2011 Nissan Pathfinder Expert Review:Autoblog
Would you describe yourself as an optimist? Someone who can always find the good in something that others fail to see? It's an admirable quality, and one we're going to try and keep in mind while putting down our thoughts on the 2011 Nissan Pathfinder.
We could write a thousand-word essay on the demise of the large, three-row, body-on-frame sport utility vehicle, but that hardly seems helpful. Instead, we'll do our best to point out exactly what penalties you'll be signing up for by choosing this type of vehicle over one of its newer crossover competitors.
Yes, a pessimist could surely find plenty about the aging Pathfinder to complain about, but the deep-seated, glass-half-full optimist can take that 4,800-pound bag of lemons and make some sweet-tasting lemonade. It took the entirety of our week with the 2011 Nissan Pathfinder, but we finally figured out exactly who this vehicle is for. Could it be you? Continue reading...
If someone were to give you a pen and paper and ask you to draw a sport utility vehicle, the resulting sketch would likely look exactly like the 2011 Nissan Pathfinder. It's rugged, thanks to its exaggerated wheel arches and wide flares, but somehow much softer up front due to its friendly chrome fascia. Out back, Nissan has done very little to disguise the fact that the Pathfinder is a big box on wheels, and we appreciate that concession to form following function.
Put simply, the Pathfinder is the very definition of an SUV. And, since this version was first seen on public roads in 2004 as a 2005 model, it was developed when the sport utility vehicle was still king of the people movers. In other words, this ought to be the cream of the SUV crop.
Built atop Nissan's F-Alpha platform, which also underpins the Nissan Frontier and Titan pickups along with the Xterra SUV, the Pathfinder uses a traditional ladder frame, with heavy-duty steel rails that run the length of the vehicle. Everything is bolted solidly to the frame, from the engine and transmission to the body and passenger compartment to the front and rear suspension systems.
Unlike many of its brethren, the Pathfinder eschews a solid rear axle for a four-wheel independent suspension. You'd think that would equal a smooth ride on the highway, but that's not the case. In fact, the Pathfinder rides like the truck it is, no doubt due in part to its fully boxed steel frame. Even small bumps in the road send loud thumps through the chassis and into the occupant's tailbones. Larger bumps are somehow better absorbed by the rigid structure, though you can expect that an equally sized shockwave will reverberate its way through the steering wheel and into the driver's hands.
The 2011 Pathfinder's 4.0-liter V6 powertrain is an able partner in most driving scenarios. There's 266 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 288 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm – plenty to get this brute moving briskly. One task at which traditional body-on-frame SUVs generally tower over their crossover counterparts is in towing heavy loads. With 6,000 pounds of lugging capacity when properly equipped, the Pathfinder doesn't disappoint. That's better than the Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander (5,000 pounds maximum) or the Chevrolet Traverse (5,200 pounds), but not as good as the newer Jeep Grand Cherokee or Dodge Durango (7,400 pounds).
There's an optional 5.6-liter V8 that shares the same five-speed automatic gearbox, but we'd pass unless you really need the ability to tow another thousand pounds and you think it's worth the fuel mileage penalty. And that's a very real concern – we averaged an absolutely dismal 13.8 miles per gallon in everyday driving with the smaller V6 engine. Perhaps the less-stressed nature of the V8 under the same operating conditions will yield similar real-world economy results, but we did not have an example on-hand to test.
Another byproduct of the Pathfinder's truck-spec origins is sloppy handling. Body roll is the predictable result of a long-travel suspension and tires with tall sidewalls coupled with plenty of weight and a high center of gravity.
Should we mention that all the Pathfinder's front-wheel-drive crossover competition handle more like typical family cars than pickup trucks? Well, it's true.
Steering the Pathfinder turned out to be something of a double-edged sword. There's very little play in the wheel, and the driver gets a surprisingly good sense of what the front tires are doing on the asphalt below. Sadly, the effort required to actually turn the wheel borders on ludicrous. Piloting the Pathfinder, especially at low speeds where two hands are needed to get proper leverage, is all the upper-body workout you'll ever need.
While we're on the topic of the steering wheel, we have to wonder why the bottom spoke of the three needs to be so thick. There are no buttons housed in that space, yet it's significantly thicker than the two spokes that offer controls.
The steering wheel isn't the only baffling ergonomics issue. The center stack is very wide, and, for reasons completely unknown to us, Nissan has separated the audio controls into two sets of dials and buttons that flank the climate control and infotainment systems. There are two problems with this. First, lumping all similar controls into one spot is generally preferable from an ease-of-use standpoint. Second, the far-right set of controls (the tuning dial along with the scan and seek buttons) are nearly impossible to reach from the driver's seat without adopting an uncomfortable pose.
