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1996 Nissan Pathfinder

Driving north toward Muskoka's Deerhurst Inn and the world preview of the all-new Nissan Pathfinder, I had to confront some misgivings.

Traffic on Highway 400 seemed to be punctuated by examples of the current Pathfinder, reminders of the sport-utility's compact size and perky styling — an odd combination of hard edges and soft bulges that has retained its visual appeal for 10 years.

Indeed, the Pathfinder's blend of off-road dexterity and road-going competence in a tidy, sport-imaged package has maintained a successful sales momentum throughout the decade. Pathfinder is Nissan's most recognizable nameplate, making up 15 per cent of the company's business in Canada.

I've always liked it. I hoped they hadn't spoiled it.

Walking around three examples of the 1996 model arrayed on the resort's lawn, I wasn't so sure. The original's youthful quirkiness has given way to a treatment that is more integrated, more mature, and yes, more bland.

The new Pathfinder still looks something like a Pathfinder, even disregarding signature cues like the handle-in-the-post for the rear doors and the three oblong holes across the nose.

But, there is no longer anything bold about the machine. Handsome and confident, perhaps. I guess the Pathfinder is all growed up now.

Much the same can be said for the interior, but I'm less wistful about that. I don't think any of us would wax nostalgic for the 1986 model's Star Trek dash. Analysis of the new layout will take a full test, but my initial impression was favorable.

Nissan has joined most other automakers in giving up on pointless stylistic experimentation. Inside, bland is grand — a pleasant aspect, good seats, nice fabrics, and excellent control gear properly arranged around an attractive panel. Dual airbags are standard.

In the process of growing up, the Pathfinder has become larger without suffering a case of the bloats. Length adds 16.5 cm (6.5 inches) on a wheelbase increased 5 cm (2 inches) to 270 cm (106.2 inches).

All of the wheelbase extension has gone into improving rear seat room. The rest augments the cargo area, which is also enhanced by the absence of a spare tire — now situated under the body or on an optional rear mount.

Only 20 millimetres (0.8 inch) have been added to the height, but the body is fully 5.6 cm (2.2 inches) wider, covering a suspension that has been widened 5 cm (2 inches).

At the rear, the track width was achieved with a longer straight axle, still mounted under coil springs and located by five links as on the original.

Up front, however, I was startled to discover coils and struts replacing the proven double Aarms and torsion bars of the current Pathfinder. Startled, because the MacPherson strut has always been deemed a non-player in the off-road game: not enough wheel travel and far too fragile.

The system's Achilles heel has been the "tower" built into the frame that serves as the upper suspension mount. Under stress, the towers tend to bend and crack.

On cars, designers tend to keep the lower suspension arm as short as practical to reduce the stress-amplifying effects of leverage. However, this restricts the range of movement and leaves the shock strut open to damage if the suspension is pushed too far — usually not a problem on the street.

Nissan engineers have opted for the longer, beefier lower arms required for an adequate range of off-road wheel movement, and have crafted uniquely strong towers as part of the '96 Pathfinder's new MonoFrame unibody construction.

Abandoning the body-on-frame for an integrated body and chassis is purported to result in 2.3 times more resistance to bending and 2.9 times more torsional stiffness. The package, towers and all, looks tough enough to me. Only time, and hard use, will tell.

Both the suspension and the unibody passed a brief test on the rough and tricky course used by Deerhurst's 4×4 Adventures' off-road school. I had been concerned that the front end's struts might be further protected by stiff springs and aggressive shocks — yielding a bouncier, less compliant ride. However, in

back-to-back comparison with a '95, the new model provided noticeably smoother going. Over bumps and on uneven ground, the MonoFrame body structure was impressively rigid and quiet.

Pointing the '96 4×4 around the course was made easier by a new rack-and-pinion steering, which replaces the recirculating ball unit. Steering input is followed precisely by the wheels and there is plenty of feedback with no kickback. The turning diameter is now a tight 11.4 metres (37 feet).

Regretfully, there was no opportunity to evaluate Nissan's four-wheel anti-lock brakes, which incorporates a g-sensor to keep the anti-lock from coming on too soon or too often on rough surfaces. We'll talk about that in a full roadtest.

Crawling out of the woods and on to Highway 60, I discovered that the rebopped chassis and suspension garner significant improvements in on-road ride and handling. The longer wheelbase and refined shock/spring relationship does away with the mild bobbing and fore-and-aft pitching of the earlier Pathfinder. The ride smoothness and structural integrity I noted on the rocks and dirt is just as pronounced on glazed tarmac.

Back in '86, the Pathfinder was the sport-ute handling champ. Today they're all so much improved that I'd be hard-pressed to declare a winner without a track session comparo.

But, after two enjoyable hours blitzing around remote Muskoka two-laners, I can tell you that the 1996 is a contender. Directed by the accurate steering, the truck turns in and settles down in most corners. Body lean is kept in check by an upsized rear anti-roll bar.

All that said, the powerplant delivered the most welcome surprise. The old 3.0 L 150 h.p. engine shares a problem with many other truck V6s. They work hard and get the job done, but feel and sound as if they were going to strangle and die in the attempt. Now sized at 3.3 litres and rated at 168 h.p., the

engine pulls and revs and runs along in a manner Nissan describes as "relaxed."

The newfound driveability results from Nissan's Sophisticated Optimized Fuel Injection System (SOFIS), plus camshaft timing that brings in 90 per cent of the 196 poundfeet of torque by about 1600 r.p.m., and carries it throughout the rev range. Stick shift or auto, on or off the road, the engine is a treat to use. Relaxed, and relaxing.

Maybe growing up isn't so bad. It happens to all of us.

The '96 Pathfinder will arrive at showrooms by the end of this month or early December in the familiar XE (Value), SE (Sport), and LE (Luxury) models. Although prices are yet to be announced, a Nissan spokesman projected a range of $28,000 to $40,000, up from last year's $27,000 to $35,000.

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