Is Nissan benchmarking its upscale rivals to make its regular SUVs better?
Though life in a dense city dominated by millennials rarely calls for mid-size SUV utility, the 2017 Nissan Pathfinder happened to land in our press rotation during a particularly busy week. Our previous go about with the Pathfinder was a short and sweet first drive down the winding hills of Carmel Valley, California, but after a week of mucking about on city streets, it was easy to realize Nissan picked the worst roads for first impressions. In short, it should have stuck with the suburbs.
While it does feature a selectable four-wheel drive system, every other piece of hardware tells us a much different story about where the Pathfinder is most comfortable. Memories of the old Pathfinder, a rugged-looking four-wheel drive rescue vehicle that was an adult Tonka truck first and a grocery-getter second, should be banished, replaced by bulbous lines carved out of plastic and thin sheetmetal doing a solid impression of a minivan. A bit of market research proved to Nissan that customers weren’t in love with the looks during the first redesign, so Pathfinder designers brought out the chisel and gave the front and rear end a bit more attitude by sharpening up the character lines.
With little stylistic bark, there’s no need for a supersize V8 to provide bite, so Nissan stuck a 3.5-liter V6 under the hood to push power to the front wheels, or all four if the driver wills it, channeling its 284 horsepower and 259 lb-ft of torque through a CVT transmission. Before you scoff at the fact that modern transmissions are dead to you, let’s take a moment to talk about how far Nissan has come in this realm because though it weighs 2.5 tons, the Pathfinder rarely feels as if its taxing its V6 thanks to clever torque manipulation. This makes it so green light getaways don’t involve the drawn-out droning noise from the engine. Seasoned drivers will be able to spot the CVT’s fake gear changes in an instant.
But the unassuming? They'll never suspect a thing. In fact, the entire driving experience fades into the background with Lexus-like smoothness both around town and on the freeway. Our top of the line Platinum spec brings the total up $11,805 over the $31,980 price of a base four-wheel drive model for a total of $43,785 (all excluding the $900 destination fee), but the package blurs the line between run-of-the-mill SUV and premium luxury experience by cocooning occupants with sumptuous leather, a heated steering wheel as well as toasted first and second row seats with the front captain’s chairs featuring bum coolers, Nissan’s updated but still somehow dated infotainment and navigation system, subscription services like satellite radio, and NissanConnect.
For better or for worse, the other Platinum trim features take away more responsibility from the driver and include the latest driver aids like blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, intelligent cruise control and forward emergency braking. A surround view parking camera helps keep those 20-inch machine-finished alloy wheels looking fresh by giving drivers a good idea of where threatening curbs are. They didn’t however, save this fair writer from damaging the front end when pulling into a perpendicular parking spot. The assumption with most SUVs is that the front end is high enough to pull into a parking spot without scraping a curb, but that’s not exactly so with the Pathfinder.
A modest 7 inches of ground clearance keeps the front end on par with, say, a Volkswagen Golf Alltrack rather than a more purpose-built off-roader like a Subaru Forester. If not a versatile off-roader that’s polite enough for the city, than what has the Pathfinder morphed into? To answer that, it’s important to refer to the list of comfort and convenience features, which include motion (or button)-activated rear liftgate, an EZ Flex seating system as well as Latch and Glide technology—both of which makes moving around the rear seats to open up storage space or to get into the third row a fairly effortless process even if there’s a child seat anchored to the second row.
From the outside, those bubbles of sheetmetal may look like unsightly fat but inside they translate to interior space, enough to swallow up a couch, two nightstands, two boxes of silverware and china, a large metal laundry hamper and three occupants—the panoramic sunroof affording the needed extra inch or so of ceiling space—during an estate sale rampage. Loaded or not, the Pathfinder rarely feels like it doesn’t have everything under control. The comfortable leather seats are easy to sink into whether on the highway munching up miles or in the suburbs taking the kids to soccer. Don’t expect to hit the 19 mpg city advertised by the EPA with a heavy right foot (26 highway, 21 combined).
At least soft suspension and a quiet interior spruce up the interior mood, as does the 13-speaker Bose sound system—but it’s the sense that the car is geared up to have your back no matter what the task is that instills a sense of deep satisfaction. The throttle and CVT merge together well to provide ample and smooth passing power, never feeling taxed even with the nose pointed up a steep hill and furniture anchoring down the rear end. The cabin remains warm and secure on a foggy road when seats are brimming with friends, heated seats are coddling the senses, and the Bose speakers stay busy serving the ears good music.
Though it can never hope to be an engaging weekend drive (refer to the Mazda CX-9 for that), it’s a competitive car in a competitive segment where the best virtues are the ones that dull driving pains at the expense of doing the same to its pleasures. But for busy parents that want a helping hand while on the road, the Pathfinder pulls it off perfectly. Just watch those damned curbs.