If Nissan owners conform to the general SUV-buyer profile, most Pathfinders will spend the bulk of their lives on the highway. We spent most of our test drive on paved roads. But a foray into the California desert, an unplanned run through a mountain snowstorm, and several laps around an off-road obstacle course in Canada showed us the Pathfinder can go just about anywhere.
The Pathfinder is a competent performer, especially in the highway cruise mode. Shorter occupants will find the step up into the cabin a high one, even when accessory step rails are fitted. On the plus side, the Nissan is quiet, a benefit of the Pathfinder's rigid unitized structure and well-placed sound insulation. It's also easy to drive. Soft springs and generous wheel travel smooth out all but the worst bumps. In hard cornering, the body leans a fair amount, but this is common to the sport-utility breed. The steering strikes a nice balance between precision and low effort.
The Pathfinder performs well even when packed with a full load of passengers and cargo. The engine is responsive and quiet and it's strong enough to pull a 5000-pound trailer. At high altitudes it doesn't have the passing power of some of its competitors.
The base 5-speed manual transmission shifts well, but we consider the 4-speed automatic (standard with the LE package) a better all-around match to the Pathfinder's character. It upshifts smoothly and downshifts responsively, which makes city driving easy. Automatics are preferred by many experienced drivers for off-road use.
The Pathfinder copes as well with sand, mud and snow as it does with pavement. Traction was never a problem, nor was stability--even when the side of a sand dune proved steeper than it looked.
Sport-utility vehicles are not noted for fuel efficiency. Our 18-mpg average during testing was par for the SUV course.