Car shoppers who need to carry more than four people should buy vans. Full stop. The minivan form factor is superior in nearly every manner to the SUV; from passenger comfort, to cargo room, to flexibility, the van wins. Yet American shoppers have largely abandoned the symbol of Eighties momness for the three-row crossover, this decade’s mom taxi.
While Nissan has offered minivans in various forms since the mid-80s, it’s a relative newcomer to the three-row CUV market with the 2013 Pathfinder. For 2017, Nissan has refreshed the Pathfinder — inside, outside, and underneath — all in an effort to make this big wagon appeal to all manner of drivers.
Including those who should be buying vans.
Nissan’s styling of the Pathfinder has been all over the map for the last 30 years. The ‘87 model was basically a truck with a built-in cap. Later models remained a rugged body-on-frame SUV through a few generations, including a V8 powered, off-road capable mid-sized beast. A new, softer Pathfinder arrived in 2014 sharing a platform with the smaller Murano and the Altima sedan.
While Pathfinder enthusiasts cried that their beloved truck was no longer, buyers disagreed. Nissan claims the new, three row, unibody Pathfinder had a 90-percent sales increase over the previous generation. Our own Tim Cain’s numbers at GoodCarBadCar.net bear this out: the 2005-2012 Pathfinder averaged around 44,000 units moved per year, while the newest generation averages over 83,000 per year.
The newest iteration brings a host of styling changes aimed at emphasizing the SUV-ness, if that’s a word, of the Pathfinder. While the platform isn’t changed, the front and rear receive more sculpting with harder, more defined edges to make the big Nissan look a bit more butch. The front and rear fenders have a slightly sharper edge to them — again recalling the older, truck-oriented predecessors. The changes, including a more distinct corporate “V-Motion” grille, do slightly improve the Pathfinder’s drag coefficient from .34 to .326.
The example I tested, a loaded Platinum 4WD edition, wears LED headlamps as well as the LED daytime running lamps found on all Pathfinder models. As my time with the Pathfinder was sadly brief — and completely daylit — I can’t speak to their effectiveness in darkness.
The interior is where the Pathfinder shines against the CUV competition, as it simply feels bigger and more airy than other three-row options. Head and shoulder room are plentiful in all three rows, and legroom is equally excellent in the front two rows. Passengers relegated to the stern will be displeased unless they are young, limber, or short of stature, as the seat cushion is mounted rather close to the floor.
I’m certain my seven-year-old would be quite happy in the cheap seats, as she has a booster that will at once keep her feet on the floor and her knees from uncomfortable angles. Her older sister, quickly approaching five-feet tall, would not be as complimentary. Accessing those rear seats is quite simple, however, with a sliding middle row that eases entry — even if a child seat is fitted.
The Platinum model that I tested has a leather-lined interior that befits the $44,460 as tested price (including $900 in destination charges). The faux wood trim in the center stack and atop the console isn’t the most convincing I’ve seen, but sports a refreshing matte finish. The aluminum-look trim atop the center-mounted touchscreen is similarly low-gloss and brushed, which should eliminate distracting reflections in that line of sight. Unfortunately, many other surfaces, including the cupholders, are trimmed with bright polished “chrome,” which can and will reflect stray rays within the cabin and heat up to searing temperatures when sitting in the summer sun.
Nissan is rightfully proud of its VQ series of V6 engines. So proud, in fact, that any review of a Nissan product requires writers and editors search thesauruses for synonyms for ubiquitous. The VQ is found in everything from the Altima to the 370Z to (in highly modified form) the GT-R. The competition never stops improving, however, so Nissan made some significant upgrades for this refreshed Pathfinder.
The biggest change is direct fuel injection, or Direct Injection Gas (DIG) in Nissanspeak. More precise fueling should help both power and efficiency. Other changes include an improved intake manifold and more effective electronic variable valve timing. A new “Mirror Bore” molten iron finish on the cylinder bores minimizes friction losses and improves efficiency.
These changes add up to 284 horsepower at 6,400 rpm (up 24 hp from last year’s Pathfinder) and 259 pounds-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm (up 19 lbs-ft from previous). These power increases help the Pathfinder to a class-leading 6,000-pound tow rating, a full half-ton more than last year. The extra grunt doesn’t hinder the Pathfinder’s efficient aspirations; a 20 mile per gallon rating in the city and 27 mpg on the highway continue unchanged.
