It may be calendar year 2021, but for carmakers, it's model year 2022 — and for Nissan, that means the Pathfinder is all-new. The name resonates with buyers: the original Pathfinder body-on-frame off-roader from 1985 rivaled the likes of the Toyota 4Runner, and the make has been a staple of Nissan dealerships ever since.
But Nissan has found it challenging to — excuse the wordplay — find a path for the Pathfinder since the '80s. In the 1990s, Nissan converted the Pathfinder to a unibody architecture. In the 2000s, it went back to rugged and body-on-frame. In the 2010s, Nissan switched the Pathfinder back to a unibody crossover, this time without the Pathfinder's distinctive C-pillar door handles.
Now in the 2020s, we're in for yet another reinvention. But this time, it's more about branding and semantics. Nissan kept the unibody architecture, but it's framing the Pathfinder as a rugged SUV — perhaps a nod to American Nissan dealers pining for one. Nissan describes the Pathfinder as having four-wheel drive instead of all-wheel drive. Someone — possibly affiliated with Nissan — even altered the Pathfinder Wikipedia page to reassert its non-crossover status.
Nissan let me sample the new Pathfinder with other media members for a day in Metro Detroit. I'm here to inform you that it is an emphatically acceptable vehicle and a perfectly good option...in a three-row crossover segment crowded with them.
The Pathfinder is Nissan’s three-row midsize crossover. It slots between the smaller two-row Murano and the full-size Armada SUV.
Like most "all-new" cars, the Pathfinder is not entirely new. The Pathfinder employs the same unibody platform as the last generation and brings back the “tried and true” 3.5-liter V6 putting out 284 horsepower. However, Nissan did make a few significant changes. The Pathfinder switches from a CVT to a NINE-speed automatic transmission. It gets a new Intelligent 4x4 terrain management system. And while other crossovers have tried to look longer, lower and sportier, Nissan gave the Pathfinder a shorter, stockier, more SUV-like build.
The Pathfinder is a vital vehicle for Nissan as it undergoes another rebranding and revitalization effort. The new Rogue compact crossover — which is surprisingly good — will be the volume seller. But the Pathfinder, the one other notable name in an anonymous Nissan SUV lineup, has to be the heritage vehicle, the modern off-roader — and, most importantly, the compelling three-row option that keeps families that grow out of the Rogue in the Nissan fold.
Nissan’s drive route offered us the full gamut of warm weather Metro Detroit traffic situations, with the orange construction barrels in full bloom. It’s hard to pick out one standout feature, or anything it does poorly. The Pathfinder's ride is smooth and quiet; the steering is heavier than the previous generation, and the body control is tighter, though neither change is truly dramatic.
Few will miss the droning from the CVT, even if the nine-speed transmission Nissan opted for isn't terrific. Like most vehicles in its class, the Pathfinder is happiest on straight roads and not being pushed very hard — exactly the conditions it will face with most American families.
We did travel to Holly Oaks ORV park north of Detroit for some off-roading, although the route Nissan took us on studiously avoided sticky situations that would have required articulation or water-fording. Like most modern crossovers, the Pathfinder handles going up and down hills and over relatively manicured dirt with aplomb. The Pathfinder also can tow up to 6,000 pounds. That capacity doesn’t put it in the top 10 SUVs for towing, but it does exceed most modern crossovers.
Modern and vaguely truck-like. Nissan tried to distinguish the Pathfinder with some nifty family-friendly features like a second-row center console a parent can remove with one hand from the driver's seat and second-row seats that slide and fold with a child seat (but not a child) fixed in place for easy third-row access. I didn’t bring my wife, kids and dogs with me on the drive to test all this out.
The Pathfinder is on the smaller side for a midsize three-row crossover. The front row feels wide and spacious, but the Pathfinder’s total cargo capacity of about 80 cubic feet is smaller than the VW Atlas or Kia Telluride (albeit still a bit larger than a compact SUV like the CR-V).
My one notable gripe was with the digital instrument display. It has a huge information area in the middle which thrusts the revs and speed out to the sides, making it hard to see the instruments — to the point that that was going to be my first line of defense if I got pulled over for speeding. I felt like I was spending an inordinate amount of time looking down to try to do things.
Starting MSRP for the Pathfinder is $33,410 — or $35,310 if you want AWD. The top-tier Pathfinder Platinum 4WD starts at $48,090. That's about on par with other mass-market three-row crossovers.
The new Pathfinder is a strong addition to the Nissan SUV lineup. But its main issue is how tough the competition is. Prospective Pathfinder buyers are cross-shopping against the Kia Telluride and its Hyundai Palisade cousin. Then there are perennial buyer favorites like the Toyota Highlander, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Volkswagen Atlas. Being solid may not be good enough to stand out in that crowd. Hopefully, that venerable name will help.
Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6; nine-speed automatic; AWD
Torque: 259 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: 21 mpg city, 27 mpg highway
Seats: 7 or 8
The results may surprise you.