After our time in the Pathfinder Rock Creek was up, we were convinced the segment has been put on notice.
Off-road SUVs are all the rage these days; just about all the manufacturers who make SUVs make an off-road-focused trim. Even the Toyota RAV4 has one. So, naturally, Nissan wanted to jump on the rugged off-road gravy train for the 2022 model year with this: The Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek. The model is, per Nissan, here to mark a "return to rugged" for the Pathfinder. So, we set off to find out if it is - by taking it straight to Target for a bit of shopping.
Tired jokes about off-roaders never being used aside, Nissan has made it expressly clear that the RC is out to get dirty, but it still has the look and feel of an SUV that can be used daily. But with beefy 265/60/R18 A/T tires and a 5/8-inch lift, courtesy of new off-road suspension, as well as standard 4WD, our time with the Rock Creek has made one thing clear - it truly is the Pathfinder's return to rugged.
Let's get this out of the way now: The RC looks great. It's not a shouty car, but rather a subtle car with some shouty details, which works well for an SUV that's meant to be off-roaded occasionally. The grille and headlights are aggressive but not overly so. However, the assertive intakes at the front hint at a much more capable car underneath the sheet metal.
Around the side, the story stays much the same, with the lift and tires adding a lot to what would otherwise be a sedate profile. The story is much the same for the tubular roof rack, which Nissan says will hold 220 pounds of camping gear, kayaks, or other adventuring accouterments. We especially love the way our test car's two-tone paint worked to help reduce the visual mass of the car. At upwards of 4,300 lbs, the Rock Creek is a hefty thing. Around back, the square rear end is also different from more pedestrian Pathfinders, including the as-standard trailer hitch. Of course, that big Rock Creek badge is included in the package as well.
The whole "subtly aggressive" schtick is very much par for the course in this segment. The Pathfinder RC's two biggest competitors, the Honda Pilot TrailSport and Ford Explorer Timberline, also work to accomplish the same aesthetic. At least between the TrailSport and the RC, it's no contest - we think Nissan dominates Honda in the design department here. The new Pathfinder's updated lines lend themselves to off-road chic much more than Honda's SUV does.
As for how the design stacks up against the Ford, well, on the one hand, Ford pulled off a much better rear end than Nissan, in our opinion. On the other hand, at least you don't look like a cop in the RC. That's doubly true because the RC doesn't have the Timberline's front spotlights. While useful, those absolutely scream McGruff the Crime Dog in Oakley wraparounds, complete with a Thin Blue Line Punisher tattoo. We'll call this one a draw, for now.
Comparisons aside, we find the RC to be a handsome thing, with some genuinely rugged touches that help this become the Pathfinder to get - at least aesthetically.
Nissan's sturdy power plant for the Pathfinder does duty in the Rock Creek, which doesn't wow you with power and torque, but it also doesn't need to. The SUV is motivated by a 3.5-liter V6 pushing 284 horsepower and 259 lb-ft of torque to the car's four Toyo-wrapped wheels. On premium fuel, you get 295 hp and 270 lb-ft. Nissan drives the V6's power to the wheels thanks to a 9-speed automatic with selectable drive modes.
While the car does come with steering wheel-mounted paddles, you'll forget they're even there. This isn't the car for that. Instead, what that torque figure doesn't get you in hair-raising performance, it provides in towing capacity. Nissan says the Rock Creek will tow 6,000 lbs of toys or tools of the trade, which is more than enough for the average person. In comparison, the Explorer Timberline will pull 5,600 lbs, and the Pilot TrailSport will manage even less, at 5,000 lbs.
While both the TrailSport and Timberline are AWD, the Pathfinder Rock Creek gets intelligent 4WD with a seven-position drive and terrain mode sector. In a segment where buyers do often use their off-road SUVs for real off-road things, that matters.
It's time to be totally honest; the fabulous Nissan Z aside, Nissan has earned itself a dreary reputation over the last few decades. We could lay out all the factors we suspect contributed to this, from greedy ex-bosses to a shift in ethos from the brand's glory days in the 90s, but that's a story for another day. Instead, all you need know is that this new Pathfinder elicited from us the same reaction the Z did: "This is a NISSAN?!"
The brand has been an underdog in many segments for many years, and this car proves that Nissan shouldn't be. At least, as far as 3-row off-road SUVs are concerned. The Pathfinder RC out-tows its competitors, and its driving manners put them on notice as well.
First, there's the transmission. It's no PDK, but the car will pick the right gear every time, manage the torque off-road, and ensure you're at least meeting the car's 23 MPG combined EPA rating. Just ignore the paddles - they don't help anyone. The engine helps, thankfully, and while the car doesn't feel powerful, it feels plenty fast. Still, you won't be outsprinting McGruff the Explorer any time soon. But frankly, who cares? That's not what the Rock Creek is all about.
