2013 Nissan Pathfinder drops the frame, maintains the capability (first drive)

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

The Pathfinder trundles along an easy dirt road, relying on only the front wheels to pull it across a dry creek bed.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Conventional wisdom used to be that, for towing and off-roading, you needed a truck or SUV built in body-on-frame style. Nissan pretty soundly blows that wisdom out of the water with its 2013 Pathfinder.

The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder represents a radical reengineering of the model, going from the previous generation's body-on-frame construction to a unibody with independent suspension. At the same time, the new Pathfinder retains the seven-passenger capacity of the previous generation, sheds 500 pounds, and rates a 5,000-pound towing capacity.

The new platform changes a lot of technical details on the Pathfinder. Its 3.5-liter V-6 engine sits sidesaddle and it biases toward front-wheel drive, something that will make off-road fans scoff. However, Nissan fits it with a four-wheel-drive system that lets the driver choose, by turning a dial on the console, between front-wheel drive, automatic torque distribution, which pushes drive to the rear wheels when the front ones slip, and four-wheel-drive lock, maintaining 50/50 torque distribution between front and rear wheels.

Nissan is not claiming the Pathfinder works for hard-core rock crawling, but during a press introduction proved it has decent off-road capability. I joined a group of journalists piloting the Pathfinder up a dry, dusty mountain north of San Francisco, driving a course that let me run it through its various modes.

Three-mode driving
In two-wheel-drive mode we followed a dirt track, feeling out the vehicle's 6.5 inches of ground clearance by traversing a dry creek bed. Then we put the Pathfinder's four-wheel drive into automatic mode, and the trail began to climb. Here, I could floor the gas pedal and the Pathfinder's traction control and other systems maintained a speed of about 5 mph up the hill.

For the final segment, I put the Pathfinder in four-wheel lock, and faced an ascent that had me looking at sky out the windshield and a track that curved around a bit. The car exhibited the same steady speed as I mashed the accelerator until a Nissan representative advised me to stop halfway up to test the hill hold feature. When I took my foot off the brake, the Pathfinder remained planted, giving me a couple of seconds to get on the gas, at which point it resumed its slog upward.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

This dial takes the Pathfinder's 4-wheel-drive system through its 3 modes.

Nissan

After hitting the peak, the track went down the other side of the hill. The Pathfinder has no descent control, so I had to rely on the brakes and the Low range of the continuously variable transmission (CVT). The Pathfinder's CVT is limited in modes, with no virtual shift points or Sport mode. It does have a towing mode, but that was no help getting off the mountain.

We did not get the chance to test in mud or snow, but the four-wheel-lock mode will ensure that some tires are working in slippery conditions, if there is any traction to be had at all.

Geared toward fuel efficiency
The platform change and the weight loss contribute to Nissan's goal of pumping up the fuel economy of the Pathfinder. This model achieves 20 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, very good numbers for a seven-passenger SUV.

Nissan powers the Pathfinder with its trusty 3.5-liter V-6, an engine that has seen use in many models in the last decade. Nissan is not pushing any efficiency technologies, still relying on variable valve timing to get 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque out of the engine. These numbers sound mediocre, but the Pathfinder's CVT makes good use of the power. During road testing, the Pathfinder picked up speed rapidly, inspiring confidence for merging or passing.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

This instrument cluster display shows a variety of vehicle-related information, from fuel economy to tire pressure.

Nissan

The CVT exhibited some interesting behavior when I held the gas pedal down. It let the engine speed jump to 5,000rpm initially, holding that rate. As I kept the pedal down, the speed jumped to 6,500rpm, maintaining strong acceleration. When I continued to mash the pedal, the CVT let the tachometer needle climb all the way up to redline, as it seemed to say, "You still want power? I can give you power."

The steering, which uses an electrohydraulic hybrid system for fuel efficiency, had a solid feel, and Nissan gave the Pathfinder an excellent turning radius. Its parking-lot maneuverability will be quite good, and drivers will be aided by a surround-view camera, which shows a top-down view of the car with front, rear, and sides. In addition, the 8-inch center LCD can show the front-view camera when the vehicle is creeping forward, or the right-side view, useful when parking the big Pathfinder at a curbside spot.

Cruising down a highway, I found the Pathfinder felt very comfortable, its fixed suspension soaking up the road. On a curvy road, the vehicle felt tippy. Even putting the four-wheel-drive system in automatic mode did little to help the Pathfinder claw its way through the turns. After a few miles, I reasoned that the new Pathfinder is not one to be pushed fast through tight curves.

Four-wheel drive optional
Nissan developed some innovations to make the interior space more useful. Third-row seats often require the flexibility of a ballet dancer to access, but the Pathfinder's middle row, split 60/40, slides 5 inches forward and back, making a reasonable pathway to the rearmost bench. The roofline does not drop much toward the rear of the vehicle, also contributing to rear-passenger comfort.

Nissan will offer the Pathfinder in four trim levels: S, SV, SL, and Platinum, with a price range from $28,270 to $40,770. Each trim can be had in two-wheel or four-wheel-drive versions, the latter costing $1,600 extra. Engines and transmissions are the same throughout the trim levels.

The SV trim starts to get some tech features: a Bluetooth hands-free phone system, a 7-inch LCD, and a rearview camera. The SL trim merely adds leather seats and a few other not-techie features. To get the serious tech, including a navigation system, you have to go up to Platinum. At this level, the vehicle's LCD gets bumped up to 8 inches and it also gets a 13-speaker Bose audio system. The Platinum Premium package adds a rear-seat entertainment system with individually controllable headrest monitors.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

Upper-trim Pathfinders can be equipped with this surround-view camera system.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The Pathfinder uses the same tech interface Nissan has had in play for some years. I have always liked the interface, which combines a dial, buttons, and a touch screen, letting you use the best method for whichever onscreen menu is up. However, the navigation, stereo, and phone systems do not look much changed from those used in older Nissan models. It would have been nice to see Nissan push out some new features, especially as the 2013 Sentra is debuting with a connected navigation system that uses Google for destination searches.

I like the modern look of the 2013 Pathfinder, and the four-wheel-drive system offers good capabilities. The lock mode in particular is a useful feature to have. But while the Pathfinder provides a roomy interior and comfortable driving dynamics, Nissan is letting its engine and cabin technology stagnate. When Ford can boast substantially more horsepower from a four-cylinder in its EcoBoost Explorer, Nissan should be pushing its own engine tech. And prolonging the life of its current cabin tech suite when competitors are jumping on the connected-car bandwagon will rapidly make the Pathfinder look like a dinosaur.

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