Totally redesigned and re-engineered for 2005, the current Pathfinder is significantly larger than previous models. It offers more interior space and more convenience features. It also offers third-row seating for up to seven people.
The 4.0-liter V6 that powers the Pathfinder is a larger, retuned version of the engine that powers the 350Z. Its five-speed automatic transmission is specifically geared to capitalize on the engine's torque characteristics. Maximum towing capacity, with proper equipment, is 6000 pounds.
The Off-Road 4WD model features Hill Descent Control, which limits downhill speed without driver intervention, and Hill Start Assist, which briefly holds the Pathfinder on a slope while the driver releases the brake pedal and applies the accelerator.
In short, the Pathfinder is an excellent alternative to the Toyota 4Runner.
Only minor changes with option packages distinguish the 2006 Pathfinder from the '05 model.
Nissan Pathfinder XE 4X2 ($24,650); XE 4X4 ($26,650); SE 4X2 ($25,850); SE 4X4 ($27,850); SE Off-Road 4X2 ($28,450); SE Off-Road 4X4 ($30,450); LE 4X2 ($32,550); LE 4X4 ($34,750)
Totally redesigned for 2005, this latest Pathfinder looks significantly larger than its predecessor, and it is: by six inches in overall length, and by five inches in wheelbase. It's an inch wider, too, and almost five inches taller.
Unlike older Pathfinders, the current models feature rugged body-on-frame construction using a ladder-type frame adapted from Nissan's full-size Armada SUV and Titan pickup. This is the type of construction best suited for heavy-duty towing, serious load-hauling, and ambitious bashing about in the backwoods.
Pathfinder's design shares styling cues with the Armada and Titan, as well as the latest Frontier pickup. Up front, angular chrome grille bars vertically bracket the familiar Nissan logo. Crisply outlined headlight lenses fold around the edges of the fenders. A strong, chin-like bumper houses a wide, low air intake, with small, round sockets for the optional fog lights just inboard of the fender blister creases.
From the side, the fender blisters encircle substantial tires and give substance to the mostly smooth body panels. Sloping C-pillars with high-mounted rear door handles are angled less severely than on the Armada, but still make Pathfinder's kinship clear. The roof line, mimicking the Armada's, bows slightly over the forward passenger compartment then flattens aft of the C-pillar. A vertical divide carried over from the previous generation splits the rear side door windows allowing the forward two-thirds of the glass to lower fully into the door, a nice feature. Short overhangs front and rear spotlight the new Pathfinder's off-road promise. Openings in the ends of the roof rails at first seem mere styling exercises, but actually offer convenient hand-holds when loading and offloading sport gear.
The rear bumper copies the Armada's, with a low lift-over between upturns at each end tying into the large taillights. The backlight's (rear windscreen's) bottom edge tracks the bumper's geometry as part of an elongated pentagonal outline, picking up on the geometric theme of the Xterra.
The three-spoke steering wheel with metallic trim is familiar to anyone familiar with Nissan. A large, round speedometer and tachometer complemented by four smaller gauges fill the top half of the steering wheel opening. A column stalk to the left manages the exterior lights, and one to the right runs the windshield wipers and washers. Outside mirror and pedals are adjusted with buttons located on the lower dash, to the left of the steering column. The ignition key slot is on the dash, which is preferable to being on the steering column.
The stereo sits uppermost in the center stack, above the climate controls. Both are fitted with delightfully basic, intuitively shaped knobs and buttons and easily deciphered displays. In models with Nissan's All-Mode 4WD system and electronically controlled transfer case, a large rotary selector is positioned in a panel at the base below a smallish storage bin. Stacked vertically to the right of this are two of the four accessory power outlets. Atop the dash above the stereo a shallow tray occupies the space reserved for the optional navigation system's pop-up display. The navigation system offers a bird's eye view, with map details tracking away to a virtual horizon. A bi-level glove box fills the lower part of the dash to the right of the center stack.
