A fixture in Nissan's product lineup for more than 25 years, the fourth generation Pathfinder has evolved from the cheeky adolescent Hardbody of 1986 to the mature parental unit of 2013. It's a maturation process that has entailed several zigs and zags. Like so many of the vehicles that came along in the mid-'80s SUV boom, that first generation was a body-on-frame design based on Nissan's compact pickup truck. The next iteration (1996) was a unitbody (frame rails integrated with the body shell), but Nissan reverted to body-on-frame for generation three (2005).
As a result, the transition to the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder, generation four, is a major course change for this most persistently popular of all Nissan SUVs. The third generation was conceived for the possibility, however remote, of serious off-road use, hence lots of ground clearance and body-on-frame construction, a prescription for enduring the pounding that goes with rugged terrain.
Generation four represents an about-face. Concluding that the large SUV segment is increasingly composed of buyers whose priorities don't include off-road adventure, Nissan has retuned the 2013 Pathfinder around family values: roominess, comfort, and, paramount among today's vehicle attributes, fuel economy.
The result is that the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder is bigger than the gen three Pathfinder, with more room, sharply reduced curb weights, and dramatically improved fuel economy ratings.
Increased dimensions and reduced weight? Yes. That, and much higher chassis rigidity, is the benefit of unitbody construction. At 114.2 inches, the new Pathfinder's wheelbase is 2.0 inches longer than the 2012 model, overall length stretches 4.6 inches to 197.2, and width expands from 72.8 to 77.2. The only dimension that shrinks is height: 69.6 inches, down 2.4, in part because ride height and ground clearance (6.5 inches) is similar to that of an everyday sedan.
This isn't surprising, since the 2013 Pathfinder's architecture based on front-wheel drive is shared with the Nissan Altima sedan and the new Infiniti JX sport-utility. What is surprising is just how much mass has been pared from the Pathfinder in the transition from gen three to gen four: 300 to 500 pounds, depending on trim level and whether the vehicle is equipped with four-wheel drive.
Although Nissan doesn't have a fancy name for it, the design and engineering approach to the weight reduction is pretty much the same as Mazda's Skyactiv Technology. Everything in the new Pathfinder went on a diet. As you'd expect, the biggest weight loss was achieved by the change to unibody construction, about 32 percent, according to Nissan. The new 3.5-liter V6 engine and continuously variable transmission (replacing the previous 4.0-liter V6 and conventional 5-speed automatic) accounted for another chunk, but just about every conceivable element of the car has been trimmed: dashboard, seats, door panels, interior trim elements, you name it.
The sum of the foregoing, plus improved aerodynamics (0.34 coefficient of drag, very good by SUV standards), is EPA fuel economy ratings of 20 mpg City, 26 Highway for front-wheel drive models, 19/25 mpg with all-wheel drive. Nissan claims best in class for the front-drive Highway rating. More significant, the outgoing Nissan was rated for 15/22 with rear drive, 13/18 with four-wheel drive.
The net is a seven-passenger crossover SUV that's stylish, roomy, quiet, and economical by the standards for the mid-size SUV class, a class that includes the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, and Toyota Highlander.
The all-new 2013 Nissan Pathfinder's dimensions have expanded, but it's hard to see at a glance, thanks to smooth styling that's a little more streamlined and a little less utilitarian than the previous generation. The modest fender flares and wide stance suggest muscle, which is an overstatement, but the body has been carefully sculpted for aerodynamics (as noted, 0.34 Cd), as well as suppression of wind noise.
Thin A- and D-pillars, plus a low beltline, give the cabin an airy feeling, and the wide chrome grille is unmistakably Nissan. The optional dual moonroof (power retractable front portion, fixed rear) adds to the wide open feel of the interior, and there's a power sunshade for the rear portion if/when the sun gets a little intense.
As you'd expect, expanded dimensions pay off in expanded interior volume, specifically eight cubic feet. Nissan claims best in class passenger volume, but probably the biggest beneficiary is the middle row, which offers more leg and elbow room, as well as 5.5 inches of fore-aft adjustability. Nissan also worked to make third row access easier, including times when child seats may be occupying the middle row. Flip the seatback forward, child seat and all, and there's plenty of room to climb into the rearmost seats.
Easy access doesn't make that third row much more habitable, though. Like most it's pretty snug, especially for adult-size people, though reclinable seatbacks help some.
Like all SUVs, the Pathfinder's second- and third-row seats fold flat to expand cargo volume, to almost 80 feet cubic feet. There's 16 cubic feet behind the third row seatbacks and small storage well beneath the floor.
The relaxed-fit front seats are comfortable, with only modest lateral support, though this isn't likely to matter since no one will confuse this vehicle with a sports car and lower bolsters make getting in and out easier. The front seats offer both heating and cooling function, and there's heating for the middle row. Leather is available in upper trim levels, though the basic model's seats are clad in a high grade cloth.
