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Although the name "Pathfinder" has been around since the mid-1980s, you may not know the 2005 version of Nissan's bread-and-butter SUV as well as you think.
The once-unibody Pathfinder is now a body riding on a separate frame, giving it a stronger truck persona than before. Plus, Nissan has added an extra row of seats, which fold flat into the floor, to increase the vehicle's person capacity to seven.
The hope is that this combination will appeal to both solitary off-roaders looking for a feature-laden utility vehicle and family buyers shopping for a minivan substitute — without alienating the existing Pathfinder fan base, of course.
That's a lot of customers to please. And as any "centrist" Democrat will tell you, it can't be done without making some compromises, eliminating some of the small stuff longtime supporters have grown to like.
Stretching Out and Bulking Up
To make room for two additional passengers, Nissan has stretched the Pathfinder's wheelbase almost 6 inches and added 5 inches to its length.
That extra size, combined with the switch to body-on-frame design, added over 500 pounds of additional curb weight, so last year's 3.5-liter engine wouldn't have had enough grunt to get the job done. Nissan responded by adding stroke to the 3.5 and creating a new 4.0-liter V6. Horsepower is a generous 270. Peak torque is a brawny 291 pound-feet.
Step on the gas and the Pathfinder accelerates smartly off the line and maintains stamina all the way up highway grades, even when loaded with passengers and loot. Passing maneuvers come and go without drama, but the 4.0-liter, while smooth, can be noisy above 3,000 rpm. A responsive five-speed automatic transmission serves up crisp shifts at all the right times, and helps improve fuel economy over last year's model. Our test vehicle turned in a respectable 16 mpg in mixed driving.
If you're looking for a V8, you won't find one on the options list, even though most of the Pathfinder's competitors offer one. But unless you tow a trailer, you won't miss it. The Pathfinder reaches 60 mph in just 7.4 seconds, a full second faster than the old model and a couple tenths better than a V8-equipped Toyota 4Runner.
Mixed Results in the Corners
Unlike the previous Pathfinder, this one doesn't really handle like a car. A sophisticated double-wishbone suspension underpins the vehicle, but because it's tuned to accommodate a life spent both on- and off-road, the truck's ordinarily smooth highway ride gets a bit sloppy over bumps.
In sweeping turns, the Pathfinder hits its stride. The steering is firm and quick and, when combined with a small-diameter steering wheel, makes you feel like you can carve up any back road that comes your way. When the corners tighten up, however, the body rolls and the tires squeal, reminding you that this Pathfinder is related to the Xterra, not the Murano.
Driven at its limits in the slalom, the Pathfinder flailed from side to side so violently our test-driver smacked his head on the B-pillar. Its average speed through the cones was just 54.5 mph — slow by any standard. This doesn't mean the Pathfinder is a bad SUV, but it does mean you need a cool head and realistic expectations when you drive one at high speeds. Stability control, thankfully, is standard and keeps the truck from feeling dangerously tippy.
Braking proved disappointing as well. In normal traffic, the Pathfinder's four-wheel discs provide confident stops and a reassuring pedal feel. But because of its added weight and more off-road-ready tires, the truck needs 138.5 feet to stop from 60 mph. The old Pathfinder did it in 129 feet. A Ford Explorer can do it in 125.
Hit the Dirt
Some of the compromises the Pathfinder makes on pavement turn into advantages off the road. The same suspension that has it fumbling in the suburbs gives it plenty of travel when negotiating deep ruts.
A serious off-road package is available, and provides full skid plates, heavy-duty shocks and hill ascent and descent control, along with 9.2 inches of ground clearance. Since our tester was just a regular SE, we had to get by with just a two-speed transfer case and 8.8 inches of clearance. It turned out to be more than enough.
Our test trail had been ravaged by winter rains and four-wheelers with oversized treads. Along with the expected mud and ruts were three small streams to cross. None of this was any problem for the Pathfinder. We particularly liked the fact that "4 Lo" provided a truly low first gear for creeping down slippery hillsides.
Although the 4WD system was easy to use, it is a part-time system, which means you have to know when to use it. Only the top-of-the-line LE model comes with an easy-peasy full-time system with an all-wheel-drive mode.
Plenty of Amenities Inside
Our test vehicle was optioned with both the Comfort and Premium Packages, which added dual-zone automatic climate control up front, a separate rear air conditioner, a sunroof and a Bose stereo with CD changer to the SE model's already livable standard equipment list. It also had a rear entertainment system. All in all, a nice list of amenities for a $33K vehicle. The only thing we'd add is the side airbag package ($700), which provides seat-mounted bags up front and three-row side curtain bags.
