2005 Nissan Pathfinder
As the SUV market continues to fragment and crossovers take over an ever-increasing portion of the market, the traditional body-on-frame SUV lives on. In the case of the new Pathfinder, it lives on in more serious truck abilities. At the same time, SUVs that still offer trucklike hauling and off-road ability are also getting more road-friendly.
At first glance, it's easy to mistake the Pathfinder for its big brother the Armada, especially if you don't have an Armada next to it. The lines and proportions are very similar on the outside. Pathfinder gets the same upright, "angle-strut" grille as the rest of the recent Nissan truck family, but in back, there's a slightly minivan-like chiseled look with taillights at the side. In keeping with Nissan SUV tradition, door handles for the back doors are at the back of the doors, halfway up. There's no particular advantage of this setup, but it makes for more clean, uninterrupted sheetmetal.
Moving in the opposite direction of most SUVs, the Pathfinder gives up its unit-body construction in favor of a fully boxed light-truck ladder frame setup that's basically a shortened version of the Armada/Titan/QX56 platform, called F-Alpha. But, as handling is never a strong suit for body-on-frame utes, the Pathfinder goes to a modern (for light trucks) double-wishbone setup front and back, with coil-over shocks in front and an offset spring-and-shock configuration in the back, plus stabilizer bars front and back.
Upsized, not supersized
The new Pathfinder is only about four and a half inches longer than last year's model, with a six-inch stretch in wheelbase and a virtually unchanged width and height. That stretch in wheelbase has almost entirely found its way into the cabin, though, putting the Pathfinder in with mid-size SUV competitors like the Toyota4Runner, Ford Explorer, Chevy Trailblazer, and even Honda Pilot.
Even though the actual increase in cabin size is modest, the interior packaging, which Nissan terms Multi-Flex, is a big step ahead, and better than much of the other mid-size SUV competition. The new interior configuration-standard for all Pathfinders-includes a flat-fold passenger seat in front, 40/20/40-split second row, and 50/50-split third row. Both the second and third rows can fold down to the same level, enabling a long, flat cargo surface, and by folding the front passenger seatback forward against the lower cushion, a cargo length of up to ten feet can be achieved. To round out Multi-Flex, there is a rather large storage area hidden away under the second-row seats, and there's also a handy small storage area inside the back door. A 200-pound-capacity roof rack is now standard, too, including a handle to help in step up and loading.
In a presentation of the vehicle, a Nissan official said that the company pretty much had to offer third-row seating to be competitive in the segment. It's rapidly becoming a required feature for mid-size SUVs as more minivan shoppers migrate over, so all versions of the new Pathfinder get standard third-row seating. But as with most mid-size SUVs - especially those at the smaller end of midsize like the Pathfinder - the third row is rather awkwardly crammed in the back. Entry is challenging, even with the quick-release lever to move the second-row seatback forward, and seating is a bit claustrophobic. The long-limbed need not even try to get in. On the other hand, the second row of seats is very comfortable, with plenty of legroom and headroom.
The Pathfinder's standard (and only) powertrain combination is a new 4.0-liter DOHC V-6, making 270 horsepower and 291 pound-feet of torque, paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. That's 30 hp and 26 more lb-ft than last year's Pathfinder. For 2002, the Pathfinder had received a much-needed engine upgrade, to a new truck-tuned 3.5-liter version of the VQ-series engine used in most of the Nissan car lineup. The new Pathfinder's 4.0-liter (longer stroke) version builds on that, adding continuous (improved variable) valve timing and a variable induction system, plus secondary mapping for the electronic throttle in 4x4 models,
The automatic transmission is actually the same unit used in the Titan and Armada. Downshifts are prompt, there's never hunting between gears, and upshifts are snappy but smooth, thanks to good coordination with the engine control computer.
While competitors like the Toyota4Runner and Chevy Trailblazer offer an optional V-8, there's plenty of power from the Pathfinder's V-6. It doesn't quite have the off-idle stomp of a V-8, but it builds to a very strong mid-range. Nissan says that 80 percent of peak torque is available at 2000 rpm, while peak torque is at 4000 rpm. At full throttle, the power builds all the way to each shift point, unlike many truck-tuned engines that breath hard at high revs in exchange for more torque.
