2013 Nissan Pathfinder Road Test

2013 Nissan Pathfinder Road Test

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2013 Nissan Pathfinder SUV

(3.5L V6 4x4 CVT Automatic)

"I remember when the Pathfinder was such a hard-core off-road vehicle," says our front passenger while seated a comfortable distance away from us in this 2013 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum.

"Really?" we reply. "Have you ever seen a Pathfinder built after 1995 out on the trails?"

"Hmm, no, I guess not."

He's a good guy, our passenger, a friend of dogs and old Land Cruisers. But the Nissan Pathfinder needs no eulogy.

With this latest redesign, the Pathfinder has finally become what it has been trying to be since the end of the last century — a useful and comfortable family crossover. No low-range gearbox necessary.

Not the First Unit-Body Pathfinder
Nissan saw which way the wind was blowing in the sport-utility segment earlier than most automakers. The 1996-2004 Pathfinder actually employed unit-body construction (though it was rear-drive-based like most rivals). It wasn't a roomy SUV, but compared to 4Runners and Explorers of that era, it was easier to drive to work.

Then in 2005, the tough, body-on-frame Nissan Pathfinder returned. It was boxy, powerful and big enough to accommodate a third-row seat. There was plenty of versatility in this package, though it was more than you needed for carpool duty at Montessori school.

Now the Nissan Pathfinder has a unibody design once more, but this time it shares its front-wheel-drive platform architecture with the Altima sedan, Murano crossover and Quest minivan. It has a longer wheelbase (114.2 inches) than all except the Quest (118.1 inches), and it's 3.6 inches shorter than Nissan's full-on minivan. Dimensionally, its nearest neighbor is the Infiniti JX35.

Of course, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder is aimed at a more middle-class customer than that of the JX and will scrap with graham cracker-encrusted crossovers like the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot.

Nearly as Nice as the Infiniti
Among its rivals, the 2013 Pathfinder is neither the biggest nor the smallest.

A seven-seater, it still offers plenty of room to stretch out, and we can't remember the last time piloting a family-themed crossover felt this luxurious. Mind you, ours is a top-of-the-line Platinum model with leather upholstery, ventilated front seats and a heated steering wheel, so it's not giving up much to the JX35.

As in the Infiniti, materials quality is high and although the attractively grained dash isn't soft to the touch, this is no great disappointment in the Nissan version. The center stack controls are a bit different from the JX's buttons and dials, but they feel equally sturdy and all the functionality is there — well, all except for the Plasmacluster cabin ionizer and its grape polyphenol air filter.

Seating in the Loge
Nissan's hospitality continues in the second row, where there's a useful range of fore/aft and recline adjustment. Our rig has the $2,300 Premium package, which pushes the total price to $44,395 and adds a DVD player and a screen on the back of each front headrest. We can't see paying for this package when you could buy your kid an iPad for $400, but maybe you simply have to have the pair of sunroofs that's also included.

The middle-row seats have an adaptive fold-and-scoot feature that provides expedient access to the third row — without requiring you to remove previously installed car seats. Ordinarily, the only way around the baby-seat dilemma is to order second-row captain's chairs (sacrificing a seat to open up an aisle to the back), so this is real progress.

The Nissan's third row can accommodate average-size adults on family dinner nights. Headroom is plentiful, but there's slightly less legroom than in competitors.

In cargo capacity, the Pathfinder comes up shorter, too. Its maximum of 79.8 cubic feet is on par with the Explorer and adequate for everyday errands, but nearly every other crossover in the class offers more space, in some cases a lot more: The Mazda CX-9 gives you 100.7 cubic feet; the un-small Traverse tops out at 116.3 cubic feet.

Surprisingly Quick, but Also Loud
With ratings of 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder's 3.5-liter V6 engine is not among the more potent six-cylinder engines in this class, at least not on paper.

Nissan's crossover also comes standard with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which might seem like a downgrade from the conventional six-speed automatics found in most rivals.

Yet the 2013 Pathfinder is convincingly quick for a family crossover. Our test vehicle reaches 60 mph in 8 seconds flat (7.6 with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) on its way to the quarter-mile in 15.9 seconds at 89.8 mph. Only the Toyota Highlander (7.8 seconds 0-60) and a Flex (or Explorer) with Ford's EcoBoost V6 (6.4 seconds 0-60) are quicker.

You can get front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (actually, it's a light-duty four-wheel-drive system) on the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder, though even on our AWD tester, the CVT drives the front wheels most of the time. Nissan does give you the authority to lock the center differential, which we did once to cope with a particularly gnarly gravel road. At the test track, we lay down our best numbers in the Pathfinder's 2WD mode — that'd be full-time front-wheel drive.

