While this is a test that puts two veterans of the SUV game in a head-to-head battle of four-wheel-drive, seven-passenger wits, it isn’t the biggest part of the story.
It may be true that these two have been around in various forms since the SUV wave – well, tsunami, really – in North America was just starting to roll but both take vastly different forms than they once did, even though their goals remain the same: giving families an alternative to minivans to easily move them and their wares.
So, through all the changes which of these two stays truest to the original and if it does, does it still hit the mark in today’s market?
While the Grand Cherokee has stayed pretty true to its roots with a healthy dose of luxury and good off-road chops the Pathfinder has gone through significant changes since its ‘80s debut more often than Logan Roy changes his mind on a successor.
What started out as a closed-off version of the venerable Nissan Hardbody pickup, morphed into a more rounded, slightly softer SUV, to a V8-powered behemoth to what we see here: a unibody three-row full-size crossover with more rounded corners and some futuristic details such as the bi-level headlight lenses, two-tone wheels, and contrast-colour roof.
Having said that, though, this latest version of the Pathfinder has actually gained back some of the toughness lost when it first went to a unibody platform for its previous generation. It gets more sculpted fenders, chunkier wing mirrors, a more vertical rear window and large “Pathfinder” scripting across the rear tailgate giving it a wider stance. It appears tougher, more purposeful and chiselled.
And then you lay eyes on the Grand Cherokee L.
The Jeep is a scowling, chromed, Cro-magnon foreheaded, square-fendered beast of an SUV that even makes its own predecessor – even in hopped up SRT or Trailhawk forms – seem pedestrian in comparison. Clearly, the bigness associated with the Grand Cherokee’s Grand Wagoneer big brother has trickled its way down. It’s cool, but you do get the feeling it doesn’t like you all that much.
Inside, while the Nissan sits atop its class and the Jeep about two rungs below, they are both luxurious offerings at first blush. They both get real leather seats, digital gauge clusters, fairly sizeable central infotainment screens, snazzy electronic gear selectors (a dial for the Jeep, a more traditional “stick” for the Pathfinder) and both have about the same amount of interior space.
The Jeep, though, goes just that extra distance on so many counts. The leather is of a higher quality, the displays are a bit bigger (my tester had the optional 10.1” display; the Nissan can only be had with a 9 incher), the McIntosh audio system is crisper than the Pathfinder’s Bose offering (it has 19 speakers to the Nissan’s 13), it has a digital rear-view mirror, and just a little more polish in the form of open-pore wood inserts and jewel-like controls.
Performance, Ride and Handling
Both of these get V6 ‘plants: the Nissan a 3.5-litre, the Jeep a 3.6L. That extra 100 cc translates to 6 more horsepower and 2 more pound-feet of torque over the Nissan – so not a lot, really, although you can have the Jeep with a more powerful Hemi V8 and what you see here is what you get with the Nissan.
Also – happy day – there are no acceleration-sapping CVT autos here; just good ol’ fashioned cog swappers to the tune of an 8-speeder for the Jeep, and an all-new 9-speed item for the Pathfinder.
It comes as little surprise, then, that while it is down a little on power to the Jeep, acceleration in the Pathfinder is just as robust and feels zippier thanks to it weighing about 200 kilos less – yeah, that’s a lot. The Jeep may look the faster vehicle thanks to its muscular lines, but the Pathfinder is no slouch and it genuinely caught me off guard during my first freeway entrance manoeuvre. The lighter weight means it’s also the winner in the fuel economy sweepstakes (see below).
But – and there is a but – there is something about the Jeep’s motor that presents a finer air of luxury than what you get with the Nissan. The Pentastar V6 revs smoothly and gets some great midrange torque so there’s some nice push no matter the speed you’re carrying. The Nissan may feel quicker, but the Grand Cherokee L goes about its business in a less stressful manner.
To back up the interior accoutrements and leggy powertrain, the Grand Cherokee L also gets an optional air-ride self-levelling suspension system that brings it squarely into luxury SUV territory – and as mentioned before, we haven’t even reached the summit yet (literally; the top trim is called “Summit”). Even at Platinum level, the Pathfinder can’t match this – but then, in this spec, the Jeep eclipses the Pathfinder by a fistful of dollars.
Both of these are three-row SUVs and by now, most know the deal with these; the third row isn’t typically meant to be heavily used by adults; they tend to be tough to get to, and aren’t all that roomy once you get there so they’re better for kids and car seats.
However; both of these sport surprisingly usable third rows, with the Jeep borrowing a little from the Nissan in the way its second row both tilts and slides to provide third-row access. That way, you can still access the third row even with child’s seats installed in the second row. This is tech Nissan has been employing in its Pathfinder since the 2014 model year. Of the two, however, I found the Pathfinder’s third row to be the more usable thanks to the seat being mounted a little lower and providing more headroom. Its seats are also softer and more supportive than the Jeep’s. The Pathfinder’s second row will tilt and slide with a simple press of a button, while the Jeep requires more elbow grease and a flip of a more awkwardly-placed lever on the seat’s shoulder. Big points for the Nissan there.
You will get more cargo space in the Jeep, however, though not by a wide margin. Both of these, meanwhile, provide foot-activated tailgates so if you’re approaching loaded for bear with shopping bags and the like, you’re well catered for.
When it comes to infotainment, it’s a hands-down win for the Jeep. Whether you stick with the standard 8.4” display or 10.1” option I had, the Uconnect interface remains as slick, smooth and good looking as anything else in the biz. The Pathfinder’s unit is an upgrade from the previous one in that it’s faster to respond, but – and this could be a microchip thing, who knows? – we still don’t get the new system that the bigger Pathfinder Armada does. The graphics are a little old, the on-screen buttons a little small, and it’s not as customizable as the Jeep’s, which features a home screen that lets you load your favourite apps and commands.
Oh, and how can we forget the Jeep’s FamCam tool that lets you see the back two rows right there on your infotainment display? It’s incredibly handy for everything except a rear-facing child’s seat, unless you like to examine your kid’s bald spot.
Both vehicles also use traditional hard buttons for your climate controls, which I was surprised to see in the Jeep as many of Stellantis’ current products ask you to make use of the Uconnect screen to activate features such as your seat and steering wheel heaters.
The Pathfinder starts at a clear $8,000 less than does the Grand Cherokee, but both start life with a bench seat for the second row. They also both get adaptive cruise control at base, a blind spot system, heated front seats, AWD, and the same powertrains you get at the highest trim. The Jeep does have more room inside and a better AWD system, though, which is where you start to see some of that extra money going.
While you can’t spec the Nissan to reach the price level of the Grand Cherokee L Overland seen here, you have to like the way the Nissan seems to not take itself quite as seriously as the Jeep – I mean, it has a “Sport” drive mode, for Pete’s sake! Of course, the Jeep has one as well but the Pathfinder remains a little more flighty, a little more light on its feet but still rides well and offers similar power to the Jeep.
The Grand Cherokee, on the other hand, is a great exercise in chiselled styling and gets Jeep’s tried, tested and true Quadra-Trac I active 4 x 4 system at base, improving to Quadra-Trac II at the Overland level and beyond, allowing for 100 per cent of the torque to get directed to either axle and providing a low range with 2.72:1 gearing.
The Pathfinder is no slouch in this regard, though – it also can send 100 per cent of available torque to either axle, and that’s a standard feature – has different terrain modes, and a hill-descent control system you activate with the press of a button.
I really do like the Jeep, though. It’s got the looks, more room inside, more options to suit a variety of tastes and the attitude that comes with years of perfecting a package. It’s the one I’d have, but the Pathfinder has matured and offers more to more people than ever before.