THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Best: Family-friendly interior, decent fuel efficiency, useful towing capacity
- What’s Worst: Overworked engine, dull handler, disposable CVT transmission
- Typical GTA prices: 2013 – $24,500; 2015- $34,000
What did the Nissan Pathfinder want to be when it grew up: truck or crossover?
The very first Pathfinder, released for 1986, consisted of a Hardbody pickup truck with a macho two-door wagon body and big mudder tires. True to form, it was built on a ladder frame and offered four-wheel-drive with an extra low gear for rock hopping.
When the requisite four-door variant followed in 1990, the Pathfinder suddenly found favour with suburban families. It had morphed into the Mallfinder.
The second-generation models for 1995 completed the transformation by embracing unibody construction to save weight (just like the Jeep Cherokee). It sold well, and spawned an Infiniti model, the badge-engineered QX4.
The third-gen Pathfinder for 2005 returned as a body-on-frame truck with its stout F-Alpha platform, which underpinned the Titan and Frontier pickups, the Armada and Xterra SUVs and NV-series work vans.
For the fourth generation Pathfinder, engineers resurrected the unibody, which allowed them to trim some unnecessary weight while retaining the ute’s seven-passenger capacity.
With the vast majority of North American roads paved and dotted with drive-thrus, it was inevitable that a go-anywhere Pathfinder would no longer be needed. It’s an identity no longer in crisis.
The all-new-for-2013 Pathfinder used the well-worn bones of the Altima, Maxima, Murano and Quest to great effect. Think of the Pathfinder as the contemporary seven-seater minivan, with enough cupholders for a platoon and sufficient entertainment options to keep everyone happy.
There’s plenty of stretch-out room inside: the front thrones are royally big and comfy; the second row slides, flips and folds and offers third-row access even when a child seat is installed, and the standard third-row bench folds flat in a 50/50 split. There’s no whimpering allowed.
Think of the Pathfinder as the contemporary seven-seater minivan
Unlike a minivan, however, the Pathfinder has an especially tall step-in height and a commanding view of the road – something a lot of drivers cherish in a SUV. High-strength steels are used strategically to ensure crush strength – the Pathfinder scored the highest “Good” rating in five IIHS crash tests – while saving weight.
Being a Nissan, the ubiquitous VQ-series 3.5-L V6 is mounted transversely under the hood, churning out 260 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque, and working through a continuously variable automatic transmission supplied by Nissan subsidiary Jatco.
While the base S model is front-drive only, most Pathfinders are selectable 4×4 models, where the driver can choose front-drive for maximum efficiency, automatic operation to direct torque to all four wheels when slip is detected, or four-wheel-drive lock for deep woods adventures.
The Pathfinder has the usual array of technological driver’s aids, none more impressive than Nissan’s own, optional “Around View Monitor” system of four cameras that assembles a bird’s eye view of everything surrounding the vehicle when backing up and parking. It helps compensate for the poor sightlines out the rear window.
For 2015, the continuously variable transmission benefited from new programming that simulates conventional shifts. Beyond some minor optional equipment changes, the Pathfinder remained largely unaltered through the 2016 model year.
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ON THE ROAD
To sell in the most lucrative and competitive segment against the likes of the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia and Toyota Highlander, Nissan had to abandon its body-on-frame Pathfinder with its trucky suspension, cramped cabin and poor fuel economy, and commit to the unibody approach for good.
In so doing, the 2013 Pathfinder traded off-road brawn for on-road comfort, a roomy cabin and improved fuel economy. And it could still tow up to 5,000 lbs, which is sufficient for most weekend toys like Sea-Doos and ATVs. Unladen, zero to 97 km/h comes up in a speedy 7.5 seconds, though it feels oddly sluggish.
Chassis development placed a high priority on cabin isolation (the similar Infiniti JX35 preceded the Pathfinder to market), delivering a buttery, quiet ride over broken pavement and over long distances. Handling is hardly sophisticated, however, with sleepy turn-in and considerable body lean in the corners. Nobody will mistake this for a BMW X5.
That’s okay; most buyers want a supremely comfy cruiser to carry the brood to the hockey tournament without complaint. This Pathfinder does the deed – and without burning a small oil state’s reserves in the process. While the Pathfinder will rarely hit its Energuide numbers, most owners are happy to see 25 mpg (11.5 litres/100 km) on a highway jaunt, knowing they have the added security of all-wheel drive if they need it.
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Owners value the new Pathfinder’s spacious and upscale cabin furnishings, good fuel economy (for a seven-seater) and compliant ride quality. It checks all the boxes for busy families who’ve left their minivan behind.
“The Nissan had the best fuel economy and the most attractive interior. It’s just a comfortable ride, with near luxury interior and nice soft leather seats,” observed one owner who replaced a Cadillac Escalade and a Jaguar with the Pathfinder.
However, there’s a big caveat from anyone contemplating a 2013 or newer model. The Pathfinder’s continuously variable automatic transmission is notoriously unreliable, as plenty of owners recounted in their posts.
“The real trouble started at 15,000 about nine months into my ownership of this brand-new vehicle. It started shuddering real bad, needed a new CVT. Then fast forward a few months and 5K and the CVT is doing the same shuddering thing, so I am needing a new CVT again.”
That’s two transmission replacements in about a year’s time. In addition, the owner was referring to a 2015 model – the third year of faulty transmission production without an apparent resolution. Those who had blind faith in the Nissan brand were disappointed.
“I was aware of the CVT issues before purchasing, but hoped that Nissan had fixed the problem with newer builds. No such luck. Last weekend the problems began. Shudders, power loss, surging, etc. Pathfinder no longer safe to drive. Nissan replacing transmission under warranty (with) 19,000 km on the odometer.”
While supplier Jatco is warrantying its transmission for 10 years or 160,000 km, the CVT failure rate remains unreasonably high, and can potentially leave drivers and passengers stranded. It’s the reason Nissan is the lowest rated Japanese automaker in the 2016 J.D. Power dependability study of three-year-old models.
Other reported faults include inaccurate seat occupancy detectors (which can disarm the passenger airbag erroneously), sagging sun visors and liftgates, broken door handles, poor paint and “fluttering” hoods at highway speeds.
For these quality missteps – especially the lousy CVT slushbox – we can’t recommend the Pathfinder as a used-car buy. Let’s give the last word to an unhappy 2013 Pathfinder owner: “The only path I found is to the repair shop!”
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