The rest of the center stack is covered in poorly labeled buttons that control functions on the seven-inch LCD screen mounted above. It's not exactly packed with features beyond offering digital readouts for the audio and climate control, but nevertheless, we even found it confusing to use while sitting still and impossible to get comfortable enough to use while driving. Navigation with a touchscreen monitor and voice recognition are only available as a package on top-level LE models.
There are three rows of seats, meaning the Pathfinder can accommodate up to seven occupants, assuming most of them are small in stature. In every significant measurement, from shoulder room to leg room, the Pathfinder is a few inches tighter than the Explorer and Traverse. This means the second row is really only comfortable for two occupants, and the third is even smaller. Full-size adults can forget about the third row's tiny nose-bleed seats.
Fold those seats down and you've got 79.2 cubic feet of cargo room. With just the third row stowed, there's still a reasonable 48.9 cubic feet to fill with goodies. By way of comparison, the cavernous Traverse CUV offers up to 116 cubic feet of space with all rows folded.
At this point you may be wondering what all the talk about optimism at the outset was all about – this isn't exactly a glowing evaluation of the Pathfinder, after all. But that doesn't mean the machine is completely without merit.
When we set out to find a location to photograph the Pathfinder, our destination led us a few miles across mostly unkempt Arizona dirt roads, and this is where the Pathfinder shines. For whatever reason, the constant bumps, dips and ruts of an unpaved road brings out the best in the Pathfinder's suspension tuning, and the faster you go, the smoother it gets. And when the going gets truly tough, the Pathfinder's truck-based roots mean the transfer case can be slid into low gear, and its generous 8.9 inches of ground clearance mean you'd need to be doing something really crazy to get stuck. It turns out that "Pathfinder" still is a very apt name for this traditional truck-based SUV.
So, if you have a large family of smaller-than-average people, and you live on a long dirt road, and you have sufficient funds to keep the gas tank full, the Pathfinder may be your ideal vehicle.
If you don't fall into that infinitesimally minute category, you'd almost certainly be better off spending $36,720 elsewhere – at least until Nissan revisits this segment stalwart.
New Car Test Drive
Real off-road capability, with luxurious cabin.
The Nissan Pathfinder is among the few SUVs available today that offers real off-road capability. We've driven over some extremely rugged terrain in Pathfinders, including off-road test tracks, and it's in the same capability class as the Toyota 4Runner, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Land Rover LR4.
The 2010 Pathfinder comes with a superb V6 engine and we highly recommend it. Pathfinder is also available with the 5.6-liter V8 engine from the Titan full-size pickup, with 310 horsepower.
Built like a truck and practically unstoppable, the Pathfinder is a seven-passenger mid-size SUV for those who require a genuine truck yet still want style and comfort during the week.
If your off-road driving consists of graded dirt roads, you desire all-wheel drive for bad weather, or tow something as light as personal watercraft, Nissan's Murano crossover will likely do the job. But if your path has tree stumps, rocks, ruts or mud, or if your boat or trailer weighs a couple of tons the Pathfinder may fit.
Yet the Pathfinder offers good handling on the road. With its independent rear suspension and large tires, the Pathfinder rides well and the rack-and-pinion steering works precisely and turns tighter than many mid-size sedans. The Pathfinder will fit easily in garages and standard parking spaces. Also, the Pathfinder doesn't require a climb to get into. Once inside, the driver and passenger are treated to luxurious accommodations and a plethora of convenience features.
The 2010 Nissan Pathfinder V6 is offered in three trim levels and with two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. The V8 engine is available only in the top-level Pathfinder LE trim and only with four-wheel drive.
Pathfinder S ($27,440) includes a 4.0-liter V6, five-speed automatic, cloth upholstery, air conditioning with rear seat ducts, power windows and locks, cruise control, immobilizer, 40/20/40 reclining middle-row and 50/50 third-row that both fold flat, active front head restraints, 16-inch alloy wheels, roof rack side rails, rear wiper, rear glass and hatch opening, four map lights, seven assist grips, CD player, extendable visors with illuminated mirrors, and twelve cargo area tie-down points. It's also available with 4WD ($29,440).
