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2013 Nissan Pathfinder review: Mixes SUV and minivan capabilities

With three-row seating and a comfortable, modern interior, the Pathfinder seems like a minivan from the inside, but its four-wheel-drive system and towing capability argue its use for tougher jobs.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
7 min read

Nissan's Pathfinder started life as a truck-based SUV, then went to unibody construction in a subsequent generation, becoming a crossover before there were crossovers. That generation was followed by a truck-based model, which gained a little off-road cred. With the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder the pendulum swings back to a crossover design, striving to retain its backcountry capability while adding all the comforts of a minivan. With the Platinum Premium package, Nissan even throws in a rear-seat entertainment system.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

The Good

The <b>2013 Nissan Pathfinder</b>'s transmission delivers smooth acceleration and can even handle a 5,000-pound tow load, while its four-wheel-drive system helps it in the slippery stuff. A surround-view camera system makes for damage-free maneuvering.

The Bad

The Pathfinder's cabin electronics are dated, with no app integration, and the full suite with navigation is only available in the top trim.

The Bottom Line

The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder serves as an all-around good people carrier and family road-trip vehicle, but pushes few boundaries when it comes to tech.

What Nissan really attempts with the Pathfinder is to be all things to all people. This effort is, for the most part, successful.

The Pathfinder offers three-row seating, with a middle row that slides forward to allow easy rear-seat access, making it a capable people carrier. Middle-row and rear seats all fold down mostly flat, creating a good amount of cargo space for those weekend IKEA runs. The aforementioned rear-seat entertainment system keeps the kiddies quiet on road trips, while Nissan packs the dashboard with its standard kit of cabin electronics for navigation, audio, and phone. More ambitiously, the Pathfinder boasts a four-wheel-drive system featuring differential-locking capability.

Nissan Pathfinder brings minivan comfort to SUV (pictures)

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Although the Pathfinder is equipped with a continuously variable transmission, Nissan rates its towing capacity at 5,000 pounds, more than enough to pull a Sea Ray 21 Jet speedboat.

The front seating area of the Pathfinder reads more like a minivan, with beige leather power-adjustable seats and a rounded dashboard, than an SUV. The driving position is not particularly high, making access easy. The interior design highlights softness and comfort more than rugged utility.

Old, familiar electronics
Greeting me in the center dashboard was an old friend, Nissan's stock navigation system. I have always found Nissan's cabin electronics interface to be very usable, with its odd combination of a touch screen and dial controller. The dial, with directional buttons mounted on top, works very well for zipping through onscreen menus. When it comes time to use the onscreen keyboard, I go to the direct input of the touch screen.

The Pathfinder has a hard drive for navigation map storage, making screen inputs and map refresh quick. The maps also show traffic flow and include rendered building images in downtown areas. Route guidance, with its graphics and voice prompts, was easy to follow. Using voice recognition to enter addresses proved tedious, as I had to enter each part separately. I found I could enter addresses more quickly using the dial and touch screen.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

Zagat ratings for restaurants can direct you to a good place to eat.

Josh Miller/CNET

Included in the points-of-interest database were Zagat-rated restaurants, a nice addition, but the system did not show me the nearest restaurants, instead making me scroll through a long list of cities.

The Pathfinder also pulls in a weather forecast with this system, delivered through its satellite radio channel, but there is no app integration of any sort.

In the Pathfinder, Nissan restricts this navigation system to the Platinum trim. You can't get it on S, SV, or SL models, not even as an option. And with navigation comes other niceties such as Bluetooth audio streaming.

A Bluetooth phone system, however, comes standard in all but the lowest trim. In the Pathfinder Platinum, that system featured an onscreen interface giving access to my paired phone's contact list and a second contact list saved to the car. The phone system allowed dial-by-name through voice command.

Advanced transmission
All Pathfinders use the same drivetrain, based on a garden-variety 3.5-liter V-6 and the previously mentioned continuously variable transmission (CVT). The engine's output, at 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque, sounds unremarkable. Nissan almost seems to deemphasize the engine, hiding the tailpipe behind the rear fascia under the Pathfinder.

Given Nissan's excellent CVT, the engine can afford to be average. CVTs use a set of bands and spools to constantly find the optimum drive ratio between engine and wheels. Nissan has been refining this one for many years, and the work shows.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

A CVT may seem weak for an SUV, but the Pathfinder's felt solid and gave it a good driving character.

Josh Miller/CNET

As I drove over freeways, city streets, and narrow highways, the CVT ensured that I always had available power on tap. The Pathfinder accelerated smoothly, with no gear dumps. When I needed to pick up speed fast, the CVT readily dropped to a lower drive ratio, pulling more power from the engine. There were never any of those flat spots you get with fixed gears, never any waiting for the engine to catch up with a new gear ratio.