The steering is a standard rack-and-pinion setup, with the power assist managed by engine speed. The system seems to have a rather slow ratio - normal for a truck-based ute - but it offers precise control on the road and even a slight amount of feedback from the road - great but not at all expected in an SUV. Four-wheel disc anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution are standard, and they have a firm, positive pedal feel.
In the corners
If you've been fed up with the on-road queasiness of other mid-size SUVs from a decade or so ago (and we won't name models), there's none of that tippy, unsteady-back-end feeling driving on a curvy road with an irregular surface. The tradeoff for such nice, stable handling is a suspension that's tuned rather firmly. Impact harshness may be noticeable sometimes, but engineers did an admirable job of isolating the occupants despite the firmness. And Nissan believes the more aggressive suspension tuning is what their buyers want. "We may lose a few points on JD Power because of it, but we decided that the firmer ride better fitted the Nissan image that we've worked so hard to establish," said an engineer with the project.
While the Pathfinder feels much more maneuverable than the Armada or even many other mid-size utes, it carries itself with the Armada's authority on the highway, happily blasting along at 80-mph-plus in relative isolation.
The new Pathfinder weighs in a couple hundred pounds heavier than last year's model, yet it offers more sprightly all-around performance and slightly improved efficiency. 4x2 models have been given a 16 city, 23 highway rating from the EPA, while 4x4 models are expected to be a mpg lower in each. Overall, not bad for a vehicle with a 6000-lb towing capacity when properly equipped.
All this good on-road performance doesn't spoil the Pathfinder's off-road performance either. At a preview drive for the Pathfinder, we crept along an off-road trail that wasn't particularly difficult traction-wise, but one that really tested ground clearance, suspension, and maneuverability. In a few places, boulders and huge tree roots scraped the bottom of the truck. But, Nissan officials said, with all critical components tucked above the frame level, this is okay…at least sometimes.
There was a time on the off-road course in which we were actually teetering on two wheels, demonstrating one important point. The Pathfinder doesn't have nearly the suspension articulation (the ability of the suspension to keep the wheels in an awkward position in contact with the surface) of some other off-road-tuned SUVs, but this helps its performance on road and its stability.
Short overhangs and decent ground clearance (which varies depending on the drive system and four tire/wheel packages) allows an impressive, class-leading approach angle of 32.6 degrees, while the departure angle is a still-good 22.4 degrees. The front end is smooth and rather rounded, yet it's easy to see where the corners are, a real plus during off-roading - normal parking maneuvers, too.
The four-wheel-drive system has an electronically controlled transfer case, with low and high ranges and a separate 'Auto' mode in which all power goes to the rear wheels until slip occurs. The system itself is carry over, but it's now aided by some new electronics.
The Continental-Teves-supplied VDC system is a generation ahead of the one used in the Toyota 4Runner and boasts smoother responses and better integration with the electronic throttle. Built into the system are a few new features. The VSC helps both on-road and off-road by bringing power down and selectively applying the brakes where necessary in order to aid vehicle stability. Although the VSC doesn't have a separate mode for off-roading than for pavement, we were told that the system does have some degree of adaptability to the surface, allowing a certain degree of slip on a gravel road, for instance, without constantly chattering the brakes.
Hill Descent Control (HDC), much like the features offered in several other off-road-capable competitors, simply maintains a constant speed (by default, 3.25 mph) down a hill, even one with limited traction. One difference with this new system - versus similar systems - is that the descent speed can be minutely varied with the gas pedal (in some vehicles, touching the gas pedal disables it) and it can either function in 4WD High or Low ranges. Finally, Hill Start Assist (HSA) functions to hold the vehicle in place on a hill start for up to two seconds. An active brake booster automatically coordinates with throttle input. Too bad this system is only meant for off-road situations as a similar system - an electronic equivalent to the venerable Packard/Subaru Hill Holder - would be welcomed for hilly starts such as those we found throughout Seattle.
