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2013 Nissan Pathfinder Launch Review By Steve Purdy

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2013 Nissan Pathfinder

Following the Trend

By Steve Purdy
Michigan Bureau

We had our first look at the all-new, U.S.-built, Nissan Pathfinder a few months ago at a briefing by the folks responsible for the model’s development and marketing. It now joins Explorer, Durango and other former SUVs becoming transformed into a CUV. The difference, of course, is that the former are truck-based, body-on-frame vehicles and the latter generally car-based and of unit body construction. Just a few of the reasons for making this switch are reducing weight, improved mileage, more civilized car-like handling and a long-overdue recognition by both buyers and manufacturers that SUV owners seldom, if ever, need or use the off-road capabilities for which they had paid extra.

I was surprised to learn that Pathfinder has a mixed history – first and third generations were body-on-frame, second and fourth generations back to uni-body. The latter allows for more efficient interior packaging and lighter weight. Compared to the outgoing Pathfinder this new one has a longer wheelbase, it’s wider, longer, three inches lower and adds 8 more cubic-feet of interior volume.

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Pathfinder is a 3-row, 7-passenger, full-size CUV family vehicle with front- and all-wheel drive. The new design was influenced heavily, admits the Nissan team, by focus groups, a tool rapidly becoming passť as a way of designing an automobile. Focus groups tend to result in a more homogenous product than would be the case if the engineers and designers were given freer reign. Nissan, in this case, has opted for a conservative, though reasonably attractive, style and design.

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From the front you’ll not mistake it for anything other than a Nissan. It has the family face. From the rear and side views we see that homogenized character that could be just about anything else with undistinguished profile and modest sculpting. Inside as well, the styling and design are attractive but undistinguished. Functionality was the emphasis here, as well as increased content, and both appear to be well planned. Quality of materials, fit and finish and overall feel get scaled up from the last model.

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We had our opportunity to drive and ride in the new Pathfinder a couple weeks ago in California along the scenic roads in Napa Valley and the coast north of San Francisco. Manufacturers choose this area for product launches for good reasons: the roads, the scenery, the eateries and climate. All were at their best while we were there. The drive route accommodated a reasonably thorough evaluation.

Behind the wheel we found the new Pathfinder charming and entertaining. While it will certainly be used mostly for soccer-momming around the suburbs, it has just enough dynamic personality to be fun to drive. It feels large on first blush as we climb in and take off, but soon it’s just as easy and entertaining as anything in its class.

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Powered by Nissan’s ubiquitous 3.5-liter (VQ35) V6, making 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque (using regular fuel) is mated to the newest generation of their CVT, a transmission that has improved substantially from earlier versions. This is the only powertrain available. It has plenty of power for normal, everyday use, but runs out of breath when challenged seriously off road. At a ranch along the route we took it up the side of a mighty steep pasture hill while Angus cattle looked on and through some washes and gullies to demonstrate its prowess. If I wanted to do any substantial off-roading I would choose something else.

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The Nissan team claim “best-in-class” fuel mileage at 20-mp -city/26-highway/22-combined, but the Ford Explorer with EcoBoost 4-cylinder will do just a couple clicks better. The Nissan guys are quick to explain they’re comparing themselves to competitors’ standard powertrain, and the EcoBoost is an extra cost option. Contributing to this efficiency is an excellent .34 coefficient of drag and a curb weight of just 4,100 pounds.

In spite of the lighter unibody construction the Pathfinder still boasts a good 5,000-pound towing capacity – another number they claim is best in class.

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Loosely based on the new platform underpinning the Infinity JX, launched recently to much acclaim, Pathfinder is somewhat less luxurious than JX, though it offers features not usually seen in the mainstream, like heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, reclining seats in all three rows, heated steering wheel and headrest-mounted entertainment screens, three-zone automatic climate control and dual panoramic moon roof. These are options, of course, but the standard version is reasonably well equipped and competitive in the segment as well.

Seating access is important in these three-row seat vehicles. If it’s too difficult to get into the third seat folks tend to get annoyed. Pathfinder has a standard flexible Latch and Glide ™ system that allows the second row seat base to lift at the front as the seatback folds forward, allowing more pass-through space to the third seat. It even works with an infant seat installed.

One option getting attention in Nissan’s marketing is the self-park feature, which uses their innovative four-corner camera system that can produce an interpolated bird’s eye view in the monitor screen. Not only does it see and calculate its way into a parallel parking spot but can see oncoming traffic when you’re backing out blind from a shopping center parking space. When crawling through the pasture testing its off-road capabilities those cameras also revealed the edges of the road and the cow pies in our path.

We also found, after missing a turn on the route instructions, that the Pathfinder has an exceptionally tight turning circle. That is worth a lot in suburban driving.

Comparing the Pathfinder to other full-size CUVs we find it feels plenty big from behind the wheel. It will compete in the market with mid-size entries like Honda Pilot, Toyota Venza and Kia Sorento. The German brands offer three-row crossovers at much higher prices.

Driving dynamics, handling characteristics, powertrain performance and the ambiance of the cockpit environment are all very good, very competent, but not especially stellar. Much like the GM three-row crossovers (Acadia and it’s siblings), it is decently upscale, offers very good content and pleasant to drive.

The new Nissan Pathfinder is on sale now (fall of 2012) starting with a base price of about $28,000 for the entry-level S model with two-wheel drive and escalating to the Platinum with four-wheel drive priced at $40,770. Each of the trim levels can be had with four-wheel drive for about $1,600 extra.

We’ll do a more extensive review and evaluation once we’ve spent some serious time with Pathfinder. Watch for that here on The Auto Channel.

©Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved