Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
The Nissan Pathfinder is a bit of an anomaly. It's not often that a company comes full circle with the design of one of its most successful models, but Nissan has done just that with its midsize 'ute. When it was first introduced way back in 1986, the Pathfinder rode on Nissan's small truck chassis giving it the kind of bulletproof hardware and rugged image that consumers craved in an SUV. That configuration, and a distinctive two-door design, made it a hit and put the Nissan Pathfinder squarely on the SUV map.
But as tastes changed so did the Pathfinder. Nissan eventually added two more doors and moved to a more road-friendly unibody design to help the Pathfinder appeal to a wider range of drivers. Its popularity continued, but for those who liked the original Pathfinder precisely because of its go-anywhere, do-anything capability, the image was somewhat tarnished.
For 2005, the Pathfinder has returned to its roots and once again rides on a body-on-frame truck chassis. This time around Nissan used a modified version of the F-Alpha platform that underpins the full-size Titan. With its fully boxed frame rails and all-steel, dual-wishbone design, it's a setup that has all the toughness you could ever want or need in an SUV. Along with this robustness, however, there are also fully independent front and rear suspensions designed to deliver a smooth ride and enough additional interior room to add a third-row seat. Nissan may have returned the Pathfinder to its roots but it didn't forget to include the kind of modern features that today's SUVs need to succeed. After two days behind the wheel we found its combination of off-road durability and on-road refinement a curious combination that should satisfy both the fans of the original and those who never wanted to see the last Pathfinder go.
Like most redesigned vehicles these days, the 2005 Nissan Pathfinder is bigger than its predecessor in most dimensions. Although it's longer, taller and wider, Nissan's engineers did manage to keep the overall length down compared to competitors like the Toyota 4Runner and Ford Explorer. The shorter length keeps its size manageable while a longer wheelbase assures that it has the kind of space inside that today's SUV buyers expect. A third-row seat is now standard equipment, putting the Pathfinder in the same league as most of the competitors in the category.
The larger size and switch to body-on-frame construction brought with it a sizable increase in weight, but the extra heft is compensated by the Pathfinder's marked increase in engine power. The standard V6 was bumped from 3.5 to 4.0 liters, resulting in some pretty impressive numbers. With 270 horsepower and 291 pound-feet of torque, the Nissan Pathfinder now boasts the most powerful V6 in its class. Advanced features like variable valve timing, all-aluminum construction and electronic throttle control assure that it retains a refined feel despite the fact that it's been tuned to provide the kind of low-end torque that an SUV of its size needs. A five-speed automatic is the only transmission available but there isn't much need for an alternative.
While plunking around tight city streets, we weren't blown away by the push of the big V6 but there was never any lack of on-demand power either. Between the sharp shifts of the automatic transmission and the quick throttle response, the Pathfinder always feels ready to move out in a hurry. Getting a feel for all the power of its 270 horses requires a jaunt on a wide-open freeway. It was in such conditions that we found the Pathfinder's new engine to be particularly impressive as it was able to build speed like a vehicle half its size. Higher-speed passing is a no-brainer and even when it's winding out to redline the engine never loses its refined nature. We did notice a slightly raucous engine note during our test-drive, but Nissan's engineers assured us that a different muffler would be used on production models — we hope it's enough to quiet things down a little.
Discerning the changes in the Pathfinder's ride quality proved to be more difficult than noticing the easily perceptible increase in power. While some might consider the move to body-on-frame construction a step backward, the Pathfinder combines that move with a switch to a fully independent suspension — a notably more modern setup. This mix of old and new gives the Pathfinder a desirable mix of toughness and tunability, but it delivers varying results.
The previous Pathfinder was often lauded for its comfortable around-town demeanor and the new model isn't much different. Body motions are well controlled, the steering is nicely weighted and road irregularities are soaked up with little cabin intrusion. Interior noise levels are low, too, with minimal howl from even the optional off-road tires.
As refined as it remains, the '05 model isn't quite as in touch with the road as its predecessor. There's some flabbiness to it that reminded us of the Xterra, Nissan's smaller SUV that has been a truck-based vehicle from Day One. It fumbles a bit over bumps and responds to inputs at a slightly slower pace than before, but only those who are intimately familiar with the previous Pathfinder are apt to notice the difference. Compared to other vehicles in the class, it's a commendable setup that few will find fault with.
As much as the Pathfinder's on-road characteristics reminded us of the limitations of body-on-frame design, its off-road prowess highlighted the advantages of the truck-derived hardware. Although the previous model was a capable performer in the rough stuff, it was never a first choice of hard-core off-roaders. The '05 version is a true backcountry machine that's as capable as any midsize SUV when it comes to tackling adventures far from the beaten path.