Now to the transmission, again a frequent refrain heard when discussing Nissan. The automaker has stood fast to the continuously variable transmission as an efficient means of transferring power to the road, despite complaints from auto journalists and confusion from unknowing drivers. The main concern stems from the proper operation of the CVT — Xtronic in Nissanese — where the engine maintains a somewhat-constant speed. This rev-hanging causes a droning sound from the engine bay, which can be at unpleasant or disconcerting.
Nissan has recalibrated the programming of this third-generation Xtronic with D-Step Logic Control, which simulates the jarring motion of an automatic transmission changing ratios.
During my test, I found myself forgetting the Pathfinder was equipped with a CVT. I drove a 2008 Sentra for several months as a company car, and the droning noise was infuriating. Not so with the Pathy. There was only one moment, where I was travelling at a steady 30 mph and matted the pedal, when a brief surge of noise from the engine room marked the Pathfinder’s hesitation. “Are you sure?” it asked, then accelerated after a brief pause. Otherwise, I doubt any driver seriously shopping the Pathfinder will notice the CVT.
The Pathfinder I tested has a touchscreen with smartphone-like pinch-to-zoom capability integrated into its navigation system. As simple as it was to use, the maps were woefully lacking even on our short test loop in suburban Detroit, with many roads not appearing at all on the screen. Naturally, my driving partner and I missed a turn, requiring a retreat to an iPhone’s map.
The same screen, of course, controls the audio system, which provided good quality tunes either via SiriusXM or paired via Bluetooth.
Perhaps the most useful feature on the Pathfinder’s screen is the Around View Monitor that pairs the standard rearview camera with a top-down view of the entire car, which is immensely helpful while parking. New this year, Nissan pairs this with Moving Object Detection, which will alert the driver to small children, soccer balls, and pets that may be moving around the vehicle. While thankfully I didn’t get the opportunity to test this capability, it looks to be another helpful tool to minimize a chance tragedy behind the wheel.
Other safety technologies include forward emergency braking and collision warning, which uses grille-mounted radar to mitigate the consequences of momentary distractions.
Nissan offers the NissanConnect system, which gives a suite of cellphone-linked services to make using the Pathfinder more convenient. Remote locking and unlocking, emergency calling, and remote starting can all be handled through the NissanConnect smartphone app. NissanConnect is included for six months, and costs between $12 and $25/month, depending on the package chosen, after the initial trial period.
As mentioned earlier, I was particularly attuned to the performance of the Xtronic CVT while testing the new Pathfinder. I was pleasantly surprised to find it performed mostly seamlessly: there was no droning, no rev-hanging. I quickly forgot about the transmission altogether.
One other complaint many have leveled against the Nissan VQ series engine is its exhaust note. In older models, the sound has been rather unpleasant; the best way I can describe it is “hollow.” The new VQ35DD has somehow changed that aspect. While it’s remarkably quiet within the vehicle, the exhaust note outside gives a much more pleasant, guttural growl.
Some engines fitted with direct fuel injection can exhibit a clatter from the engine that is almost diesel-like. While I did notice a subdued ticking with the hood open, nothing was noticeable either inside or outside the car with the hood closed.
I didn’t get to hustle this CUV around any parking lot cones — no burnouts, no drifting, sadly — but it was quite composed around corners, with minimal lean considering its bulk and high center of gravity. Over a gravelly, washboard-like surface, the steering wheel was isolated from the road — I felt basically nothing — but it should minimize fatigue over long days of driving.
I have to ask myself two questions when evaluating any new car: Would I buy it? And does it do what it should? While it certainly works nicely as an SUV, I’m not certain I’d give up my minivan for the new Pathfinder. But it’s the closest CUV I’ve yet found to my van, and that gives me pause.
[Images: © 2016 Chris Tonn/The Truth About Cars]
Nissan provided the test vehicle for review and a pleasant lunch in a barn.
Chris Tonn is the Large Editor at Large for Car Of The Day, a classic-car focused site highlighting cool and unusual finds.
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