2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek First Drive Review: Actually Pretty Awesome

Nissan's Rock Creek trim level combines mechanical upgrades with rugged styling to produce a Pathfinder that's actually cool and capable.

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We've seen a major influx of off-road-oriented trim levels and special packages for crossovers and SUVs over the past few years, many of which are mostly relegated to rugged-looking cosmetic changes and a set of rubber floor mats. But that's not the case with the 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek. While it's not exactly on the same level as something like a Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, the new Pathfinder Rock Creek has legit off-road upgrades that make it pretty damn fun to wheel on a trail.

There are two main upgrades that give the Rock Creek its increased capability. Its beadlock-style 18-inch wheels wear super chunky Toyo Open Country all-terrain tires that are wider than the all-seasons on regular Pathfinders, and the combination looks pretty rad. The Rock Creek's suspension has also been lifted by 0.6 inch -- not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but when you're off-roading, every bit helps. And it's better than the previous-generation Rock Creek, which kept that Pathfinder's standard suspension height.

Most of the Rock Creek's other additions are admittedly for styling's sake. Luckily, I think they make the Rock Creek look freakin' cool, more interesting and purposeful than the already attractive standard Pathfinder. The front end gets a gloss black grille with a large mesh pattern, a redesigned bumper mostly made of black plastic and a larger silver faux skid plate. The side skirts and rear bumper have the same design as the normal Pathfinder but are fully made from black plastic. It also gets a tubular roof rack with a 220-pound load capacity, lots of Rock Creek badging and some exclusive exterior colors, like the Baja Storm you see here.

2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek 18-inch wheel and all-terrain tire
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2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek 18-inch wheel and all-terrain tire

The 18-inch wheels and all-terrain tires are awesome.

James Chrosniak/CNET

The Rock Creek gets some powertrain changes as well. Its naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 makes 295 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque if you use premium gas, up from 284 hp and 259 lb-ft in the normal Pathfinder thanks to different fuel mapping. All-wheel drive is the only option, and like other new Pathfinders the Rock Creek has a nine-speed automatic transmission -- a major improvement over the old Pathfinder's CVT.

To test the upgrades, I hit a fantastic trail in the Angeles National Forest that features a mix of thick sand, deep dirt ruts, large gravel patches and, most excitingly, some great mud puddles -- all while on a fairly narrow road with steep cliffs on either side accented by some very sharp rocks. The Pathfinder handles it all with ease, even the trickier sections where only two tires were making contact with the ground. There's a good amount of suspension articulation and the overhangs aren't too long, but there's a low plastic lip under the Pathfinder's front bumper that seems super easy to knock off.

Every all-wheel-drive Pathfinder has seven different drive modes, including specific settings for sand, snow, and mud and ruts. There's a tow mode, too, with the Rock Creek getting a standard tow hitch and 6,000-pound max capacity. These settings change things like torque distribution, throttle response and stability control -- not groundbreaking stuff, but definitely helpful. The V6 engine provides plenty of low-end torque, and it sounds better than I expected as well. I'm having such a blast with the Rock Creek that I keep turning around and running the trail again, splashing through the mud and taking tougher sections at increasingly steeper angles. The Pathfinder takes it all in stride.

2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek splashing through mud
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2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek splashing through mud
James Chrosniak/CNET

The Rock Creek also has new off-road displays for the standard surround-view camera system. One screen shows a split view from the front-facing camera and one over the front right wheel, while another displays the full 360-degree view. I wish there was a little more configurability to the system, but the quality and field of view are good. The cameras will automatically turn on when you go into one of the off-road drive modes, which is nice.

Surprisingly, the Rock Creek's tires don't ruin on-road ride quality -- they're actually an improvement over a standard Pathfinder. The ride is smooth and comfortable, with those chunky Toyos soaking up rough tarmac and speed bumps, and the tires don't produce any noticeable noise on the highway. The roof rack doesn't seem to increase wind noise either, though the Rock Creek is likely to get slightly worse fuel economy than a normal Pathfinder. (EPA numbers are still pending.)

The Rock Creek's interior is also pretty nice. It has black leatherette seats with fabric centers, and there's orange contrast stitching throughout the cabin, as well as embroidered Rock Creek logos on the seats and front armrest. The second row consists of a pair of captain's chairs with a removable center console, a setup that's optional on the Pathfinder's midrange SV and top-end Platinum trim levels. There's a good amount of storage in the center console, though the shelf above the glove compartment is a bit pointless. The climate controls are all analog and the Pathfinder's knobs and buttons are all generally easy to use. I even like the electronic shifter.

2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek rear 3/4 view
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2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek rear 3/4 view

The Rock Creek has an 0.6-inch increase in ground clearance.

James Chrosniak/CNET

A 9-inch touchscreen comes standard, and the Rock Creek has features like a wireless smartphone charger, wireless Apple CarPlay, wired Android Auto, SiriusXM radio and navigation. I do wish the Pathfinder Platinum's head-up display and fully digital gauge cluster were available, but at least the Rock Creek gets the 13-speaker Bose audio system. Other standard items include heated first- and second-row seats, three-zone automatic climate control, a handful of USB-C chargers and Nissan's ProPilot suite of driver-assist features like lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control with steering assist.

The Rock Creek will go on sale at the end of summer, with prices likely to start around $45,000, splitting the difference between the Pathfinder's SV and Platinum trim levels. Sure, you could just buy a regular Pathfinder and put all-terrains and a lift kit on it, but no one's actually going to do that. If you want to take your friends or family off the beaten path, the Pathfinder Rock Creek's blend of cool styling, on-road manners and genuinely fun off-road capability make it well worth a look.

The 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek Looks at Home on a Trail

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