Nissan rolls out a gentler Pathfinder
CALISTOGA, Calif. -- Nissan has been nothing if not flexible with its Pathfinder SUV. A decade ago during the SUV craze, when consumers asked for more off-road ruggedness and better towing capability, Nissan complied, enabling the Pathfinder to earn its claim to both “sport” and “utility.”
Now in the age of fuel economy, with consumers asking Nissan to tone it back down, the Pathfinder has morphed again -- this time into a more elegant crossover that’s still capable of hauling a camper up a steep dirt road.
The basics: The redesigned 2013 Pathfinder, on sale starting at the end of October, has gone unibody, exchanging its heavy pickup-truck frame architecture for better fuel economy, a roomy cabin and seating that rivals that of a minivan.
Nissan also has exchanged the Pathfinder’s automatic transmission for a refined continuously variable transmission that can handle four-wheel-drive duty. Together with a short list of other engineering changes, Nissan can tout the Pathfinder -- at least for now -- as having best-in-class fuel economy among V-6-equipped mid-sized crossovers. The front-wheel-drive Pathfinder offers 20 mpg city/26 highway/22 combined, and its all-wheel-drive version offers 19/25/21.
Notable features: Nissan has dropped the Pathfinder’s standard 4.0-liter V-6 for a more efficient 3.5-liter V-6 that delivers 260 hp and 240 pounds-feet of torque. The power equation works for a vehicle that is 279 pounds lighter than its predecessor as a base model and 500 pounds lighter on the higher end Platinum 4x4 package. It can still tow up to 5,000 pounds, with a hill-start assist feature that helps an off-road driver get over a steep spot without rolling backward. But with its quieter and more elegant interior, an additional 8 cubic feet of space and a body that is 60 percent more rigid, the crossover glides smoothly in highway mode.
Other enhancements to make the Pathfinder less rugged include a “dual panorama” moonroof that gives rear-seat passengers their own sky view and “tri-zone” climate control and entertainment settings that let passengers in all three rows of seats choose their own temperature and entertainment.
Front headroom and legroom are increased from 2012, and the second-row seats can slide forward and back by 5.5 inches to adjust legroom and allow wider access to the third row. Second-row seats are easy to move with a single finger.
What Nissan says: “This is what our customers are asking for,” says Tom Smith, director of marketing for the project. “In the past, you had to compromise on fuel economy and interior comfort with an SUV. We’ve improved both while retaining what most people want from an SUV: the ability to tow and go off-road.”
Shortcomings and compromises: The push for better aerodynamics has paid off on the Pathfinder. The 13 percent improvement is a key to its improved fuel economy. But the resulting design appears longer and flatter, more wagonlike than a bona fide SUV. The new Pathfinder also suffers from the same problem as other three-row mid-sized crossovers: More people can fit in comfortably now, but there is less room for their cargo.
The market: Nissan acknowledges that it is among the last midsized SUV players to switch from truck frame to unibody. The Pathfinder had been a unibody design before bulking up as an SUV for the 2005 model. Smith says that the new architecture puts the model into the sweet spot of mid-sized crossover sales, which Nissan estimates will reach about 1.6 million in 2018, up from about 1.4 million this year. Fewer than 100,000 of those are expected to be truck-frame SUVs in 2018.
The skinny: The reality is that virtually all competitors in the midsized segment will now be lighter and more carlike. Nissan’s strategy is to stand out in the class with segment-leading fuel economy and roominess.
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.