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The last time we rolled up some seat time in a Nissan Pathfinder, we weren't exactly enamored with the power and performance of the Japanese automaker's flagship SUV. Despite freshened sheetmetal, tweaked running gear and a longer list of standard equipment for the 2000 model year, we had a hard time looking beyond its weak and noisy V6 and less-than-luxo cabin finish and functionality.
Perhaps the biggest question hanging over the Pathfinder has been -- Why? Why bother trying to update its aging platform in an attempt to keep pace with bigger, more modern competitors? Heck, even Nissan's own Xterra is clearly a better thought-out package. And that fact hasn't been lost on Nissan SUV buyers, either -- who until now have needed big incentives to keep Pathfinder sales afloat, all while the Xterra has been enjoying sell-'em-as-fast-as-they're-built popularity.
Company marketers tell us that while the incentives were costly, the fact remains that Pathfinder has just come off its best sales year ever. And they expect the '01 model to do even better -- and without any incentives this time around. They're quite confident that the 2001's powerful new engine and updated interior will keep it in the SUV fray until a replacement debuts.
Nissan insiders tell us that the current-generation Pathfinder, which debuted in 1996 and got an exterior freshening for 1999.5, is being used as a placeholder in the market for a successor that will not only be better, but bigger. It's no secret that Nissan is developing a full-size pickup for the North American market. Even Nissan COO Carlos Ghosn has said, on the record, that such an entry would provide a logical platform from which to spin off a full-size SUV -- one that we think is likely to come along in the next few years bearing the Pathfinder name.
But with sport-utility vehicles of all types and sizes still leading the sales surge, Nissan knows it needs product right now -- the more the merrier. And it figures it sure won't hurt if one of its new entries finds itself ahead of the pack in at least one important truck category: horsepower.
First revealed back in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the 2001 Pathfinder boasts an all-new, class-leading, 250-horsepower V6 engine, not to mention a restyled interior with a new instrument panel and center console, and more power and convenience features as standard equipment. But could these improvements possibly be enough to sweeten the otherwise bad taste that the 2000 model had left in our mouths?
To find out, we took advantage of the chance to test out the new Pathfinder well before it began arriving in dealer showrooms in March. Nissan gave us a full day of driving outside Las Vegas, including a trip up in Lake Mead country and through the nearby Valley of Fire State Park. To help less-seasoned auto journalists calibrate their buttocks to the newfound power in the 2001 Pathfinder, the automaker also brought along the 2000 model for head-to-head comparisons.
The two versions may look alike from the outside, but the difference in the fun-to-drive factor between them is like night and day. For 2001, Pathfinder receives a huge bump in power, thanks to Nissan's new VQ35DE 3.5-liter, DOHC 24-valve V6. It packs 250 horsepower and 240 foot-pounds of torque when equipped with the five-speed manual transmission (SE only). If you prefer your shifting done by an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive (standard on XE and LE, optional on SE), the engine makes 240 horses and 265 foot-pounds of torque. That's a 40-percent increase over the 2000's 170-hp 3.3-liter.
Pathfinder now has more horsepower than the largest engines available in the Ford Explorer, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, and Lexus SUVs -- more power even than many V8s available in competitors' compact sport utilities. The secret is in advanced engine systems borrowed from the award-winning 3.0-liter VQ motor in the 2000 Maxima. Employing both the NVIS (Nissan Variable Intake System) and NCVCS (Nissan Continuous Valve Timing Control System) technologies, Pathfinder's new V6 is designed specifically for SUV-like output, such as abundant low- to mid-speed torque needed for off-roading and recreational equipment hauling.
In keeping with the engine's new "Maxima DNA" philosophy and Pathfinder's premium equipment positioning, the new engine also benefits from more than 100 improvements designed to reduce levels of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH). Chief among them, liquid-filled front and double-cushion rear engine mounts now help isolate engine vibrations from the cabin.