Like other Nissans of late, the '05 Pathfinder has too much hard plastic in its cabin, but its cockpit is still handsome and ergonomically laid out. The controls are simple, the instrumentation legible and the seats upholstered in the same high-quality cloth used in the Maxima. The front chairs are very supportive. There's also ample legroom and lots of storage, but larger drivers may find shoulder room lacking.
The second row, although roomier than before, is still no picnic for adults. Legroom isn't as tight as it is in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but the 4Runner and Explorer are more comfortable. Getting out of the vehicle can be a challenge as intrusive wheelwells threaten to dirty your pant leg.
Still, it's not a bad setup if your backseat passengers are under 12 years old. The outboard sections of the 40/20/40 second-row bench flip out of the way in one step, allowing children to find their own way to the 50/50 third-row seats.
The second- and third-row seats also fold completely flat. With 79.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity, the '05 Pathfinder trails its predecessor (85 cubes) and the domestic competitors in the numbers race, but you won't find a flatter load floor in the segment. Or a more durable one. The third-row seatbacks are coated in plastic. Fold them down and you can toss muddy stuff back there without a second thought.
We were surprised by the shoddy fit and finish of our test vehicle. Some panel fits were off by as much as half an inch, and the interior panel of the liftgate was coming off, its adhesive already worn. The quality glitches weren't limited to the interior, either, as exterior panels were also misaligned. Our Pathfinder was a very early production vehicle. We can only hope Nissan tightened up the tolerances on later models.
Multitalented But Flawed
After a week with a 2005 Pathfinder SE 4x4, we can't deny the wide-ranging capabilities of this SUV. It's certainly quick and it can haul kids and cargo with the best of 'em.
But it sacrifices the surefooted handling and braking of the old Pathfinder in the name of off-road capability. And although its cabin is comfortable and well equipped, it's not put together with a great deal of care. Were it our money, we'd think long and hard before spending it on the 2005 Nissan Pathfinder.
System Score: 7.0
Components: This 240-watt Bose system is part of the $1,700 Premium Package for the Pathfinder SE and SE Off-Road models; it's standard on the top-of-the-line LE. Ten speakers distribute the sound, including tweeters mounted in either corner of the dash and an additional tiny set in the rear doors. Drivers are found at the bottom of all four doors, and in the cargo bay, there's a bass box with two woofers inside. The head unit has a typical Nissan layout with nice-sized, logically arranged controls. The in-dash six-disc CD changer is exceptionally easy to load and unload. It's also capable of playing MP3 recordings. Our test vehicle was equipped with a rear DVD entertainment system. The DVD unit is housed in the center console container, a convenient location for adults seated up front.
Performance: This system plays loud, and thanks to the woofers, bass response is quite powerful — typical of most premium Nissan sound systems. Separation is good at reasonable listening volumes, but music is never reproduced with the clarity and warmth of the class-leading Infinity systems in the Mitsubishi Endeavor and Dodge Durango.
Best Feature: Powerful bass.
Worst Feature: Mid- and high-range frequencies don't have a lot of flavor.
Conclusion: A solid system that most buyers will enjoy. Even if you're not overjoyed with this Bose system's sound quality, the Premium Package is the only way to go if you want a factory-installed CD changer or a sunroof. — Erin Riches
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The '04 Pathfinder is one of the few vehicles that seemed fine despite its aging design. Still, this new version is clearly better. It's better-looking inside and out, plus the ride is noticeably smoother. I recently drove the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee and was disappointed. The Pathfinder is more refined than the Jeep, and the Nissan's quick steering gives it a more nimble feel. I could easily live with the Pathfinder on an everyday basis.
I really like the Pathfinder's interior. Nissan interiors have been lackluster in the past, but this little SUV actually looks and feels slightly upscale. Nice surfaces and textures abound, but some of the plastic appears cheap and the gaps and tolerances could be tighter.
I find the Pathfinder comfortable overall with a rather roomy cabin. But two problems jump out at me right away. Despite the extra width of the cabin, the front seats are positioned too close to the doors. I'd take a half an inch narrower center console just so I don't have to sit so close to the door. Also, the rear door openings are too narrow at the bottom. Despite a very long rear door, I felt like a big stumbling dummy when trying to exit the rear seats.
