When it comes to original SUVs, there are few that are more OG than the Nissan Pathfinder.
First introduced way back in 1986, the Pathfinder is not only Nissan’s first SUV, but it’s one of the oldest utilities in continuous production on the market today.
And while it’s come a long way since its body-on-frame, built on the Hardbody compact pick-up platform of its rough and ready heyday, the Pathfinder exhibits many of the same characteristics as its 1980s forebears. In fact, Rock Creek, which is a new Pathfinder grade for 2023, bears a strong resemblance to its ancestors. More on that shortly. First a primer on the Pathfinder as it exists in 2023.
The current fifth-generation R53 model was all-new in 2021 and is built on Nissan’s D platform which is shared with its corporate cousin, the Infiniti QX60. Both vehicles are built at the company’s sprawling assembly plant in Smyrna, Tennessee.
All Pathfinders are powered by Nissan’s 3.5-litre double-overhead cam V6 that produces 284 horsepower and 259 lb-ft. of torque, which is paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission and standard four-wheel drive (4WD). Six grades are available for Canada: S, SV, Rock Creek, SL, SL Premium, and Platinum.
Now if you figured that Rock Creek is Nissan code for off-road, you’re right on the money. While it’s not in Jeep or Toyota TRD rock-crawling territory, the Pathfinder Rock Creek is more suited to the rough stuff than other SUVs designed primarily for pavement duty.
Standard kit for the Pathfinder Rock Creek includes an off-road tuned suspension with a 16 mm (5/8- inch) lift, 18-inch beadlock-style wheels wrapped in 265/60R18 all-terrain tires, a tubular roof rack with 100 kg (220-pound) load capacity, and Intelligent Around View Monitor with Off-Road mode.
Cosmetic additions include model-specific front fascia with dark V-motion grille and mesh insert, Rock Creek badging, leatherette and fabric seats with Rock Creek embroidery, and orange contrast stitching (seats, steering wheel, instrument panel, and door panels).
Other standard equipment with the Pathfinder Rock Creek includes LED headlights and taillights, heated front seats, heated leather steering wheel, heated outside mirrors, 10-way power driver’s seat, ProPILOT Assist, 8-inch multimedia display, wired Apple CarPlay / Android Auto and more.
Of note, the tester Nissan Canada loaned me for this review comes with no optional equipment apart from a $300 paint charge for its Baja Storm exterior finish.
From an appearance perspective, the off-road kit the Pathfinder Rock Creek is outfitted with exudes a ruggedly handsome, yet capable vibe. When I first drove the fifth-gen Pathfinder
in 2021 I thought that its boxier, more upright proportions and 1980s call-backs (three-slot grille, blister fenders, diagonal C-pillar) were a welcome departure from its rather anonymous predecessor, and that feeling grew as I spent time in the Rock Creek.
This Pathfinder looks like it really wants to get away, preferably to a place where there aren’t any paved roads. While it is also available in Obsidian Green Pearl ($300), Glacier White and two-tone Baja Storm/Super Black Metallic ($950), I think Baja Storm suits the Rock Creek aesthetic best.
On the inside, the Rock Creek’s spacious cabin is well-equipped with an attractive and straightforward layout that puts everything within easy reach of both driver and passengers. Its finishes, including leatherette seating trim, are nice to look at and pleasing to interact with, as are the other plastics and soft-touch surfaces that line my tester’s console, dashboard, and door trims. Much like its exterior design, I was impressed with the design and functionality of the Pathfinder’s cabin when I first encountered it, and my feelings haven’t changed. It’s one of the best in its segment, in my view.
As for content, because it lands exactly in the middle of the Pathfinder range, the Rock Creek is well stocked, but it isn’t loaded, per se. If one is in search of items such as leather seating, heated second-row seats, a wireless charge pad and wireless Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, they’re not available on the Rock Creek.
However, all of these, except for wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, can be had on Pathfinder grades above Rock Creek.
Space, comfort, and utility are strong suits for the Pathfinder generally, and they remain so with Rock Creek. With a 6,000-pound towing capacity and up to 2,280 litres of cargo space with second and third row seats folded flat, plus seating for up to eight, Rock Creek offers just as much practicality as other Pathfinder grades. Third-row seating remains tight for adults, but getting back there is relatively easy.
On the road, the Pathfinder Rock Creek delivers robust performance that can be enhanced when its 3.5-litre V6 is running on premium fuel. On 91 octane, the V6 produces 295 hp and 270 lb-ft., an increase of 11 hp and 11 lb-ft., respectively.
Even without splurging for pricier gas, the V6 delivers strong acceleration and hauls the 2,089 kg (4,605-pound) Rock Creek with plenty of zip, at least as far as a three-row, eight-passenger SUV is concerned. Handling in everyday driving situations feels responsive with direct steering and a stiff body structure that rides quietly and doesn’t become floaty or willowy over rougher tarmac.
One aspect that I really love, as I noted in 2021, is Nissan’s decision to ditch the CVT from the outgoing Pathfinder and replace it with a traditional automatic transmission. The nine-speed gearbox used in the current Pathfinder delivers quicker acceleration, more precise shifts, better fuel efficiency, and is much easier to modulate with the accelerator pedal than the whiney, rubber-banding CVT of old. Once again, I commend Nissan for doing the right thing for Pathfinder customers.
A few caveats before wrapping up here. First, a lack of time, unfortunately, prevented me from testing the Rock Creek off-road, and two, because I drove it in mid-winter, my tester wasn’t equipped with all-terrain tires which diminished my interest in taking it off-road.
The next time I drive one, however, I’ll be sure to pick a warmer spot in the calendar for some off-roading fun. With that said, my test coincided with some snow-covered roads, which the Rock Creek’s 4WD, snow mode setting, and Michelin winter tires handled with ease.
My notes reveal few complaints. Do I wish the Rock Creek came with wireless CarPlay and a wireless smartphone charger? Yes, and ventilated seats would be nice to have also, but the absence of these items are not deal-breakers, and they’re not the focus of Rock Creek, besides. Off-roading is the appeal here, not modern automotive conveniences.
Overall, I think the Pathfinder Rock Creek should find a lot of favour with shoppers in the mid-size SUV segment, who may not be off-road enthusiasts, but perhaps own a cottage, or tow a trailer or a boat, and are looking for a vehicle that can handle moderate dirt roads and trails.
The Pathfinder may be approaching 40, but with the addition of Rock Creek, the rugged, go (almost) anywhere attitude of its youth is very much alive.
2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek
Front-engine, four-wheel drive, 9-speed automatic
3.5-litre V6 (284 hp / 259 lb-ft.; 295 hp / 270 lb-ft. w/ premium fuel)
(Regular 87) 11.9 / 10.0 / 11.1 L / 100 km (city/highway / combined)
2,280 / 1,274 / 470 litres (80.5 / 45 / 16.6 cu ft.) (behind first/second/row third row)
MAXIMUM TOWING: 6,000 pounds (2,722 kg)
$51,998 / $54,218 base /as tested, incl. freight, excl. taxes