IT was a category full of off-roaders that buyers just couldn't get enough of. The seemingly unstoppable Ford Explorer. The go-anywhere Nissan Pathfinder.
It's amazing how things change in five or six years.
In simple terms, the Explorer and Pathfinder are no longer truck-based, off-road-capable sport utility vehicles.
Like the Explorer, Nissan's seven-passenger bus has emerged from its chrysalis as a family wagon able to conquer nasty road and weather conditions.
The Tennessee-built wagon had remained virtually untouched since the 2005 model year. A robust body-on-frame chassis made it ideal for boulder-bashing, creek-fording activities.
That's all well and good, but it's likely that Pathfinder owners rarely, if ever, risked blazing their own path in a rig costing as much as $55,000. Enter the all-new version that abruptly changes course and adjusts its stride in step with similar models from other automakers.
The new Pathfinder, which arrives this fall, has been on a serious diet, shedding about 110 kilograms over the outgoing model. This meant converting to a unitized (frameless) platform that's shared with Nissan's Infiniti JX luxury wagon. More importantly, the previous 266 horsepower 4.0-litre V-6 - never a paragon of fuel efficiency, anyway - was also dropped in favour of the one-engine-fits-all 3.5-litre V-6. In the new Pathfinder, it's rated at 260 h.p. and 240 foot-pounds of torque. The V-6 is teamed with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that replaces the previous five-speed automatic.
The resulting reduction in fuel consumption, at least on paper, seems impressive. Front-wheel-drive versions (yes, you can now buy a Pathfinder with torque going to only the front wheels) are rated at 10.5 litres/100 kilometres city and 7.7 highway, while four-wheel-drive Pathfinder numbers are a closely aligned 10.8 and 7.9. The previous edition earned a thirsty 14.9/10.2 rating.
There is a penalty to be paid for the new Pathfinder's weight and power decrease in that its maximum towing capacity has dropped to 2,270 kilograms from 2,720.
Nissan's 4x4 option is worth it for anyone living and working in Canadian snow-belt regions where being stranded in -30 C conditions is just not an option. The All-Mode 4x4-i system allows you to select either two-or four-wheel-drive, or engage the Auto setting and let the All-Mode make the call, based on where tire slippage is detected.
The new sheetmetal manages a passing resemblance to the outgoing rig as far as the grille is concerned. But from there the quaintly boxy body-of-old, with its muscular fender flares, has given way to gentle, sweeping curves and rounded edges. Physically, the Pathfinder could be mistaken for any number of competing tall wagons, such as the Mazda CX-9 or Chevrolet Traverse.
Dimensionally, the new Pathfinder gains about 13 centimetres in length, 11 cm in width and five centimetres between the front and rear wheels. Maximum cargo capacity with both rear rows of seats folded has increased only a fraction, perhaps owing to a slightly lower roofline.
Passenger comfort was apparently paramount with Nissan's designers, who created a third-row reclining seat and a second row with 13 cm of fore and aft travel. The split-second bench also features an "EX Flex" portion that slides forward for easier third-row access, even when there's a child seat attached.
At a starting price of $31,600, including delivery charges (about $8,000 less than the base 2012 model), the Pathfinder S is expected to come with the usual accessories, including tri-zone climate control and 14 cup/bottle holders. The SV adds roof rails and a rearview monitor while leather-covered seats, remote engine start and a power liftgate are SL highlights. From there, the sky's the limit on the options front, with features such as an up-level sound system. Around View camera, panorama moonroof and a navigation system are yours for the asking, depending on the depth of your pockets.
The reborn Pathfinder might have been stripped of its traditional sport ute bravado, but it will certainly add new friends with an easy-on-gas powertrain, easy-to-take creature comforts and easy-on-the-eyes design.
The specs: 2013 Nissan Pathfinder
Type: Four-door, front-/four-wheel-drive tall wagon
Engine: 3.5-litre DOHC V-6 (260 h.p.) Transmission: Continuously variable (CVT)
The Pathfinder now belongs to a class of passenger-car-based wagons that's more practical for most people and somewhat more fuel efficient. These vehicles are not necessarily cheaper than the rugged off-roaders they replace.
Lighter and more stylish than the previous version; V-6 is decent on gas and has plenty of power for most towing and hauling tasks; Upgraded interior focuses on passenger comfort; Sophisticated 4x4 system a definite advantage; Dizzying inventory of trim levels and options; Giving up the off-road image might actually be worth it.
Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
Base price: $38,000 Good looking inside and out; revised styling expected for 2013.
Base price: $40,000 Refreshed for 2013 with new styling; retains eight-passenger space.
Base price: $31,500 Roomy wagon offers decent fuel economy with optional turbo-four engine.