Nissan Pathfinder – mid-size muscle for the big outdoors

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

With car-based crossover sport utilities replacing truck-like body-on-frame SUVs faster than tailfins disappeared in the ’60s, someone was heard lamenting that within a few years there won’t be any true compact or mid-sized off-road vehicles left.

He was overstating the current flight to crossovers, but there is some truth in his lamentation. It seems a vanishing act is underway, especially since the heyday of the sport utility in the mid-90s.

But you still don’t have to turn strictly to the Jeep brand — which also has a growing number of unibody station wagons — to get a solid mud-in-your eye stream-wadding mid-sized SUV.

There are still a fair number of mainstream trucks out there, although their ranks are indeed dwindling and Nissan is one company that still builds two tough SUVs, the compact Xterra and the more upscale mid-sized Pathfinder that treat the great outdoors as their own.

The Pathfinder has an interesting history starting as a rugged two-door truck in the 1980s, before evolving into a well-received and stylish car-based sport utility in the 1990s, and then bucking the current trend and turning back into a body-on-frame vehicle for the 2005 model year.

The current Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation is in the fourth year of its most recent configuration. We hear the next presto-change-o may come again a couple years down the road so don’t be surprised to see the Pathfinder once again wearing a unibody suit.

But for now Nissan has updated the current vehicle with tweaked styling outside and a new look inside. And it has endowed the Pathfinder with V-8 power for 2008.

The Pathfinder is still an off-road warrior as proven to us on a slick and slippery trail at a Wisconsin farm a few months ago. We emerged from the muck with a new suit of mud.

Several excursions into the mire convinced us that the Pathfinder is still a good choice for someone who actually does drive off road, offering a comfortable on-pavement ride while providing more than tough stuff such as a fully boxed steel frame and a lot of steel underneath to manage the back country.

It’s in a mid-sized class with a handful of players such as the Hummer H3, Toyota 4Runner and the Chevrolet TrailBlazer.

Nissan slammed its 5.6-liter V-8, which also graces the full-sized Titan pickup and full-sized Armada sport utility, into the Pathfinder for 2008 to meet the competition offered by V-8 editions of the 4Runner, Ford Explorer and Grand Cherokee.

The big engine generates 310 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque.

The biggest advantage we see with the V-8 over the well-endowed 4.0-liter V-6 is greater towing capacity, growing from 6,000 to 7,000 pounds.

We drove both engines back-to-back and we don’t see much performance advantage, and particularly when the healthy 266-horsepower V-6 is already capable of scrambling from 0 to 60 with a light load in under 7.5 seconds.

But we do see several downsides to adding horsepower to a vehicle that, frankly, didn’t really need an infusion of horsepower. First and foremost, gas mileage suffers to the tune of 12 miles per gallon city and 18 mpg highway with all-wheel drive and 13/18 in two-wheel on premium gas. The four-wheel V-6 is rated at 14 mpg city and 20 mpg highway and a slightly better 15/22 for the two-wheel drive.

The other big downside is price. A mid-trim-level SE V-6 starts at $31,705. The same edition with a V-8 begins at $33,505. It’s interesting, too, that an all-wheel drive SE ‘Off Road’ edition similar to our test vehicle comes only with the V-6 engine. Apparently Nissan is saying there is no advantage with the V-8 off road.

The ‘Off-Road’ model comes with a load of off-pavement goodies such as a full compliment of skid plates; off-road shocks and tires; hill descent control and hill start assist for a base price including destination charge of $34,605. You get a few other things for that price as well including an upgraded Bose sound system and a power moonroof.

Budget-minded shoppers can get behind the wheel of a two-wheel drive Pathfinder for $26,405. Standard stuff includes full power accessories, air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, keyless entry and audio system with CD player.

If you are not part of the off road set, but like most of us use your vehicle for daily commuting, carrying the kids to soccer practice, visiting grandma on the weekend and generally doing the routine chores of life, the Pathfinder is a decent choice, but there are more fuel-efficient vehicles that can accomplish the same tasks including Nissan’s all-new-for-2009 Murano. And they will probably do it in more stylish sheetmetal.

We aren’t saying the Pathfinder is unattractive, just rather plain when compared to some of the new curvaceous crossovers that have hit the market in the past couple of years.

Despite its truck underpinnings, the Pathfinder — perhaps thanks to independent rear suspension — offers a pleasing, but slightly stiff ride, and decent handling. When we ran the V-6 up and down the highway we were constantly pleased with its ability to pass and merge; its smooth ride and its comfortable and quiet interior. And we found the sound of the upgraded Bose system sweet music to our ears.

What we weren’t as enthralled with was rear-seat room. The third row is basically for short, young people, and they’re likely to complain. That’s pretty much a given in a mid-sized sport utility. But more generous leg and knee room would be welcome in the second row. It seems Nissan has cut second-row comfort to make room for a third row ensuring that neither row is entirely up to snuff.

On the other hand, both rows fold flat opening up a generous 79 cubic feet of storage space. And we liked the rubberized storage floor behind the second-row seats. It’s great for keeping objects from sliding around.

Although not present on our test truck, the new Pathfinder can be purchased with such modern upgrades as Bluetooth connectivity and a hard-drive-based navigation system that can also be used to store music files.

We applaud Nissan for making a backup camera available without the need to purchase navigation. It was present in our vehicle, and worked well.

The Pathfinder, with its numerous updates, is still a viable choice in the mid-sized SUV ranks especially if you have a big piece of recreational equipment to haul or you yearn for the mud and rocks on the weekend.


Base price, $26,405; as driven, $35,460
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6

Horsepower: 266 @ 5,600 rpm

Torque: 288 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm

Drive: four-wheel

Seating: 2/3/3

Wheelbase: 112.2 inches

Length: 192.3 inches

Curb weight: 4,837 pounds

Turning circle: 39.2 feet

Towing capacity: 6,000 pounds

Luggage capacity: 16.5 cubic feet

Cargo capacity: 79 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 21.1 gallons (premium)

EPA rating: 20 highway, 14 city

0-60: 7.4 seconds (Edmund's)

Also consider: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, Chevrolet TrailBlazer

The Good

• Powerful engine choices
• High towing capacity

• Solid off-road credentials

The Bad

• Cramped second and third row seats

The Ugly

• A fat pocketbook will help offset anemic gas mileage