builds on a good thing, bringing more amenities, cleaner style inside and out, and offers a testosterone-laden V8 for power freaks and routine trailer pullers. If you need a capable seven-seat mid-size utility able to go beyond most drivers' requests, it deserves consideration.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale test drove the Pathfinder V8 in rural Wisconsin and not-so-rural Southern California.Tom Lankard contributed to this report.