To see theevolution of the SUV market, park the all-new 2013 Nissan Pathfinder next to its first-generation ancestor from 1985. They share nothing but a name tag.
That's hardly unique to Nissan Motor Co. When sport utility vehicles started crowding mall parking lots in the mid-1980s, they were little more than rear-wheel-drive truck frames with a square box strapped to their backs. Capable and rugged, they offered little comfort or efficiency. Three decades later, most SUVs are essentially station wagons with a hormone problem. Nearly all share a platform with a front-wheel-drive sedan. Fuel efficiency and comfort must now be balanced with practicality, towing capacity and value.
Some find this balance better than others. The 2013 Pathfinder finds it better than most.
Photos: 2013 Nissan Pathfinder takes a new road
Much bigger than its predecessor, the new Pathfinder now comfortably seats seven adults in three rows of seats. To do this, Nissan stretched the Pathfinder's length by 5 inches and its width by more than 4 inches.
That cleared out 7 more inches of legroom in the middle row. But that gain comes with an asterisk: It's measured with the middle seat adjusted all the way back, at the expense of back-row passengers. Third row passengers get 2 more inches of legroom, and both the middle and rear seats fold flat for cargo. Overall, the Pathfinder's interior is more than 8 cubic feet larger.
This Nissan's bigger insides mean it's bigger on the outside too, so be prepared to steer a lot of vehicle. The Pathfinder's girth gives it the turning radius of your average battleship. Speed-sensitive steering helps, but the Pathfinder still feels big.
It also looks big. More curves and softer lines can't mask this Nissan's newfound width. Adding to its visual mass are large, angled headlights. Their lines then flow into a trapezoid grille trimmed with thick chrome bars. Meanwhile, the front bumper juts forward, giving the Pathfinder a bit of a snout. The upscale Pathfinder Platinum I tested added additional bits of chrome around the exterior and 20-inch alloy wheels.
Fortunately my $39,995 tester also came standard with a feature borrowed from several Infiniti vehicles called Around View. While you park, the view from a camera on each side of the Pathfinder is stitched together on the navigation screen to form a bird's-eye view of the entire vehicle. It's awesome; expect plenty of Nissan dealers to earn their holiday bonus selling customers on this feature.
But the Pathfinder's growth has little effect on its weight. The previous Pathfinder used a heavier body-on-frame setup like that of a pickup truck. Bowing to the aforementioned trend for SUVs, the 2013 model now uses the same unibody construction found on competitors such as the Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Mazda CX-9 and Toyota Highlander. It also shares a front-wheel-drive crossover platform with its mechanical twin, the Infiniti JX, and Nissan's smaller Murano. The switch from the prior Pathfinder's setup means ground clearance on the 2013 model drops by more than 2 inches, so if you are finding paths, make sure they're at least gravel.
The switch helps shed several hundred pounds and gives the Pathfinder class-leading fuel economy. The two-wheel-drive model I tested is rated at 20 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway, gains of 5 mpg and 4 mpg, respectively. During 350 miles of more city than highway driving, I averaged 19 mpg on regular-grade gas.
A new and more fuel-efficient transmission also reduces thirst. Nissan has been busy dropping a continuously variable transmission — the kind with no fixed gears — into recent models such as the mid-size Altima and compact Sentra sedans and the Quest minivan. So it should come as no surprise that a CVT is the only option on the Pathfinder.
It's paired with a single engine option as well: a 3.5-liter V-6 that Nissan borrowed from its Altima makes 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque. On paper, these figures put the Pathfinder toward the bottom of its class for six-cylinder engines. But on the road, this SUV does not lack for power. Both the engine and transmission do their jobs without drama, leaving all seven passengers to enjoy not being squished together in the quiet, comfortable cabin.
Spring for the Platinum model and your charges will also get to enjoy amenities pulled right out of the Pathfinder's upscale cousin, the Infiniti JX. My test vehicle came with items including leather seats, heated and cooled up front, a touch-screen navigation system with traffic updates, a 13-speaker Bose sound system, power liftgate, Bluetooth streaming audio and the aforementioned Around View monitor.
The only other options offered are the $2,300 premium package — dual moon roofs and a rear-seat entertainment system with dual DVD screens — and all-wheel-drive, for $1,600. The base Pathfinder starts at $29,095 and comes with a 4-inch color trip computer, push-button start, three-zone climate control, six-speaker sound system with a six-disc CD changer and steering wheel-mounted controls.
All models include safety features such as anti-lock brakes, six air bags, traction control and the LATCH system for child seats.
Rather than stand out in one or two areas while compromising performance in others, the 2013 Pathfinder does nearly everything well. Nissan realized that most SUV buyers will be finding paths much less often than they'll be finding parking, and has adjusted this vehicle's ethos accordingly. It's not the Pathfinder of yore, and that's just fine.