The CVT also gave the Pathfinder a very easy driving character. Rather than with an engaged driving experience, the Pathfinder honors its crossover status with get-in-and-go drivability. Although I did have to wait a few moment for the navigation system to boot up before I could enter an address.

An electrohydraulic boost system attempts to give the steering easy turning capability at low speeds while maintaining the kind of feel to which decades of drivers are accustomed. I found the steering to be reasonably precise, with just enough play in the wheel for comfortable long-range cruising.

Piloting the 4,471-pound Pathfinder around a set of turns, I found it was able to maintain the speed limits without fuss, going well over the recommend speed posted on the big yellow signs. It was prone to understeer, not surprising given its bulk, but keeping the power up helped correct that problem.

The ride quality over smooth and rough roads proved comfortable, the fixed suspension and all-season rubber quickly damping out any rocking. Nissan did a good job of engineering this suspension for the variety of tasks people might give the Pathfinder.

Look around
The top tech feature I found when driving the Pathfinder was its surround-view camera system. When I put it in reverse, the main LCD switched to a rear view and a top-down view set side by side. It is a great comfort when maneuvering around concrete posts in a parking garage or rocks on a dirt road to see how close objects unfriendly to sheet metal are coming to the doors. Unfortunately, this camera system is the sole driver assistance feature, as Nissan does not make features such as adaptive cruise control, very useful on road trips, available in the Pathfinder.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

The most interesting feature of the Pathfinder's electronics is this surround-view camera system.

Josh Miller/CNET

The camera system could come in handy when making use of the Pathfinder's four-wheel drive, to help avoid banging up the sides on narrow dirt roads. A dial on the console let me switch on the fly between front-wheel and four-wheel drive, the latter being an automatic mode that shunts torque between front and rear axles as needed.

The main four-wheel-drive mode might come in handy in light snow, but when conditions get trickier, the Pathfinder offers the option of locking the center differential, which splits the power 50:50 between the front and rear axles.

Given the Pathfinder's 6.5-inch ground clearance, I wouldn't take it up even an intermediate-rated trail. The suspension doesn't seem capable of that level of articulation. But at a Nissan-sponsored event last year I took one on a trail drive that involved some steep climbing and a small fording, and it behaved admirably in those conditions.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

The Pathfinder will do fine on dirt roads, but doesn't have the suspension for the serious stuff.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The Pathfinder delivered my driving soundtrack through a 13-speaker Bose audio system, Nissan's perpetual audio partner. I was impressed with the well-balanced audio quality. The system sounded a little better than I had come to expect from Bose after listening to its systems in other cars. I wouldn't consider it serious audiophile quality, but it produces clear, distinct instrumentation.

Mostly, I relied on the Pathfinder's USB port as an audio source, either listening to music on a USB drive or plugging in my iPhone. The crossover offered a full music library interface on its screen for music from my iPhone and a similar one for music from the internal hard drive, but with a USB drive it only showed music in file and folder format.

Voice command was fairly limited for the audio system, for example not letting me request music by name.

The included rear-seat entertainment system featured two headrest monitors with headphones for each. This system let rear-seat passengers choose between the car's DVD player, a USB drive, or rear auxiliary inputs for a video source.

The EPA-rated fuel economy for the Pathfinder Platinum, with four-wheel drive, comes in at 19 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. In my driving, I never got above 20 mpg on the trip computer, and ended with an average of 19.3 mpg.

Third-row advantage
The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder doesn't excel in any particular area, but it does do quite well. I found the Jeep Grand Cherokee I reviewed previously a more comfortable, capable vehicle than the Pathfinder, but it costs a bit more and lacks the Pathfinder's third-row seating, which will be a requirement for some.

The CVT is the highlight of the drivetrain, delivering even power and helping fuel economy. Nissan isn't pushing its engine technology at the same pace as other automakers. The four-wheel-drive system, with its locking differential, could come in handy in some conditions.

I like the Pathfinder's cabin electronics, but they are becoming dated. Nissan has been offering the same suite for about five years, so I hope the company has some updates in the offing, especially some foray into app integration.

Tech specs
Model2013 Nissan Pathfinder
TrimPlatinum Premium 4WD
Power train3.5-liter V-6 engine, continuously variable transmission
EPA fuel economy19 mpg city/25 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy19.3 mpg
NavigationOptional hard drive-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone supportOptional
Digital audio sourcesOnboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, auxiliary input
Audio systemBose 13-speaker system
Driver aidsAround-view camera
Base price$43,450
Price as tested$44,395
2013 Nissan Pathfinder

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 7Performance tech 7Design 8


Available Engine GasBody style SUV