Those Toyo A/T tires say it all. In addition to conquering suburbia, we found the Patfinder's drive modes, increased ride height, and knobbly tires were all enough to navigate some rougher trails. We didn't attempt the really sketchy stuff, however. All told, the RC has seven different modes, including settings for mud and ruts, sand, and snow. There's also a tow mode. We found the overall experience to affirm the capable demeanor the Pathfinder Rock Creek portrays, and we wouldn't hesitate to take the RC on a weekend of mild off-roading and overlanding.
Second, as far as ride the ride goes, Nissan has done a fine job of tuning up this car's shocks. The Rock Creek is comfy at any speed and doesn't feel like it'll tip over if you take an on-ramp too quickly. Given where this car will sit price-wise, we don't imagine anyone will have any complaints about the ride. However, we should note the Toyo tires do give a little more road noise.
Hop in a Pathfinder Rock Creek and you'll find the steering is nothing to write home about. Really all it does is move the car to and from as you turn the wheel. That aside, you sit nice and high in the car, and visibility is acceptable for a car this size and in this segment. We were glad for the RC's camera system, which is standard - it'll help you park just as soon as it'll help you dodge a boulder, and can be activated via a hard button on the console.
Really, all that's left for Nissan to do on this platform is to clean up the driver assistance programs. Lane keep assist is more a dictator than a nanny, and the RC's adaptive cruise control is often jerky and nail-bitey in traffic. Still, that didn't stop us from enjoying the car.
Sitting in the Rock Creek, you're aware this isn't a luxury SUV, which isn't a bad thing. Contrast stitching, as well as Rock Creek badging and a leatherette-fabric arrangement let you know you're sitting in something that isn't the base car. The orange accents throughout the cabin hint at the more athletic aim of the Rock Creek.
While Nissan's infotainment is beginning to show its age, we found the system to be usable. However, Ford's system in the Explorer far outshone it. So does the Pilot's. Despite being outclassed by its rivals there, Android Auto and Apple Carplay are there to save you if you hate the car's system. We found the hybrid digital gauge cluster plenty useful, though we'd appreciate more off-road-oriented data feeds. All we were able to view was tire pressure.
Our biggest gripe was the sound system. It comes pre-programmed with too much base, and before you shout about us being a bunch of old men, you should drive this car. Frankly, we just felt the system was a bit weak, with no noticeable strengths to help the audio setup stand out in any real way.
Let's touch on quality for a moment. The RC's touchpoints all feel at home in this segment (although there's no official pricing just yet). The wheel feels nice in your hand, and the Rock Creek badging and stitching make things feel special. Nissan also did an excellent job of making the car feel sturdy - we mentioned the quiet ride, but the interior is also free of squeaks and rattles.
We don't mind the leatherette and fabric seats, although we'd have loved full cloth seat with some cool patterning and stitching, too. Sticky, sweaty faux leather is overrated. That aside, clambering back into the third row actually involves very little clambering, though we'd appreciate a more efficient seat-folding mechanism. You could fit a few adults back there, but only for short trips. As with the competition, the third row is more suited to kids. Room in the second row is plentiful, just like it is in the front.
Because of the segment the Pathfinder competes in, storage space is an important factor. Thankfully, the RC has plenty to offer. Especially the trunk. The third row can be stowed by pulling the straps, and the second row folds flat as well. We fit a mountain bike with 27.5-inch tires in the back with ease. We even changed out of our MTB gear without issue, using the back as a changing room. Really, the RC is a roof tent away from being a solid weekend toy with daily driver manners.
The problem with dedicated, body-on-frame off-roaders is that they're often brutish on the road. Even the legendary Toyota 4Runner falls victim to this in many ways. But since this isn't a body-on-frame car, Nissan has managed to avoid falling into that trap. The Pathfinder is a well-rounded SUV. You could argue this segment is the sweet spot for cars like this - off-road sportiness, usability, and comfort all blended into one. It's easy to see why the Pathfinder is one of Nissan's more popular models.
The car stacks up well against its competition. Despite falling short in the infotainment category, Nissan has built a car that will hold its own against the tide of police-car lookalikes and familiar favorites that may be a little dated. In some regards, it even exceeds them - in towing and appearance alone, the Pathfinder excels.
That said, we still don't have official pricing for the Pathfinder Rock Creek. We've reached out to Nissan for an update, but pricing is still to be announced at the time of writing.
Nissan traditionally undercuts its competition, and if this SUV can manage that, we'll be seriously impressed. The Ford Explorer Timberline starts at $48,320 and Honda's Pilot TrailSport begins at $44,810. Given the features Nissan has packed into the Rock Creek, we imagine it'll fall somewhere between the two. We'd estimate a starting price in the mid- $40k range.
Not only is the SUV a more serious off-roader, with included roof rack, lifted suspension, and A/T tires, but the Pathfinder also manages to out-perform its rivals in many ways. Supposing Nissan has managed these feats within budget, we see no reason that the Pathfinder cannot continue to be the cash cow it has been for Nissan.
Now, when we started this review, we said Nissan called this car a "return to rugged." We think Nissan is right. This car is rugged. It performs in most rugged environments while maintaining a sense of sturdiness and road presence at a hopefully reasonable price point: Well done Nissan. Now tell us how much it costs!