2019 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek Edition first drive review: Its roots are showing

About a year ago, I woke up one morning and realized I'd gotten too comfortable. I'd put on a few pounds -- OK, more than a few -- and I wasn't as adventurous or energetic as I was in my youth. I wasn't unhappy, just cognizant of being a little too content. Since that time, I've hit the gym and kickstarted my long-dormant interest in the outdoors. I dropped a bunch of weight. All winter long I've been saving for a new mountain bike and eyeballing my son's kayak, biding my time until spring. 

I point all this out because it feels like the Nissan Pathfinder might've recently experienced the same sort of epiphany. Once a simple, compact and hard-wearing SUV, the 33-year-old nameplate has morphed into a three-row crossover with rounder styling, a coddling ride and an efficiency-minded powertrain complete with a continuously variable transmission. Like many of us, the Pathfinder has grown up to be a lot more family-minded and a lot less hardcore. Which has left room for Nissan to once again imbue the Pathfinder with some of the edgy looks and spirit it enjoyed in its early years. Enter the 2019 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek Edition.

To be clear, this new Rock Creek Edition isn't isn't a wholesale Pathfinder rethink and it's not some sort of four-wheeled midlife crisis. Nor is it a refutation of what this model range has become. While the current, fourth-gen Pathfinder is getting on a bit in years (it debuted in 2013), there's no shame in its game. This seven-seat SUV is holding up well, thanks in part to a 2017 facelift, continued minor updates and a fundamentally sound design. Like me, it feels like Pathfinder just woke up one morning and decided to recapture more of its youthful spirit. It pumped itself up a little, bought some new outdoorsy Rock Creek duds and is now ready to set out in search of new adventures. In other words, its roots are showing -- for the better.

To that end, the Rock Creek Edition butches up the Pathfinder's styling with blacked-out trim, including a mesh grille, fender trims, front and rear fascia garnishes, roof rails and special 18-inch dark-finish alloy wheels wearing slightly wider 255/60R18 Continental Cross Contact tires. Other darkened pieces include the door handles, side mirrors and badges. I'm often wary of such packages, but to my eyes, this blacked-out look does the Pathfinder real favors, imparting more edge to a basic two-box shape that can otherwise come off as a bit soft. A set of mud flaps and most importantly, a standard trailer hitch with a best-in-class 6,000-pound tow rating add a bit more utilitarian cred, too. 

The Rock Creek's interior gets a few tweaks, as well, including pleasing orange contrast stitching on the seats, steering wheel, door trims and armrest storage lid. Metallic trim pieces liven up the dashboard and console, and predictably, "Rock Creek" insignias are emblazoned on the comfortable seatbacks (cloth and leatherette or leather, depending on trim). As is common for this type of package, a matching set of Rock Creek floor and cargo mats is available, too.

Unique 18-inch wheels and darkened trim round out the Rock Creek Edition's butch visual updo.

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Yes, that does mean that the Rock Creek Edition is largely a "trim-and-tape" effort, but these small touches add up to surprisingly convincing effect. The 2019 Pathfinder Rock Creek Edition looks both more rugged and contemporary. Plus, the package is a good buy, costing just $995 (Nissan claims the parts add up to a $2,310 value). While the 2019 Pathfinder starts at $32,475 (including $1,045 delivery) for a base FWD S model, Rock Creek fixin's are only available on midlevel SV and SL trim grades and in your choice of front- or all-wheel drive. That means RCE pricing starts at $36,310 (including delivery) for a front-drive SV and range on up to $41,650 for an AWD SL before options.

Like other 2019 Pathfinders, the Rock Creek Edition is powered by Nissan's stalwart 3.5-liter, direct-injected V6 tuned to deliver 284 horsepower and 259 pound-feet of torque. Paired to an Xtronic continuously variable transmission, the Pathfinder is hardly the segment's driving enthusiast's choice, but then again, three-row crossovers aren't exactly known for prioritizing such things in the first place. 

We couldn't resist bringing a friend from our hotel along for the ride. (Don't worry, we returned him.)

