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2003 Car Review : Nissan Pathfinder SE 4x4

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SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide


    The Nissan Pathfinder was one of the earliest compact sport-
utility vehicles. Like other primordial SUVs, the original Pathfinder 
borrowed heavily from its manufacturer's pickup truck for chassis 
and engine components. Offered in two- or four-door style, with 
four-cylinder or V6 engines, it achieved success and a good 
reputation for ruggedness. It also changed with the times, and so 
when the second generation was introduced in 1996, four-cylinder 
engines and two-door bodies were gone. No more pickup-with-a-
built-in-camper-shell, thank you. The Pathfinder went upscale.

    But it didn't forget its roots. And, although the Pathfinder has 
continued to evolve as a civilized, gentrified SUV - aided by the 
introduction of the Frontier pickup-based Xterra for the get-down-
and-get-dirty crowd that originally took to the Pathfinder so many 
years ago - it is a very different vehicle than the car-based 
``crossovers'' that are infiltrating the compact SUV class. Its 
``MonoFrame'' chassis combines the best aspects of car-like 
unibody and truck-like body-on-frame construction for rugged 
strength to deal with unpaved or poorly-paved roads balanced with 
the space, comfort, and civilized ride expected by today's upscale 
SUV buyer. Unlike many of the new-breed crossovers, the 
Pathfinder is offered with true dual-range four-wheel drive or a 
multi-mode four-wheel drive system, depending on model. In 2001, 
its original 3.3-liter V6 gave way to a high-tech 3.5-liter V6 that is 
related to the engines used in Nissan's Maxima and Altima sedans 
and now the 350Z sports car. With 240 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of 
torque, power deficiency is a distant memory.

    For 2003, the Pathfinder is offered in sporty SE or luxury-
oriented LE trim. Both are available in two-wheel drive or 4x4 trim, 
with the SE 4x4 having a shift-on-the-fly dual-range system and the 
LE offered with a push-button multi-mode system. The interior has 
been freshened, with leather seating surfaces now standard in the 
LE. For improved safety in inclement conditions, the ``Vehicle 
Dynamic Control'' (VDC) stability control system is now available 
for all Pathfinders.

     For the past week, I've been driving a Pathfinder SE 4x4 with 
almost enough options to qualify as an LE. It doesn't exactly hide 
its truck heritage, nor should it. It's small on the outside, to better 
fit into tight spaces between trees and rocks on the trail or between 
larger vehicles in the mall parking lot, but offers more space than 
you might think inside. The more powerful engine is as smooth and 
refined as the variants found in other Nissan products, and gives the 
Pathfinder serious power. It can tow up to 5000 lbs, far more than 
most crossovers. In short, it combines the best features of a truck 
and a car.

APPEARANCE: The original Pathfinder was distinguished by a 
unique C-pillar design, high-mounted rear door handles, and three 
nostrils at the front of the hood, above the grille. The 1996 version 
lost the C-pillar styling and incorporated the nostrils into the grille. 
The Pathfinder has gone more mainstream in the ensuing years, and 
the nostrils are long gone. The rear door handles are intact, 
however. Despite all of the changes, it's still noticeably a Pathfinder 
in proportion, and has styling that balances ruggedness and 
refinement. Both SE and LE models have new wheels this year.

COMFORT: One of the chief benefits of the Pathfinder's 
MonoFrame construction is space efficiency. Although it is not all 
that large on the outside, there is as much interior space as is 
commonly found in a mid-sized sedan. Access, even in 4x4 models, 
is easy, even for short people. Versatility is the name of the game in 
the SUV class, and the Pathfinder won't disappoint. The 60/40 split 
rear seat features flip-and-fold cushions, so a long cargo floor with 
a reasonably low height is easily available. Both models have a new 
four-spoke steering wheel this year, and are differentiated in trim. 
The SE gets titanium-look interior accents that would not look out 
of place in a sports sedan, and matching instruments. The front 
buckets are sport-sedan spec, too, combining comfort and support. 
Optional leather surfaces and heating, part of the ``SE Leather 
Package'' add style and more comfort. A 6-disc CD changer is 
standard, with a BOSE(tm) audio system available. Also new this 
year is satellite radio. And, unusually, Nissan gives customers the 
choice of XM or Sirius systems.

SAFETY: The 2003 Nissan Pathfinder has front and rear crumple 
zones, special bodyside reinforcement, side airbags (standard on the 
LE, optional on the SE), child safety locks, and standard antilock 

ROADABILITY: History repeats itself. Last time I tested a 
Pathfinder was during a wet El Nino winter. El Nino is 
back...fortunately, so is the Pathfinder. It tracks surefootedly 
through rain, hail, mud, and wind. Good clearance and skid plates 
add confidence when fording streams or ponds where roads should 
be, and, if worse comes to worse, shift-on-the-fly 4-wheel drive can 
be engaged at any speed up to 50 mph. The new Vehicle Dynamic 
Control stability management system can help maintain control 
when the going gets slippery. Independent struts are found at the 
front, with a solid axle at the rear. But coil springs and carefully-
designed location linkage negate most solid axle drawbacks. The 
Pathfinder feels like a truck, but it's a very, very civilized truck. Not 
everyone wants a mere car. 

PERFORMANCE: The last time I drove a Pathfinder, it had the old 
3.3-liter, 168-horsepower V6. While adequate, more power would 
have been welcomed. And more power was welcomed a couple of 
years ago when Nissan dropped a 3.5-liter aluminum alloy V6 into 
the Pathfinder's engine bay. This high-tech powerplant makes 240 
horsepower at 6000 rpm, with 265 lb-ft of torque at 3200 and great 
pulling power right from a standstill. Power deficiency cured, and 
then some. The four-speed automatic transmission is as smooth as 
any found in a car, adding to the Pathfinder's refinement. 

CONCLUSIONS: The 2003 Nissan Pathfinder combines truck 
strength and car comfort.

2003 Nissan Pathfinder SE 4x4

Base Price			$ 28,799
Price As Tested		$ 34,663
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 24-valve 
aluminum alloy V6
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 213 cu. in.
Horsepower			240 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			265 @ 3200 rpm
Transmission			4-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length		106.3 in. / 182.7 in.
 (190.7 w/external spare)
Curb Weight			4131 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	17.2
Fuel Capacity			n/a gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane premium unleaded gasoline
Tires				P255/65 R16 Bridgestone Dueler HT
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / drum, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut /
solid axle with coil springs and   
multi-link location
Ground clearance		8.3 in.
Drivetrain			front engine, on-demand four-wheel 

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		15 / 19 / 16
0 to 60 mph				est 9.0  sec
Towing capacity			5000 lbs.

SE Popular Package - includes:
  BOSE audio system with 6-disc in-dash CD changer,
  steering wheel audio controls, foglights, rear cargo
  net and cover, automatic temperature control	$  799
SE Sunroof Package - includes:
  Visors with illuminated vanity mirrors, LED outside
  temp gauge & digital compass, Homelink, power
  tilt and slide sunroof					$1,099
Dynamic Control Package - includes:
  Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), tire pressure
  monitoring system					$   749
SE Leather Package - includes:
  Leather seating surfaces, heated front seats, front
  seat side-impact air bags, power driver and front
  passenger seats, simulated leather door trim, dual
  visors							$2,199
XM Satellite Radio (subscription extra)		$   399
Floor Mats						$     79
Destination Charge					$   540