Dash panels are uniformly textured, flowing smoothly out from the base of the windshield around and down on each side of the center stack to the knee bolsters filling the space between the stack and doors. The center console is finished with a bright metallic look. Two cup holders are sandwiched between the shift gate and the storage bin. The bin is deep and wide, with receptacles for coins, a power outlet and slots for CDs. The underside of the console lid holds clips for a couple pens or pencils. Cupholders for second-row occupants fold out of the back side of the center console. These features add convenience and make life just a little easier.
The considerable length of the Pathfinder makes room for a third-row seat, providing space for up to seven passengers. But there's also more room in the front seats. The Pathfinder offers generous head, hip and leg room in the front seats, as well as in the important middle seats.
The front seats are comfortable and supportive, on road and off, but would benefit from a deeper bottom cushion for added thigh support. The rear doors offer easy foot access, and the seatbacks are adequately bolstered, at least for the two outboard passengers. Anybody sentenced to the center-row center seat had best hope the trip is short. Access to the third row is gained via a relatively easy folding of the middle seat, but climbing in provides a good gauge of how comfortable it's going to be back there. Put another way, limber, small-to-medium statures fit best. Grab/assist handles are plentiful, but conspicuously missing from the area of the driver's door. And the liftgate has an inside pull-down, sparing fingers contact with road grime, although a remote inside release for the liftgate was either non-existent or very well hidden.
The cargo area behind the third row of seats is a mere 16.5 cubic feet, but it's significantly more than the seven-passenger Ford Explorer offers. Collapsing the third-row seats boosts the Pathfinder's cargo capacity to 49.2 cubic feet, about 5 cubic feet roomier than a comparably configured Explorer. Oddly, however, once all its seats are folded, the big new Pathfinder falls short in cargo space when compared to the Explorer (by almost 5 cubic feet). On the SE Off-Road model, the front passenger seat folds as well, opening up space for objects 10 feet in length, a great feature.
Storage bins, pockets and cubbies abound. Each row of seats gets two cup holders. All four doors have map pockets, and the ones in the front doors ha
The five-speed automatic transmission shifts up and down almost imperceptibly, with smooth gear changes executed by the computerized engine management system. Pathfinder's throttle is drive-by-wire, which allows a more measured tip-in when in 4WD.
An extended exploration in an SE Off-Road of a muddy, technical, single-vehicle track in a heavily wooded area on Bainbridge Island across the bay from Seattle proved not only the effectiveness of this alternative throttle programming, but also the surprising dexterity of the Pathfinder in the rough. We crawled over downed trees, crossed axle-deep water holes and descended sloppy slopes without stress, strain or undue slippage. Give credit in part to the SE Off-Road's impressive 9.2 inches of ground clearance.
Pathfinder's available All-Mode electronic transfer case switches manually from 2WD mode to AUTO 4WD, with locked 4WD High and 4WD Low ranges as well. Standard on the 4WD SE Off Road model we tested is Nissan's Hill Descent Control (HDC), which allows for going downhill without the constant application of the brake pedal. HDC is engaged by the driver via a switch and is available only when the transfer case is engaged in 4HI or 4LO, although it does work in both forward and reverse. It can be activated at speeds up to 31 mph in 4HI and 15 mph in 4LO.
Hill Start Assist (HSA) allows the driver to stop on a slope, release the brake pedal and not roll back for up to two seconds. HSA is always active and is available in 2WD, 4HI, and 4LO. HSA is designed for rugged, low-speed off-road driving situations.
At highway speeds, the Pathfinder's steering provided comforting on-center feel. Swiftly executed lane changes excited no disconcerting tail wagging. Brake pedal feel was also solid. ABS is standard, as is Electronic Brake-force Distribution. The former helps the driver maintain steering control while using the brakes full-force, especially on uncertain surfaces. The latter continuously and instantly shifts maximum braking force to the wheels with the most weight on them, even as the car's weight shifts forward while stopping.
The 2006 Nissan Pathfinder is a truly capable, and truly midsize SUV. All the elements are in place, a robust powertrain, a proper choice of 4WD mechanicals, fresh and eye-pleasing styling, an accommodating interior, and some nice amenities.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Bainbridge Island, Washington.