Overall, the Pathfinder is a very good midsize SUV. Its macho, Titan-inspired exterior may be off-putting to some, but I like the way it looks. Despite a few minor quirks, this is an SUV I can recommend.
Manager of Vehicle Testing Kelly Toepke says:
After a year of passing Nissan's big daddy Armada on the streets, I'm still not overly fond of its exterior design. To me it looks like two vehicles cobbled together. And seeing the new Pathfinder's similar look didn't exactly make me want to sing and dance.
Once I climbed inside, I felt better about the Pathfinder. The interior quality is a noticeable upgrade, with interesting seat upholstery and brushed aluminum trim throughout the cabin. There's still a wide expanse of cheap plastic, but it's nicely broken up between the metal bits.
The front seats are comfortable, but feel a little crowded along the outboard armrests, and as a 120-pound female, I'm not all that big. The rear seats offer reasonable legroom, but the oddly cut doors almost ensure you swipe your pant leg across the wheelwell door sill while climbing in and out.
Unlike the Nissan Quest's DVD head unit, which is inconveniently located under the front-passenger seat, the Pathfinder's loading slot is in the center console. Not exactly in-dash-friendly, but a huge improvement over the Quest's awkward location. Some DVD systems, like the Mitsubishi Endeavor's, mount the remote control in the head unit. The Pathfinder's isn't that sophisticated, but it does have a nice little fabric pocket stitched to the side of a seatback to prevent it from getting lost.
Assuredly, some people do take their SUVs off-road, but my jaunt was limited to around town, and riding around in the Pathfinder doesn't abuse you. It's not harsh or bumpy, just comfortable and quiet in an urban setting. The steering is precise, even though the wheel itself looks a little small in an SUV, and there's no shortage of power from the 270-hp, 4.0-liter V6 engine.
Even with its lengthy list of positive attributes, I still didn't fall in love with the Pathfinder, and it isn't just about the styling. I've been driving an Endeavor for the past couple of weeks, and nearly everything about it seems more appealing to me, including looks, feature content and cabin comfort. If I was going to plunk down $33,000 for an SUV of that size, I'd choose the Endeavor over the Pathfinder.
"This is our third Pathfinder. All have been virtually bulletproof in reliability. First off, the truck is tight driving. All components feel very solid and first rate inside and out. Bose 9-speaker system with sub is music to my semiaudiophile ears. I've had the opportunity to use it in some snow and can hardly get the tires to slip in 2WD with the anti-slip system enabled! Haven't needed to put it into 4WD yet. The engine is something special. The torque is what impressed me initially, very nice off the line with a deep throaty growl. Most importantly: My wife and kids feel safe. Favorite features: 3rd-row seating, larger size, sporty looks, smooth Bose sound (best stock system I've experienced), shifting into 4WD is almost instantaneous, comfy for a 6'2" driver, did I mention fancy sound system?" — FreshSmile, Nov. 30, 2004
"Fun to drive, great pickup power as well as high-speed power, this SUV will get out of its way if need be, no concerns there. Loaded with extra features, lots of room for all the extras with a large family. Mileage could be better. Overall would buy again in a heartbeat!!! Favorite features: Radio controls on steering wheel, comfortable seating, powerful engine!!! Suggested improvements: 3rd-row seats could have more legroom." — DebbieS, Nov. 26, 2004
"I looked at the Honda Pilot, Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Murano. None had all the standard features this truck has. I was sold on its powerful 270-hp V6 engine, 5-speed auto trans, 4-wheel limited slip, traction control, electronic brakeforce distribution, ABS, selectable 4WD Hi-Lo, independent front/rear wishbone suspension and 3rd-row fold-flat seating. Whew! And that's just a few of the features that it comes with, all STANDARD! No extra packages to buy. Since I've never been a fan with leather/moonroof/DVD navigation, it's comforting to know I didn't have to buy any of those packages to get the extras. Look into this car if you're in the market for an SUV. Favorite features: Engine: Power Baby, More Power! Transmission: Smooth Interior Quality: Good and comfortable. Its front look is awesome, and good headlight performance. Braking and handling are excellent. Suggested improvements: Get a better stock radio. It looks and feels cheap compared to the other interior components. The engine is loud compared to other cars, they should isolate the noise in the cabin better. City MPG fuel economy is bad as expected with any truck. Hwy MPG is decent." — Hypnosis4u2nv, Nov. 4, 2004