When it first debuted in 1985, the Nissan Pathfinder was a true SUV: a body-on-frame, go-anywhere tough-as-nails truck directly related to Nissan's pickup.
And then, for a little while, it wasn't anymore.
And then, for some time, it was again.
And now it isn't. This is a good thing. Let me explain.
As much as SUVs were the marketing craze of the 1990s and early 2000s, we live in softer, gentler, greener times. Cheaper times too, and folks quickly figured out that rolling around in a truck capable of taking on the Gobi desert was a bit of overkill when the worst your commute threw at you was the kids' stinky hockey bags.
Not to say the out-going Pathfinder isn't a great truck; it even handles OK considering it's built to Saurian specifications.
But these days, the crossover is king, and Nissan has nothing to combat, for instance, Toyota's popular seven-seat Highlander. Time then, for a proud and storied nameplate to take the road more-travelled. Time then, to find a smoother Path.
First clue that this particular nag is built for the dude ranch? Check out the new svelte and swooshy styling. Borrowing curves from its Infiniti cousins (the JX35 is a direct relation with fancier optional doo-dads), the new Pathfinder eschews the boxy outdoors look for a little inter-urban curb appeal.
Muscular haunches swell above big 20-inch alloy wheels on my Platinum-level tester, and a monstrous chrome-laden front-end has the appearance of an integrated push-bar. That Nissan badge out front is the size of a Texan trucker's belt buckle.
Despite these macho accents, the eye immediately discerns the Pathfinder for what it now is: a Murano wearing Goretex. It's a trifle anonymous, apart from the big badges, but good looking in a Mountain Equipment Co-Op sort of way.
Inside, the Pathfinder sees a much larger improvement. Gone is the rugged looking yet easily scratched hard plastic of the old model. In its place, it's . . . well basically it's a Murano again.
More squared off and less upscale than its costlier Nissan stablemate, the inside of the Pathfinder is enhanced with lots of soft touch plastics, but retains a conservative layout.
However, that fake wood trim wouldn't fool a blind pine beetle.
Given that the intended market for soft-roaders like this is the active family, Nissan has a winner on its hands as far as the rear seating arrangement goes. The third row folds flat, as you'd expect, and offers legroom that's a little better than kid-only.
Better yet are the clever middle row seats, which slide far forward as the seat-bottom raises to allow plenty of room. What if you've got a child-seat strapped in? The seat will still slide forward, just a little less.
While the old Pathfinder was briefly offered with a V-8 engine option providing Jetson acceleration and Flinstone fuel economy, the new Pathfinder comes only with a 3.5-litre V-6 good for 260 horsepower and 240 foot-pounds of torque.
Good stuff, this engine. If there's one thing that Nissan is consistently good at, it's the V-6. This particular application has plenty of punch, but it's attached to a CVT transmission.
Not to worry. While the CVT gets a bad rap for motorboat feel and excessive noise (worst offender? The buzzy unit in the defunct Dodge Caliber), Nissan has also been honing this belt-drive technology for years.
Ascending a steep mountain pass, the engine note rose slightly, and the Pathfinder powered through the snow. No problem.
This new truck is lighter by 225 kilograms (500 pounds) over the old ladder-frame leviathan, and it certainly feels a bit more nimble. Body roll in the corners was well controlled.
There are a few issues. I know the steering wheel must be connected to the front wheels - when I turn it clockwise or counter-clockwise, the Pathfinder either points right or left. However, you'd never know otherwise: there is next to no steering feel.
Pushing the Pathfinder in poor conditions, one really wishes that a bit of feedback came up through the steering column. Given that all these systems are electric-feedback, hopefully there's a software update.
Other than that minor niggle, the ride is excellent, the sightlines decent (for a crossover), and the cabin comfortable and spacious. Plowing into some deep snow presented no difficulty for the Pathfinder; tackling a steep gravel approach was slightly more nerve-wracking.
While there is a sort of pseudo-Land-Rover off-road control for the Pathfinder, a proper low-range drive is a thing of the past. Ascending the steep slope seemed to work just fine, given the way a CVT can hold onto higher revs, but the Pathfinder was much happier on the tarmac'd road back down the ski hill.
At a starting price of $29,998, the Pathfinder provides a strong value, even if the base model is (horror!) front-wheel drive only. With push-button start and 18-inch alloys, it's fairly well-equipped as well.
Too bad you have to move up to the $35,248 SV model just to get must-haves like Bluetooth. For about the same price as the SV, you could also have the front-wheel-drive version of the SL ($35,698) model, which adds a few cushy extras like heated rear seats and an uprated towing package.
Top of the range Platinum editions add 20-inch alloys, navigation, BOSE audio, and the unique AroundView monitoring system. This last is a series of top down cameras showing you every angle of the truck, making it a cinch to perform difficult manoeuvres in tight parking lots.
Official fuel economy ratings for the Pathfinder are 10.5 litres/100 kilometres in the city and an exemplary 7.7 l/100 km on the highway.
While these low numbers are for the 4x2 version, moving up to all-wheel drive only costs a few tenths of a litre more at 10.8 l/100 km city and 7.9 l/100 km highway.
Numb steering; no low-range gearbox; reduced off-road capability.
Smooth ride; clever seating; greatly improved fuel economy; quiet interior.
The checkered flag
More than enough truck for most intenders, and easier to live with as well. Need a tougher Nissan? Try the Xterra.
Competitors Toyota Highlander ($31,680)
Toyota's crossover has been a bestseller for years, and with a blend of versatility and car-like ride, why wouldn't it be? Available with either a powerful V-6 or optional hybrid for city dwellers, it's a strong choice.
Even so, the Highlander is essentially an updated version of a five-year-old design; it's getting somewhat long in the tooth. While Toyotas are often touted for good resale value, an upcoming redesign for the 2014 model year Highlander will certainly affect things.
THE versatile Toyota Highlander has been a bestseller for years but it's due for a redesign.