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What's important is there's still surprising thrust underfoot, as I found out while hustling the big Nissan through the breathtaking, 360-degree vistas just outside Missoula, Montana. I found plenty of power both off the line and for passing dawdlers at Montana's typically elevated b-road speeds (there's not a lot to hit in The Last Best Place, so leadfoots take advantage). 

The Pathfinder is something of a segment heavyweight, weighing in between 4,300 and 4,700 pounds, depending on options and trim. However, fuel economy is solid for such a big vehicle, checking in at 20 miles per gallon city and 27 miles per gallon highway (23 combined) in front-drive variants, with all-wheel-drive models dipping to 19 city, 26 highway and 23 combined. The heavier top-spec Platinum model is the exception -- it sees its combined miles per gallon slip to 21. 

The Nissan Connect infotainment system works well, but looks outdated and lacks many features -- including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

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The nice thing about living with a CVT is that they tend to deliver advertised fuel-efficiency ratings in the real world, and while my test was limited to country driving, my findings suggest that the Pathfinder will adhere to that tradition. Furthermore, Nissan has more years tuning CVTs that just about anyone, and it shows -- the Pathfinder's unit is a good one, rarely grating with the slipped-clutch soundtrack that blights other such transmissions.

To be clear, even with its tougher-looking Rock Creek Edition livery, the Pathfinder still isn't a hardcore off-roader. Ground clearance remains an unremarkable 7.0 inches, and the model's arrival and departure angles are 16.5 degrees and 20.2 degrees, respectively. Still, muddy, snowy and rutted two tracks proved no match for my AWD-equipped tester, and it was nice knowing the driveline includes a full-lock setting for light-duty off roading, just in case. Like many of its key rivals, including the Honda Pilot, Subaru Ascent and Volkswagen Atlas, it's still fair to say that the Pathfinder's off-road capabilities will outstrip what most consumers will ask of their rides.

More important for a family cruiser like the Pathfinder, observed ride quality was strong, aided by very comfortable seats. Visibility is quite good all the way around, too, making the Pathfinder an excellent sightseeing vehicle -- especially with the optional panoramic roof. The Pathfinder's best interior trick remains its easy tip-and-slide third-row access, which can still be accomplished with a child seat in place. There's enough third-row space for a pair of adults to eke out shorter journeys -- especially if second-row occupants oblige by sliding their seats forward -- but the way-backs are still basically best left for children.

The Pathfinder's second-row seats offer easy tip-and-slide functionality, but the way-back is best reserved for kids.

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Cargo space is listed at 16 cubic feet behind the third row, 47.8 cubic feet behind the second row and 79.8 cubes when all seats behind the driver are folded flat. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the Pathfinder's cabin is where this model's age is starting to show. That's true for its overall button-heavy aesthetic, as well as material choices. On the cabin tech front, yes, a larger 8-inch touchscreen did get added recently, and 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot and 360-degree camera coverage are available. For 2019, Nissan has even added USB-C connectivity for quicker device charging. Even with those updates, there's still no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto compatibility (let alone wireless charging) and Nissan Connect's graphics feel somewhat dated. There are other, more tech-forward family SUVs on the market, but there are also ones with (far) more frustrating control schemes, too.

The Pathfinder boasts 284 horsepower, or roughly the same as one Sinclair gas station steer.

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Nissan has done a solid job of peppering this Smyrna, Tennessee-built SUV with advanced safety features. Automatic emergency braking is standard across all Pathfinders and Rock Creek models come with blind-spot warning, intelligent cruise control and rear cross-traffic alert, along with rear-door alert, a feature designed to prevent drivers from accidentally leaving items in the back seat. Sadly, Nissan's likeable ProPilot Assist lane-centering tech is not available.

In order to stay in shape and keep up with its rapidly changing competition, Nissan will need to grace us with an all-new model sooner rather than later. As a bridge to the future and a nod to the Pathfinder's outdoorsy past, though, the 2019 Rock Creek Edition is a good one. Let's hope the next-generation Pathfinder builds on this trim's spirit and incorporates even more adventure-ready tech.

Montana's gorgeous backdrops provide plenty of opportunities for literal rock creek photo shoots.

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Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgements and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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