Over the ages that Nissan has been selling Pathfinders, the vehicle gained an odd distinction. Along with most other SUVs, the Pathfinder evolved from body-on-frame to unit-body design, thereby trading the capacity to mount a snowplow or an anti-aircraft gun for more car-like road manners. But in 2005, it unaccountably backslid to pickup-truck construction—and then last year the Pathfinder got religion a second time and reverted to uni-body again.
Let’s hope it stays there. This 2014 model offers pretty much everything that’s aspirational in today’s family SUVs. It even dips a toe into a couple of praiseworthy new trends.
One of these is “light-sizing.” Nissan says this 4th-gen Pathfinder weighs almost 500 pounds less than its predecessor. That’s fine, but moving from truck underpinnings will do this anyway. Presumably Nissan engineers are now looking to lop off another half-ton or so. (Weight is the enemy. Carmakers are running scared because US regulations call for a Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard of 35.5 MPG by 2016 and 54.5 MPG by 2025.)
On a 90-mile stretch of interstate, in 2WD (see below), we got almost 27 computer-indicated miles per gallon, which is not only two MPG better than Nissan’s claimed average, but also commendable for a boxy, two-plus-ton non-diesel. In town, the Pathfinder’s efficiency dropped to just below 23—which is still three MPG better than projected.
Nissan is about to roll out a hybrid Pathfinder that should do even better, but one reason for these good numbers is the gear-less, continuously variable Xtronic transmission. I usually deride CVTs as lawn-tractor equipment, but this one delivers both the low highway RPM and the good overall response of a modern 8-speed automatic transmission.
The CVT is part of an All-Mode 4x4i drivetrain that may be unique in this vehicle class. With a rotary dial, the driver can select two-wheel drive, 50/50 four-wheel drive, or an automatic mode that sends power to whatever wheels can use it. As in 4X4s of yesteryear, 2WD disconnects one axle—the back one, in this case—to improve fuel economy by reducing friction. And, just as in the old days, we have to stop to lock in 4WD.
Back then, I used to get into trouble by waiting too long to call up 4WD; with a Pathfinder, I could just twirl the dial to “Auto,” which will come to the rescue when needed, at the price of a few extra ounces of gas.
Choice—ain’t it wonderful? Nissan may be launching a trend here; let’s see if other crossover wagons decide to let the driver go 2WD-only.
Mechano-wizardry aside, there are other reasons to like the new Pathfinder. Slide into one for the first time and the word “plush” comes to mind. The cabin was swathed in creamy leather, satiny chrome and expensive-looking plastics, and clearly Nissan has added plenty of sound insulation. The controls—for heating and cooling, navigation, the Bose stereo, trip computer and phone—are logically positioned, and labeled and sized properly even for us seniors. The graphics on the two digital screens are Apple-good. This was a $37,000 Pathfinder SL with almost $3,000 worth of extras on top, and it looked and felt more like an Infiniti than a Nissan.
The driver’s seat is near-perfect; the density, shape and angles of the cushions, and the placement of the lumbar support and the headrest are spot-on, at least for me. The second-row seats aren’t quite as comfortable, but they’re roomy and heated, too. This is a 7-seater, so there are two chairs in a third row as well. They’re relatively easy to get into because the middle seats slide way forward to make room. The only complaint might be that the second and third rows do not fold completely flat to make a level load floor.
Pathfinder prices start below $30,000 and climb well into the 40s for the Platinum Premium edition. However, all Pathfinders share the same 260-horsepower V-6 and the CVT/All-Mode drivetrain, so it comes down to how many toys you’re willing to pay for.
If the new Pathfinder isn’t wondrously light on its feet, it’s no ponderous barge, either. And if it isn’t a pur sang driver’s vehicle, it surely is a passenger’s delight. Your family will love you for this.