SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide
Sport-utility vehicles are the prestige models for many manufacturers today, so it is not surprising that they are evolving rapidly and giving up their truck origins for increasingly car-like characteristics. The current Nissan Pathfinder is an good example. The first-generation Pathfinder started as a middle-class machine that had a high degree of similarity to the Nissan pickup. It was offered in both two-door and four-door form. The original Pathfinder had unique, sporty styling, and made a good reputation for itself. But times, competition, and consumer tastes change. Sport-utilities moved upscale, and the Pathfinder had to follow.
The second-generation Pathfinder is Nissan's co-flagship, along with the Maxima sedan. Although offered in several trim levels, its status and mission are shown by a four-door body, V6 engine, and civilized equipment levels on all. It differs from most other SUVs in that it is built with unibody construction much like a car. Nissan calls this "MonoFrame" construction. Its advantages include space efficiency and quietness, as there is no separate frame to take up space or cause squeaks and rattles.
If the lack of a truck frame causes consternation among off- road purists, welcome to the 1990s. The new Pathfinder is a modern SUV designed and built for modern SUV use. It is a capable off-road machine, but few sport-utilities are dedicated to off-road only use. Many never encounter dirt at all. The sport-utility vehicle is today's equivalent of the station wagon - a passenger and cargo hauler. With the addition of 4-wheel drive and extra ground clearance, the SUV is an all-weather station wagon that can deal with nearly any sort of "road". Given the potholed, frost-heaved, poorly-patched nature of many American roads today, heavy-duty suspension components, extra ground clearance, and skid plates make sense in the city or the outback.
The SE is the top 4-wheel drive Pathfinder, and I was glad to have one during a recent rain-drenched week. It had plenty of useful room inside, and stability and surefootedness to deal confidently with unavoidable deep water on the highways and city streets. Wonder why sport-utilities are popular? Blame it on El Nino.
APPEARANCE: The second-generation Pathfinder is a handsome vehicle, but more mainstream in design than its predecessor. Although the interesting side pillar treatment of the old Pathfinder is gone, the basic two-box shape remains. The original Pathfinder's most unique styling features were the triple vent treatment at the front of the hood and high-mounted handles for the rear doors. The new version integrates the three nostrils into the grille, and the trick rear door latches are still used. Speaking of the grille, the SE off-road package includes matte black finish on the bumpers, grille, and fender flares for a very distinctive look. Semi-tubular running boards and black roof racks enhance the sport-utility image.
COMFORT: The Pathfinder's "MonoFrame" construction pays off in interior space. It's roomy for its size and easy to get into or out of even without running boards. The SE trim level has Moquette cloth upholstery, with comfy manually-adjustable front bucket seats and a 60/40 split rear bench with reclining seatbacks. The Pathfinder SE may not be fancy, but it is comfortable and very functional. The rear seat cushions flip up out of the way for a long, flat cargo floor when needed. I was able to fit a fully-assembled mountain bike in with no problems, except for those associated with standing in a foot of fast moving water during a torrential downpour. The bicycle fit with room to spare and the liftgate kept my head dry. A well-designed instrument panel, tilt-adjustable steering wheel, and useful storage areas in the doors, seat backs, and console make for a good traveling environment. Standard air conditioning, power windows, doorlocks, and heated mirrors, cruise control, and more features make the Nissan Pathfinder a civilized harbor.
SAFETY: The 1998 Nissan Pathfinder has front and rear crumple zones, special bodyside reinforcement, dual airbags, child safety locks, and antilock brakes.
ROADABILITY: The time I spent with the Pathfinder SE 4x4 was marked by classic El Nino weather. Sudden drenching rain and hail, deep, unavoidable puddles on highways and city streets, and strong gusts of wind can cause concern in some vehicles. Not in the Pathfinder. It was surefooted and steady through it all. Invisible deteriorated ex-pavement at the bottom of a new pond on the freeway was handled in stride. Streets that looked as if they would soon have a salmon run were no problem. The Pathfinder is a thoroughly modern car, er, truck, with a firm but comfortable ride. Good steering feel and a convenient size make it maneuverable and easy to park. Four-wheel drive, when needed, can be engaged on the fly at speeds up to 50 mph.
PERFORMANCE: The Pathfinder's 3.3-liter V6 has good low-engine- speed torque for pulling power. With the smooth-shifting automatic transmission, towing capacity is a healthy 5000 lbs. The engine's 168 horsepower means that the Pathfinder is no drag racer, but acceleration is normal for a sport-utility. The standard antilock brakes have a special sensor to enable them to work well even on very loose surfaces.
CONCLUSIONS: The Nissan Pathfinder is a functional all-weather vehicle with good room for its size.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 30,099 Price As Tested $ 32,387 Engine Type V6, single overhead cam, 12 valves Engine Size 3.3 liters / 201 cu. in. Horsepower 168 @ 4800 Torque (lb-ft) 196 @ 2800 Transmission 4-speed automatic Wheelbase / Length 106.3 in. / 178.3 in. (188.2 with spare tire carrier) Curb Weight 4,005 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 23.8 Fuel Capacity 21.1 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires P265/70 R15 Dunlop Grand Trek Ground Clearance 8.3 in. Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent strut / solid axle with coil springs Drivetrain front engine, on-demand 4-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 19 / 15 / 16 0 to 60 mph 10.7 sec Maximum Towing Capacity 5,000 Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.45 OPTIONS AND CHARGES SE Bose Audio & sunroof package: includes: power tilt & slide glass sunroof, Bose AM/FM/cassette/CD audio system, dual sunvisors, integrated Homelink transmitter $ 1,549 SE Off-Road package: includes: Black exterior trim including upper bumpers & grille, limited slip rear differential $ 249 Destination Charge $ 490