Driving Impressions

By April 5, 2013

The new Pathfinder's 3.5-liter V6 doesn't have the thrust of the 4.0-liter six that powered the third generation, particularly in the torque department, but with its reduced mass the power-to-weight ratios work out about the same, as does acceleration from a standing start: expect 60 mph to come up in about 7.5 seconds.

There's also enough thrust to make two-lane highway passing a reasonable exercise, even with family occupying all the seats.

On the other hand, while throttle response is prompt, putting the pedal to the metal doesn't always produce maximum haste. Blame the CVT for this. Nissan has done more with CVT development than any other carmaker, to exploit the virtues of this transmission type in terms of fuel economy.

But big throttle demands will still provoke a bit of the asthmatic wheezing that's been a CVT characteristic, as well as the sense of slipping clutch as the transmission's belt mechanism catches up to the engine.

Steering is another soft suit. Like most carmakers, Nissan has adopted an electric power steering system, a fuel economy measure. Also like most, the system varies power assist as a function of speed: the higher the speed, the lower the assist. However, in the Pathfinder, the system is basically numb, providing almost no tactile information to the driver. As a consequence, the driver finds him or her self making tiny adjustments during cornering maneuvers, matching intention to the vehicle's actual response.

A relatively slow steering ratio, 3.3 turns lock to lock, doesn't do much to enhance the experience.

Still, if the Pathfinder's dynamic persona is all but devoid of fun, it has other virtues. The suspension tuning, for example, strikes an excellent balance between ride comfort and limited body roll in hard cornering. There's enough compliance to smooth out nasty patches and freeway expansion joints, with enough roll stiffness to provide decisive responses in situations requiring quick maneuvers.

Braking is a strong suit, with excellent pedal feel that makes it easy for the driver to modulate pressure.

With a long wheelbase and modest ground clearance, the latest Pathfinder isn't designed for tough off-road use. The simplified four-wheel drive system provides three settings: front-drive, automatic (sending power to the rear wheels when the fronts begin to slip), and four-wheel lock, which fixes front/rear torque split at 50/50. It should serve well in wet, slushy, and icy road conditions, but it's not on the same page as its predecessor for serious off-roading.

Let's not forget towing. Nissan is proud of the new Pathfinder's capability; 5000 pounds is high for a vehicle with front-wheel-drive architecture (Nissan claims best in class), and a noteworthy achievement for a CVT vehicle. It would resonate even better if the previous Pathfinder hadn't been capable of dragging 7000 pounds.

Still, assessed as an all-purpose family hauler, the Pathfinder's dynamics grade out quite well. The overall priority may be smooth ride and quiet comfort, but not at the expense of competence.