As we would expect based on Nissan's new products from the past few years and the era of Carlos Ghosn, the interior has little or nothing in common with the interior of the previous Pathfinder (except, possibly, for the font used in the gauge faces). The dash layout is successfully more upscale yet upright and simple-looking at the same time, and the surfaces of the materials used are friendlier to the touch.
When so-equipped, the screen for the optional navigation system is actually at the top of the dash, along with the hot-buttons for the system. The layout is one of the best in the business, as the buttons are very intuitive and self-explanatory and the screen doesn't require you to glance downward away from the road. Nissan is still one of the few automakers to offer what they call a "Bird's Eye View," a 3D representation of the surrounding area. As a map-freak, I love how it gets you acquainted with the geography of an area.
Inside, there are lots of other thoughtful touches. One of them-one that makes you wonder why you haven't seen it before-is the dual-compartment glovebox. A separate compartment above the main glovebox gives a storage area for smaller items (plenty large for gloves). There are six cupholders, all sized for 20-ouncers, and four 12-volt power outlets for gadgets and gizmos.
The Pathfinder will be sold in three different trim levels, XE, SE, and LE, with an Off-Road package available for the SE and all trim levels available in two- or four-wheel-drive variants. The Off-Road package adds proper off-road wheels and tires, HDS/HAS, Rancho shocks, skid plates, and special badging. The XE comes very leanly equipped, while the SE adds some of the most popular convenience features and the LE brings in more standard safety and luxury features and some exclusive options like a navigation system. Much of the equipment is available a la carte for the XE, though. For instance, side-curtain airbags that protect all three rows of seating are optional on XE and SE, standard on LE
The optional Bose six-disc CD changer sound system has MP3 compatibility, enabling it to hold somewhere in the magnitude of a thousand songs. It's the MP3-compatible application for Nissan, and one of the first OEM MP3-compatible changers available.
Probably our biggest gripe with the Pathfinder was the lack of headroom in front and the small, unsupportive front seats. The lower seat cushions in front are extremely short. Even my shorter-than-average co-driver complained that her legs were falling asleep because they weren't supported adequately, and at 6'6" my legs were barely supported at all. Headroom is quite limited in the Pathfinder, and tight for tallish people especially with the sunroof. A senior official with the project said that engineers had tried to make the roofline as low as possible both for aerodynamics and for a good showing on the federal static rollover formula.
The Pathfinder - and the Frontier - will be available in other markets with a turbo-diesel option. Don't count on seeing a diesel anytime soon in the U.S.market, but if Nissan decides to bring a first diesel to test the waters, this might be it, but not until sometime after 2006.
And on another note, don't be surprised if an Infiniti version of the Pathfinder debuts in the first half of next year, probably with an available V-8 to better differentiate it from the Nissan.
We were told to expect well-optioned SE models to be near $32,000. That's a slight increase versus the '04 Pathfinder, but still competitive against the Chevrolet Tralblazer and Ford Explorer and quite a bit below the 4Runner, which may really be its closest competitor - another mid-size SUV with body-on-frame construction. Compared to the 4Runner, the Pathfinder offers cleaner styling, better handling, and V-6 performance that nearly matches the 4Runner's V-8.in the real world. And Pathfinder isn't a leader in interior space, but the flexible configuration makes the most use of it.
The Armada is great, but it's big and ponderous-certainly no swift-boat brigade. Nissan has found a niche by bringing a that full-size truck feel into its mid-size trucks, without sacrificing maneuverability and efficiency. If you need an SUV for frequent towing or occasional off-roading, can't accept a 10-mpg reality, and don't want to feel like you're docking a ship every time you parallel park, the Pathfinder is a very strong choice.
2005 Nissan Pathfinder
Price: $32,000 (prelim. est.; optioned SE)
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6; 270 hp, 291 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic transmission, rear- or four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 178.6 x 72.8 x 72.4 in
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Curb weight: 4376-4815 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 16/23 mpg (4x2); N/A (4x4)
Safety equipment: Stability control system, anti-lock brakes, electronic brakeforce distribution, direct tire-pressure monitoring system
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning; power windows, locks, mirrors; cruise control; 40/20/40-split second-row seats; 50/50 split third-row seats; AM/FM/CD sound system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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