In the real world, the Pathfinder can initially feel sluggish when you dip into the throttle for a routine passing maneuver. Low-end grunt isn't a strong suit of this V6, and the transmission is tuned to prioritize fuel efficiency over rapid-fire response in traffic.

After a couple hundred miles, we barely notice the delay, but the noise from the engine bay never improves. The VQ-series V6 engine sounds tired in the Pathfinder — like the hoarse bluster from a politician worn down by months on the campaign trail — and having a CVT only exacerbates the problem.

Different CVT Than JX35
Notably, this isn't the same CVT in the Quest, Murano and Infiniti JX35, but an updated version similar to the unit in the V6-equipped 2013 Altima. Compared to Nissan's older CVT, this one is lighter, with a wider range of available gear ratios and numerous friction-reduction measures — which together improve acceleration and fuel economy.

The 2013 Pathfinder does indeed post better mpg than the JX — EPA ratings of 19 city/25 highway/21 combined for our Nissan tester (20/26/22 on the front-drive version) versus 18/23/20 for the Infiniti. Among non-luxury three-row crossovers, the Pathfinder is more efficient than any rival, save the Highlander Hybrid (28 combined). We averaged 21.5 mpg over 550 miles, though 75 percent of these miles came on the highway.

Towing Matters
Improved towing ability was actually Nissan's main objective in revising the transmission. The JX35 can only tow 3,500 pounds, and the company wanted a higher rating for the 2013 Pathfinder. The wider ratio spread is key to this mission, and the engineers swapped the usual CVT belt for a chain to improve durability.

"We still feel people are buying these to do towing and we wanted to make sure we were at the top," Nissan's Rich Miller, regional product manager for trucks and SUVs, tells us. That said, today's crossover buyers aren't expecting 7,000-pound tow ratings; they usually just want to tow a pop-up camper, he says.

Equipped with the tow package (standard on the Platinum, optional on lower trims), the 2013 Pathfinder can tow 5,000 pounds. A properly equipped Chevrolet Traverse is rated at 5,200 pounds. If you need more, you'll have to get a true SUV like the Dodge Durango.

Drives Big With a Comfy Ride
Similar to the Explorer, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder does not drive small. And there's a broad expanse of dashboard and hood between you and the road.

Our Platinum tester is easy to park, though, as Nissan's 360-degree camera system is standard (SV and SL models get a regular back-up camera). Oddly, other common safety items like blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning systems aren't available; you have to move up to a JX.

The Pathfinder's steering, which uses an electric motor to regulate the hydraulic power steering pump, is well suited to this crossover's personality. Effort levels are light, but not overly so, and it's precise in everyday maneuvers.

Although the big Nissan is steady in normal driving, it isn't happy taking corners at a fast clip, and its 58.8-mph slalom speed and 0.74g skid pad performance reflect its penchant for more leisurely pursuits. It's a typical slalom number for a big crossover with nondefeat stability control (even the sporty CX-9 does no better than 59.6 mph), but the Pathfinder feels particularly top-heavy and slow through transitions, and relies on its stability control to mop up before things get dire.

The Nissan's soft suspension results in significant front-end dive in braking tests, but the Pathfinder's stopping distances are good for this class with a 60-mph-to-0 best of 124 feet. That's also our best number in the CX-9, while a Flex stopped in 125 feet.

Ride quality is a big deal for three-row crossovers, which are often used as mobile nurseries. Our Platinum model is a little stiffer than we'd like over bigger impacts, which is no surprise with its 20-inch wheels and 235/55R20 tires. Something tells us the 235/65R18 tires on S, SV and SL models offer more compliance.

Family Time
Last year's Nissan Pathfinder also had a third row, but it was still a true 4x4 suitable for stealing away on off-road adventures. In this larger, gentler 2013 Pathfinder, raising a family is the adventure.

Nissan's first three-row crossover is not going to revolutionize the class. Its noisy V6 engine and lazy-feeling transmission will put off those who are looking for something sporty.

However, if you can look past those minor annoyances, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder offers respectable acceleration, above-average fuel economy, comfortable seating and some of the nicest cabin furnishings in this class. Pricing is competitive, too, as our fully loaded Platinum model undercuts similarly equipped versions of the Explorer, Flex, and Traverse. The CX-9 and Pilot are less expensive options, but you'd have to give up a few of the Pathfinder's amenities.

If you live in a non-minivan household and you're shopping for a family mobile, go ahead and put the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder on your list. Even if you don't love driving it, your family is probably going to like riding in it.

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.

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