Once upon a time, somebody looked at the truck-based, two-door Nissan Pathfinder and said: "You know, I think I could use that to replace the family station wagon. It's a lot cooler-looking than Dad's Country Squire. And I wouldn't be caught dead in a minivan." Since then, the Pathfinder and other SUVs have become increasingly larger and luxurious to meet the demand of millions of like-minded buyers.
You can see this evolution in the Pathfinder's timeline of four generations. The carlike current model excels with solid mileage, numerous safety features, and plenty of room in its three rows of seating. Earlier Pathfinders — and the third generation in particular — were more rugged and capable of towing, but they were not as comfortable or fuel-efficient.
Current Nissan Pathfinder
The Nissan Pathfinder is a three-row crossover SUV that's offered in S, SV, SL and Platinum trim levels. The base S trim, which in previous years was rather sparse, now includes must-haves such as Bluetooth, a rearview camera, iPod interface and push-button keyless ignition. The SV adds only a few more features but opens the door to options such as navigation and heated seats that are not available on the S. The two upper trims can be had with nearly all of the luxuries found on the mechanically related Infiniti QX60.
Powering the Pathfinder is a 3.5-liter V6 engine that sends 284 horsepower and 259 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). All-wheel drive is optional, and fuel economy is in the low 20s. Towing capacity is a respectable 6,000 pounds when equipped with an optional Class III towing package.
In daily driving, the Pathfinder's ride is comfortable and composed, with plenty of power from the V6 engine. If you're looking for agile handling, this Nissan may disappoint, but otherwise it's pleasant to drive in town or on the highway.
Inside, the Pathfinder's cabin is put together well and boasts quality materials. Despite the abundance of features (especially in higher trims), the various controls are easy to reach and intuitive. The second-row seat slides and reclines to optimize comfort for passengers or cargo space behind as needs dictate. Access to the third row is eased by the second row's tilt and slide feature, which can be used even when a child seat is in place. The third row offers enough headroom for 6-foot passengers, but clearance gets a little tight beyond that, and legroom is limited.
If maximum space is a priority, a few crossover SUVs offer even more passenger and cargo room, but overall we're fond of the Pathfinder and think it fits very well with the typical family's needs and desires.
Used Nissan Pathfinder Models
The latest Nissan Pathfinder represents the model's fourth generation, which was completely redesigned for 2013. It's a dramatic shift from its predecessor. Compared to older Pathfinders, it's a car-based crossover SUV that boasts a more space-efficient cabin, better fuel economy, front- or all-wheel drive, V6 or hybrid power, and a CVT. As a result, it is better to drive, gets better mileage and is generally nicer to live with. Not much has changed in this generation since its debut, but note that 2013-2016 models have slightly different styling, a smaller touchscreen and less power (260 hp) and tow slightly less (5,000 pounds) than the current model.
There was also a Pathfinder Hybrid sold for 2014 and 2015. It had a supercharged 2.5-liter gasoline engine along with an electric motor that put out a combined 250 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy was higher than with the regular V6, but we found the difference to be minimal in our real-world testing.
The previous third-generation Nissan Pathfinder was produced from 2005 to 2012. Unlike its unibody predecessor and successor, this Pathfinder featured truck-based body-on-frame construction that lent it a commendably strong 7,000-pound towing capacity when properly equipped. However, it also made it heavier, less space-efficient inside and ponderous to drive.
Originally, the standard engine was a 4.0-liter V6 that produced 266 hp and 288 lb-ft of torque. For 2008, a 5.6-liter V8 became an option, making 310 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque that was more up to the task of lugging this heavy Pathfinder around. Both engines came standard with a five-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive, and a four-wheel-drive system was an option. As expected, fuel economy was not a strong suit for either engine.
The interior was roomy enough for four adults in the first two rows, but only little kids could fit in the third row. On the upside, most of Nissan's comfort and convenience features were offered, and its maximum cargo capacity of 79 cubic feet should still be enough for most folks.
Pathfinder buyers of this generation typically had a choice of four trim levels: the base S, the midgrade SV, the more luxurious Silver and the upscale LE. For those interested in using a Pathfinder for some off-roading, Nissan offered an SE Off-Road 4x4 trim from 2005 to 2010 that featured such all-terrain items as special tires, Bilstein shocks, skid plates, hill descent control and hill start assist.
If you're looking at this generation Pathfinder, know that its strengths relate mostly to its power and towing capacity. For more typical family use, competing crossovers or SUVs of similar vintage will likely be better choices, including the Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, or Toyota Highlander or 4Runner.
The second-generation (1996-2004) Pathfinder debuted right when the SUV craze hit a fever pitch. A switch to carlike unibody construction (compared to the original truck-based model) afforded it significant gains in size, interior space and on-road agility while it also shed 200 pounds. The softer Pathfinder's unremarkable styling and wimpy engine (its V6 made just 166 hp) rendered it merely average within its crowded segment, though. A small backseat also made it less suitable for hauling children than some competitors.
Nissan followed a cosmetic update in 2000 with a much-needed engine upgrade in the form of its powerful VQ-series 3.5-liter V6. In the Pathfinder, it was good for an impressive 240 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. The improvements added enough flavor to earn the Nissan Pathfinder two consecutive Edmunds Most Wanted awards, in 2001 and 2002.
Launched in 1986 for the 1987 model year, the original Nissan Pathfinder has roots that run deeper than most midsize SUVs. Initially, the Pathfinder was intended to appeal to the same youthful, active, mostly male buyers that Toyota appealed to with its 4Runner. Based on Nissan's compact pickup platform, the original Pathfinder looked macho and performed well off-road, even though it was not terribly well equipped or spacious by today's standards. It wasn't very powerful either, even with the optional 3.0-liter V6. It was offered initially only in a two-door body style, later adding a four-door variant that ultimately became its only configuration in subsequent generations. Pathfinders were available with four- and six-cylinder engines, as well as rear- and four-wheel drive.