Nissan set about fortifying the Pathfinder's off-road ability from two angles. From a fundamental perspective it has a maximum ground clearance of as much as 9.1 inches on 4WD off-road models, steep approach and departure angles and an underbody design that tucks everything underneath up above the frame rails. From a technological standpoint, Nissan introduced several new electronic systems that give the Pathfinder significant help when it comes to tackling tough terrain. A new Hill Descent Control (HDC) system maintains a low speed (roughly 3.5 mph) on steep descents while a Hill Start Assist (HSA) system eliminates the need for fancy footwork on steep climbs by holding the vehicle in place as you go from the brake to the throttle. It also offers four-wheel electronic limited-slip control that moderates the power to all four wheels individually for maximum traction and a low-speed throttle map that offers more precise control while creeping over boulders.
It's a lot of acronyms to keep track of, but after threading the Nissan Pathfinder through a tight forest trail we have no doubt that it has what it takes to get you just about anywhere. Regardless of what you know about how all the new gadgetry works, when it comes down to picking your way over logs and through streams all you have to do is keep your foot in it and it just keeps on going. Since most of the systems derive their control through the selected application of the brakes, there's plenty of associated noise from the constant clamping of brake calipers, but once you get used to the racket it becomes an acceptable part of the off-road experience.
As capable as the Pathfinder is in the dirt, buyers who are considering it for nothing more than a family vehicle won't be disappointed either. Along with the sophisticated traction control systems, Nissan also saw to it that the Pathfinder would be just as well equipped to tackle carpool duty. The addition of a third-row seat is the most notable upgrade over the previous generation, one that was made possible by the new independent suspension as it frees up floor space in the rear of the cabin. The larger overall size also allows for more passenger room in the first and second rows while fold-flat seats give it a maximum cargo capacity of 79.2 cubic feet — slightly more than the 4Runner but a little bit less than an Explorer.
The Pathfinder has never been the biggest player in the segment when it comes to passenger room and although the '05 is bigger than any previous model its accommodations are still a little tight. There's plenty of space up front for the driver and front passenger, but the second-row seats are snug when it comes to toe and shoulder room. Like most midsize SUVs, the Pathfinder's third-row seat isn't adult-friendly. Kids will fit fine, however, and it does fold flat into the floor when it's not needed for additional storage space.
Nissan paid close attention to the utility factor of the Pathfinder as evidenced by the unique design of the cargo area. A segment exclusive "easy clean" surface makes it suitable for wet or muddy items as it can be hosed out for quick cleaning. Multiple cargo hooks are available to secure loose items and the overall shape of the space is flat on all sides to make the most out of the area available. Additional storage space is available in side compartments as well as underseat storage boxes below the second row.
Safety wasn't overlooked either as the Pathfinder now incorporates ABS, a tire-pressure monitoring system, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and an electronic stability control system as standard equipment. Optional safety items include side seat airbags and side curtain airbags that protect passengers in all three rows.
The Pathfinder offers four levels of trim to suit varying desires for simplicity or luxury. The base XE puts together the usual list of expected amenities like power accessories, remote keyless entry, a CD stereo and cloth seating while the SE adds slightly larger tires, foglights and a power-adjustable driver seat in addition to a longer options list. A new SE Off-Road trim comes standard with heavy-duty Rancho shocks, underbody skid plates and even larger tires than the standard SE. The top-of-the-line LE is upgraded with upscale amenities like 17-inch wheels, a sunroof, heated leather seating, a Bose audio system and both side seat and side curtain airbags. Optional items include a DVD-based navigation system and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
Needless to say, there's not much missing from the Pathfinder's equipment list. It has just about every feature you could want in a midsize SUV — a powerful drivetrain, a manageable size, serious off-road hardware and enough comfort and feature content to keep the family happy. The fact that it has a slightly choppier ride than the previous version is hardly grounds for dismissal, especially when you consider its ability to tackle just about any terrain you can throw at it.
Given the number of strong competitors in the segment that offer similar combinations of versatility, the success or failure of the all-new Pathfinder could very well rest on the acceptance of its distinctive new look. Nissan proved with the original Pathfinder that the right image is a strong sales tool that can't be overlooked and the new version has enough original lines to get it noticed in a sea of like-sized competitors. You might say that the Nissan Pathfinder has returned to its roots in more ways than one, but learned enough new tricks along the way to make it a formidable competitor in the cutthroat world of midsize SUVs.
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