Every time you think the 4-by-4 war is settling down, up pops another sport-utility vehicle. One of the latest to bounce into the ring is the subject of this week’s Road Test by Request, the new generation Nissan Pathfinder. Now the old Pathfinder was certainly competent and had a loyal following. But it wasn’t particularly exciting, so it never really stood out from the crowd and never grabbed a big slice of the market. Now this new Pathfinder is more sophisticated and more user-friendly. But is that the prescription for SUV success? If all new qualifies as different, then it certainly is!
For 1996, the Nissan Pathfinder has been revised from the ground up. The most significant change being car-type unibody construction, in place of the bulkier truck-type body-on-frame. More than twice as stiff as before, the new platform also incorporates more aerodynamic sheet metal. From a smoother, but somewhat generic, nose, through a sweeping rear greenhouse with flush-mounted glass and a rounded tail with large, prominent lighting.
The new platform is also longer and wider than before, with an extra two inches of wheelbase and a minimum 7Ç inches of ground clearance. Despite this, step-in height remains a reasonable maximum of 18.2 inches. And entry can be facilitated by our SE’s tubular step rails. Which swing you up and into a car-like cockpit that offers more head and shoulder but less leg and hip room than last year.
The dual air bag-equipped instrument panel reminds us of the Nissan Maxima with its wide arch and driver-oriented center stack. Our eyes would appreciate a bit more variety in color and trim, but our hands had no complaints about the efficient layout. From the large, clear gauge cluster to the simple 3-dial climate controls, to the optional compact disc player and Homelink home security transmitter.
Like the front, the rear seat loses leg room, but it gains head room. Still, it remains tight. The seatbacks do recline to offer some additional space and comfort. Out back, the external spare tire rack can be locked out of the way when loading. And a dash-mounted light indicates its position.
The hatch offers the choice of both window or full hatch opening, but oddly enough, it lacks an inside release. There’s no lack of space, however. The Pathfinder offers 38 cubic feet with the rear seat up, and a full 85 cubic feet with the 60/40 split seatbacks folded. That’s a big improvement over last year.
Nothing lacking up front under the hood, either. The Pathfinder’s V-6 has been completely re-engineered. It now displaces 3.3-liters, and packs 168 horsepower and 196 pound-feet of torque. On the road, this translates into effortless cruising, and a 0 to 60 time of 11.5 seconds.
While off-road, the optional limited slip differential, and part-time shift-on-the-fly 4-wheel-drive system delivers superb grip. And the plentiful torque hauls it through the tough stuff easily. A recent off-road demonstration by Nissan also highlighted the stiffness of the Pathfinder’s new platform. We doubt that this would be possible with the old chassis.
As with the drivetrain, a similar on-off-road compromise must be achieved by a sport ute’s suspension. Nissan has tackled this in the Pathfinder by replacing the original double wishbone design with a new independent strut setup. The rear uses an improved version of last year’s 5-link design.
Our SE test vehicle also came with optional adjustable shocks to fine tune ride and handling. It provided tight, crisp handling in Sport mode, but tended to get a bit soggy when switched to Comfort. We stuck to the Sport mode off-road, making good use of the revamped power rack and pinion steering.
If it’s price that stops you from buying a sport utility vehicle, you’ll be happy to know that Nissan has priced the Pathfinder for a wide variety of budgets. The base 2-wheel-drive XE model starts at $22,399. Move up to the 4x4 XE, and pay $24,399. Sportier SE grade 4x4s start at $27,549. While the top-of-the-line LE luxury model runs a hefty $32,129.
This puts the Pathfinder’s capabilities within the reach of most sport ute buyers. That’s a good thing since this is a substantially better machine than its predecessor, though it still lacks the personality of some competitors.
Our friends at Automobile Magazine agreed, writing that: “…the second generation Pathfinder is certainly new and improved, but it no longer stands apart from today’s pack of sport utes.”
So if Nissan’s latest Pathfinder is going to grab a larger share of the sport utility market, it must do so on performance alone, and that’s something that it has in abundance.
Engine: 3.3-Liter V6
Torque: 196 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 11.5 Seconds