Pathfinder SE ($30,610) adds an eight-way power driver seat, 17-inch alloy wheels, fold-flat front passenger seat, power adjustable pedals, dual-zone climate control and rear air, fog lamps, leather wheel (with audio controls) and shifter, running boards, body-color power mirrors, 6CD satellite-ready sound, and illuminated vanity mirrors. The SE is available with 4WD ($32,610). The SE Premium Journey Package ($3,050) adds automatic on/off headlights, HomeLink universal transceiver, auto dimming rearview mirror with compass, 17-inch machined alloy wheels, rearview monitor, roof rack crossbars, Bose AM/FM/6CD audio system with 10 speakers including subwoofer, XM Satellite Radio, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, and Nissan Intelligent Key.
Pathfinder LE ($36,910) comes with leather upholstery (except the third row) and woodgrain trim, driver memory system, moonroof, heated steering wheel/front seats/mirrors, and the entire contents for the SE Premium Journey Package, plus an upgrade to 18-inch machined alloy wheels. LE 4WD ($39,110) features a more sophisticated All-Mode system with an electronically controlled transfer case. The LE V8 4WD ($42,160) upgrades further to Nissan's XN All-Mode full-time 4WD. HDD Navigation, which includes a 9.3-gigabyte Music Box hard drive, is standard on LE V8 and optional on LE V6 ($1,850). Optional on all LE models is a DVD entertainment system with seven-inch color monitor and two wireless headphones for rear-seat passengers.
Safety features on all Pathfinders include VDC electronic stability control, tire pressure monitors and ABS. Front airbags, front side-impact airbags (for torso protection) and full-length side-curtain airbags (for head protection) are also standard.
Pathfinder's exterior styling has become familiar, yet remains striking, with its prominent nose and smooth panels showing a near total absence of superfluous character lines. The large fender arches are integral with the sheetmetal and set off by indentations around their periphery to promote the muscular attitude.
The clean nose sweeping into the front arches reminds of a Dodge Nitro, but Pathfinder's minimal overhangs, angular edges, semi-concealed rear door handles and vertical hatch maintain its roots as a genuine off-road worthy four-wheel drive.
Side steps (on all but the base S) are well-integrated and allow easier entry/exit for shorter occupants without dirtying trouser cuffs of taller riders, the roof rack mounts are open at the ends for hand-holds and securing of cargo (the non-skid surface on rear bumper and side steps helps, too), and the aft-angled rear doors simplify access to the third-row seats.
Stylish wheels have always been a part of Pathfinder and the wheels on our example were no different, with machined spokes and painted backgrounds, all clear-coated.
Just a few mid-size SUVs remain with a combination of a truck-style frame and independent rear suspension (IRS), and not many can compete with the Pathfinder when the going gets rough. Look underneath a Pathfinder and you'll find steel, and lots of it: a fully boxed frame, steel suspension arms, plenty of bracing, and all the important bits tucked up out of harm's way. Despite a V8 underhood there is still sufficient space for do-it-yourself maintenance or quick belt replacement. Among the few vehicles that can compete with the Nissan Pathfinder off road: Toyota 4Runner, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Land Rover LR4.
Since it's based on a truck and not a minivan, the mid-size Pathfinder won't have the room of the minivan. But inch-by-inch it's an efficient layout. Third-row room is more comfortable than the numbers suggest and better than many longer three-row SUVs such as the Jeep Commander that use a solid rear axle. And unlike the sloping hatch of many crossovers, the Pathfinder's upright hatch doesn't impinge on cargo room and sheds snow and ice much better.
Jump into a Pathfinder and you are greeted by luxurious perforated heated leather front seats, mercurial-looking pewter console trim, and a central control area that appears capable of landing an aircraft.
It's a style that impresses the eyes without adding confusion. Interior room is typical of a mid-size SUV, with legroom diminishing as you head rearward.
Front seats provide support and a good view all around, though a few may complain about the thick pillar just behind the driver's door. A tilt steering wheel complements adjustable pedals for a wide range of driver positions and sizes. Steering column stalks are nicely positioned and damped and logically laid out.
Materials appear well-crafted and chosen, with easy-clean surfaces on the indented door panels. The shifter would feel at home in an expensive luxury car, though we would prefer the shifter on the left side of the console rather than the far side. The central screen displays images from the rearview camera whenever you shift into Reverse, a feature that's available even if you don't order the optional navigation system. Two gloveboxes are provided, and one of them locks.
A bank of white-on-black switchgear for audio and climate falls mid-pack for intuitiveness (non-navi models have two adjacent Back buttons) yet is quickly mastered. In a system more manufacturers should consider, radio stations are memorized in three lettered groups and not by AM, FM, or XM, so you can mix and match bands as you choose. That's much better for switching among your favorites.