Underneath, the Pathfinder remains essentially unchanged, with its MonoFrame design (combining the body, floor and frame into a single, rigid structure instead of separate pieces bolted together), its shift-on-the-fly, lever-operated transfer case (still no push-button), and suspension layout mating a five-link rear setup with independent struts up front. Aluminum alloy 16-inch wheels with separate designs for each model are standard on every Pathfinder, along with mud-and-snow-rated steel-belted radials. All models have standard power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel antilock brakes.
Our initial test drive quickly revealed that the 2001 Pathfinder is a much more willing and spirited machine, thanks to its newfound power. Available in either two- or four-wheel-drive configurations and in three different models (a well-equipped XE, sporty SE and loaded LE), this latest generation finally has an engine/transmission combination that lives up to Nissan's sporty heritage.
While maximum horsepower doesn't arrive until WAY up at 6000 rpm (this engine's redline), the kick in the seat of your pants - or the engine's torque - is delivered in a fairly wide band down near its peak of 3200 revs. The combination of the motor's improved smoothness and a quieter drivetrain enhances the perception of overall mechanical quality.
We sampled both automatic and manual transmission models and, while we'll admit a fondness for the stick-shift SE, that's not to say we felt cheated when driving the improved auto box. Shifts are much quieter and smoother than last year's version, and internal gearing and shift points felt well suited to most driving situations that we encountered.
Inside, the new Pathfinder gets a completely restyled instrument stack and center console, plus an available Bose audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer and available memory driver's seat. The most commonly used controls are now in the driver's field of vision, and switches are varied in size and shape to ensure that they will be recognized by touch. A white instrument meter cluster (titanium-colored on SE) offers clear gauge readability day or night.
Four-way adjustable front buckets use higher-density foam on the sides to prevent sliding in the seats and a low-density foam center for comfort. Between the seats is a new dual-level center console with padded armrest and built-in 12-volt power source. On either side are large door pockets, and the front passenger seat features a back pocket to collect rear-seat clutter.
Luxury and convenience features include low-cut pile carpeting, an under-dash flip-down coin tray, overhead sunglass storage, a cargo area under-floor mini-storage bin and concealed storage bin in addition to a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat.
Several option packages are offered for 2001 to custom-tailor features to your needs. But the XE model adds a long list of standard equipment that was previously available only as part of an option deal. This includes power windows, heated mirrors and locks, remote keyless entry and vehicle security system, rear cargo area cover, leather-wrapped steering wheel and rear convenience net. The sporty SE now comes standard with halogen fog lights, rear wind deflector, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and the CD unit.
To help distinguish the 2001 model on the outside, body-colored bumpers have been added, as well as a special "3.5" engine badge on the liftgate. But the best news is that the 70-horsepower increase and additional equipment carries no price penalty. Nissan has priced the new Pathfinder to start at $27,649 for the XE 4x2 - the same MSRP as the 2000 model equipped with the XE Popular Package option. And the SE 4x4 with automatic transmission remains at $30,349.
Despite our preference for the Xterra, we'll admit that the Pathfinder has good seats up front and a deceptively large cargo area (85 cubic feet with the rear seats folded). While rear-seat comfort and legroom is not up to par with newer platforms, at least the Pathfinder's underpinnings deliver a taut ride and car-like handling, as well as strong brakes and decent steering.
We'll also admit to being somewhat surprised at just how much the improved NVH and additional overall performance have changed the Pathfinder's personality. Nissan says the 2001 4WD model with automatic transmission is better than two full seconds faster from 0-60 mph than last year's truck. And nobody we know complains about having too much power.
"The new Pathfinder is deceptively fast and has a true performance engine note -- a benefit of the most powerful SUV V6 engine in America," said Jed Connelly, Nissan North America's vice president and general manager. "With the addition of a refined interior, our 2001 Pathfinder is truly worthy of its flagship status."
For our money, we'd like to see what kind of flagship SUV Nissan can deliver based on its upcoming full-size pickup. Until then, we're not sure that more power and refinement alone will keep the new Pathfinder high on SUV buyers' shopping list. On the other hand, it can't hurt.