With pricing that crosses the $40,000 threshold, the Pathfinder's inventory includes a broad array of features, an excellent 13-speaker Bose audio, eight-inch center dash color display screen, the Panorama sunroof, a user-friendly navigation system with real-time traffic info, and Nissan's new Around View security camera prominent among them. Unfortunately, all of them are optional: Standard features are minimalistic, particularly in the lower trim levels, S and SV.
Safety features are industry basic: rearview camera, front and front seat-mounted side airbags, curtain airbags covering all three rows, antilock braking, and traction control.
Conspicuous by its absence is the Infiniti JX assist system that alerts the driver to cross traffic or pedestrians during back-up maneuvers, and if the driver ignores the warning will actually stop the vehicle. Nissan provides no really compelling answer for the system's absence in the Pathfinder inventory.
Around View, as noted, costs extra. The system involves four cameras that monitor what's happening in a 360-degree arc around the vehicle. Shared with the Infiniti JX, Nissan characterizes this as an industry first, although both Lexus and Range Rover offer similar systems. But it's definitely a first for this segment, and is likely to save the lives of a good many small dogs, cats, Big Wheels, and Cozy Coupes.
Beyond content issues, the Pathfinder's attractively furnished cabin has an open feel, as noted earlier, even without the big sunroof, thanks to the low beltline. The slender front and rear roof pillars contribute to good driver sightlines, particularly looking forward, and the center stack includes an intelligent mix of buttons and knobs, in contrast to the all-digital touch controls becoming popular elsewhere.
The new Pathfinder's 3.5-liter V6 doesn't have the thrust of the 4.0-liter six that powered the third generation, particularly in the torque department, but with its reduced mass the power-to-weight ratios work out about the same, as does acceleration from a standing start: expect 60 mph to come up in about 7.5 seconds.
There's also enough thrust to make two-lane highway passing a reasonable exercise, even with family occupying all the seats.
On the other hand, while throttle response is prompt, putting the pedal to the metal doesn't always produce maximum haste. Blame the CVT for this. Nissan has done more with CVT development than any other carmaker, to exploit the virtues of this transmission type in terms of fuel economy.
But big throttle demands will still provoke a bit of the asthmatic wheezing that's been a CVT characteristic, as well as the sense of slipping clutch as the transmission's belt mechanism catches up to the engine.
Steering is another soft suit. Like most carmakers, Nissan has adopted an electric power steering system, a fuel economy measure. Also like most, the system varies power assist as a function of speed: the higher the speed, the lower the assist. However, in the Pathfinder, the system is basically numb, providing almost no tactile information to the driver. As a consequence, the driver finds him or her self making tiny adjustments during cornering maneuvers, matching intention to the vehicle's actual response.
A relatively slow steering ratio, 3.3 turns lock to lock, doesn't do much to enhance the experience.
Still, if the Pathfinder's dynamic persona is all but devoid of fun, it has other virtues. The suspension tuning, for example, strikes an excellent balance between ride comfort and limited body roll in hard cornering. There's enough compliance to smooth out nasty patches and freeway expansion joints, with enough roll stiffness to provide decisive responses in situations requiring quick maneuvers.
Braking is a strong suit, with excellent pedal feel that makes it easy for the driver to modulate pressure.
With a long wheelbase and modest ground clearance, the latest Pathfinder isn't designed for tough off-road use. The simplified four-wheel drive system provides three settings: front-drive, automatic (sending power to the rear wheels when the fronts begin to slip), and four-wheel lock, which fixes front/rear torque split at 50/50. It should serve well in wet, slushy, and icy road conditions, but it's not on the same page as its predecessor for serious off-roading.
Let's not forget towing. Nissan is proud of the new Pathfinder's capability; 5000 pounds is high for a vehicle with front-wheel-drive architecture (Nissan claims best in class), and a noteworthy achievement for a CVT vehicle. It would resonate even better if the previous Pathfinder hadn't been capable of dragging 7000 pounds.
Still, assessed as an all-purpose family hauler, the Pathfinder's dynamics grade out quite well. The overall priority may be smooth ride and quiet comfort, but not at the expense of competence.
The latest Pathfinder provides a vanilla driving experience, and it's no longer a good choice for anyone who wants to take on rough off-road treks. However, it's roomy, comfortable, quiet, attractive, devoid of dynamic vices, offers the kind of family peacekeeping entertainment features that make long trips tolerable for all hands, and can be optioned up to luxury levels. Add fuel economy that's as good as anything in this class, and better than most, and the new Pathfinder rates as an attractive entry in a very competitive field.
Tony Swan filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Detroit.