The second row seats three, with only a modest bulge in the center floor and scalloped front seatbacks for more knee room. With full roll-down windows and overhead AC ducting (controlled from front or back, driver's choice) there's no claustrophobia, partial recline improves comfort, and third row riders have a good view and their own vents. Every rear seat has an adjustable headrest that keeps a low profile and, unless there's a center passenger, the view through the well-swept deep rear window is preserved for the driver. Each section of the middle row folds individually, and a simple latch pull pops the outer seats forward for third row access.
The third row is split 50/50 and raised or dropped with one touch from the cargo area. You can put small adults back there because of the low floor line, or if you want the skis indoors, fold the left side seats and sit on the right.
Cargo space is moderate when all three rows are up but expands exponentially as seatbacks drop. There are small netted pockets to the left and in the hatch (along with the first aid kit), a full-width grocery net, room for some small gear or your personal effects under the floor, a rubberized deck material for fast clean-up, and tie-down points in the floor, sides, and roof to restrain anything you load. A side benefit of the independent rear suspension is a load floor just 30 inches from the ground, and the hatch glass can be opened separately for tossing lighter stuff in.
The invigorating drive that characterized the first Pathfinders remains, it's just been refined without giving up the performance the Pathfinder-faithful crave, both on trail and on highway.
Nissan's 4-liter V6 is a proven performer and award winner, similar to the engine used in the 370Z, G37, and every moderate-size Nissan and Infiniti sedan. Properly tuned for truck use by favoring torque over horsepower, it makes 266 hp and 288 pound-feet of torque here, about the same as some domestic V8s, and is more than capable of propelling the Pathfinder with verve, smoothness, efficiency (bearing in mind these are 2.5-ton trucks, on big tires, etc.) and noise only when you get on it. In short, the V6 is a great engine and we recommend it highly.
However, a V8 is offered for Pathfinder owners who want to tow or to make the power statement. This is a walk softly and carry a big stick kind of statement.
Stolen right from the Titan and Armada, the 5.6-liter V8 purrs quietly in the background until the reins are let go and all 310 hp and 388 pound-feet of torque come on line. These numbers obliterate most in the mid-size frame-and-body SUV class and any with IRS, and with the five-speed automatic ideally matched the Pathfinder goes quickly, right now. Of course there is a penalty with EPA numbers of 13/18 mpg City/Highway for a 4WD V8, but our example bettered 17 mpg in mixed use. For a 5,000-pound four-wheel-drive, that's quite competitive.
Genuine 4WD SUVs don't typically deliver the utmost in cornering prowess because the required responses and tires are often contradictory to off-highway traction. Just because a Pathfinder has the same 50/50 weight distribution of a BMW doesn't mean it changes directions like one; conversely, if a BMW tried to follow a Pathfinder down a rocky trail, it would soon come to a grinding halt. However, trail tuning and four-wheel drive do often deliver a surprisingly soft ride on pavement (relative to the truck-based design and aggressive tire tread), especially on pot-holed, frost-heaved or otherwise neglected roads. Body/frame isolation is good and with big tires with big sidewalls, small impacts like lane-divider dots tend to imperceptibility.
A V8 lifts the tow rating from the V6's 6,000 pounds to 7,000. We didn't test that but would recommend a different vehicle for trailers over 5,000 pounds.
We did manage to fully load a Pathfinder and found the rear suspension touched the bump stops a bit earlier, as expected, yet composure remained stable and not one of the passengers complained about the ride.
The steering wheel is answered promptly and thick anti-roll bars minimize body roll (lean) without limiting the axle articulation desired for off-road use; there are vehicles that use more sophisticated devices for the best of both worlds but they cost much, much more than a Pathfinder and frequently will get no farther down the trail. If you've ever driven a softly sprung French car, many designed for also-marginal roads, you'll feel right at home.
Brakes respond equally well, and hitting them hard will produce some nose-dive typical of well-sprung SUVs; repeated heavy braking produced no fade even with a full load on board.
The Nissan Pathfinder brings ample interior amenities, clean style inside and out, and offers a testosterone-laden V8 for power freaks and routine trailer pullers. If you need a capable seven-seat mid-size utility able to go beyond most drivers' requests, it deserves consideration.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale test drove the Pathfinder V8 in rural Wisconsin and not-so-rural Southern California. With Tom Lankard reporting from Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Nissan Pathfinder S ($27,440); SE ($30,610); LE ($36,910); S 4WD ($29,440); SE 4WD ($32,610); LE 4WD ($39,110); LE V8 4WD ($42,160).
Options As Tested
Nissan Pathfinder LE V8 ($42,160).
More on the Pathfinder
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