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First Drive: 2013 Nissan Pathfinder

Switch to crossover design yields plenty of advantages, few sacrifices.

by on Nov.01, 2012

The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder adopts a lighter, more fuel-efficient crossover platform that can still handle moderately rough trails.

Admittedly late to the party, can Nissan regain its place in a radically changed sport-utility market? That’s the big question the maker faces as it rolls out an all-new version of the long-running Pathfinder.

The new model is more than just a face-lift, in fact, more than the usual redesign.  The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder evolves from a classic, truck-based body-on-frame ute to a car-like unibody-based crossover.  The move has significant advantages, shaving about 500 pounds of mass to deliver a more nimble ride and fuel economy.

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But it also raises the possibility that classic SUV buyers might turn up their noses.  On the other hand, the market for classic, truck-like utes has all but vanished, so the bigger question is whether Nissan can regain the buyers who’ve migrated to competing products, such as the latest-generation Ford Explorer, that previously made the SUV to CUV migration.

The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder delivers best-in-class mileage by, in part, shedding up to 500 pounds.

Of course, it helps that Pathfinder has a long-running reputation for reliability.  It’s long been a go-too choice for buyers looking for rugged, versatile and dependable transportation. And the good news for those looking to come back to the fold is that despite the fundamental design changes, it will continue offering 5,000 pounds of towing capacity, as well as three-row seating – and substantially better mileage.

One sacrifice may be in terms of extreme off-road capabilities.  During a day-long drive in Northern California, Nissan provided the opportunity to spend some time on a relatively steep, if not excessively challenging off-road course. The new all-wheel-drive version of the 2013 Pathfinder would have been fully up to the challenge but for a couple modest reservations.

Without a low gear range and the lack of the Hill Descent Control found on many competing models, we had to work the brakes a bit more than optimal on the downward leg.  That and Hill Hold, for up-hill climbs, would be welcome additions, both on and off-road.  But to be clear, while the Pathfinder isn’t a rock climber, it’s quite capable of navigating anything the average motorist will likely run into.

The new Pathfinder's intelligent AWD system is good for trails - though adding Hill Descent Control would be a definite plus.

On the whole, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder makes the transition from off-road hellion to family vehicle with a measured amount of aplomb. It’s matured quite nicely.

The ride is certainly more refined as the head-tossing roll, which is a familiar drawback in body-on-frame SUVs has been all but eliminated. In addition, the Pathfinder can stay flat in curves or during lane changes, making the vehicle more maneuverable both in on-road cross country trips or in city driving.

The Pathfinder’s electric power-assisted hydraulic steering is now standard, and has the dual benefit of both helping improve fuel economy and responsiveness. Twin tube shock absorbers soak up bumps while maintaining a sporty drive feel.   The new Pathfinder also features 4-wheel vented disc brakes with ABS with electronic brake force distribution and electronic stability control.

Overall, the ute’s ride handling is quite civilized and, dare we say it, out on the highway the Pathfinder comfort level approaches sedan levels.

The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder offers a single engine package but a choice of FWD or AWD.

All 2013 Pathfinders come equipped with a 260-horsepower 3.5-liter DOHC V6 engine matched with a next-generation Xtronic CVT® (Continuously Variable Transmission). While it doesn’t boast quite the muscle of the past generation’s optional V-8, we expect few will miss the bigger powertrain. One reason is that the lighter 2013 Pathfinder is nearly as quick with the smaller V-6.

While the classic image might suggest buyers want a ute like Pathfinder for off-roading or towing, the reality is far different, which explains why the Nissan model has always been offered with the choice of all-wheel-drive or, in generations past, rear-wheel-drive.  The new model’s options will be either front-drive or the updated intelligent all-wheel-drive system which impressed us on the off-road course (save for the previously noted lack of Hill Descent Control).

The new exterior design is softer than the classic, boxy Pathfinder.  It may not click with some classic ute customers but is more rugged-looking, by a longshot, than the Nissan Murano. (And for those who still want a true truck-truck, there’s always the squared-off XTerra.

The Pathfinder's 3.5-liter V-6.

The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder is offered with 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels and 20-inch aluminum-alloy wheels are available with the top-line Platinum model.

The all-new interior design includes premium seating materials in all three rows. The new Advanced Driver-Assist Display, located in the center of the instrument cluster, features a 4-inch color display and utilizes natural-looking 3D-effect graphics. An available 8-inch touch-screen monitor, mounted in the middle of the instrument panel, provides intuitive interaction with a variety of vehicle systems.

But for family buyers, a big plus will be the Pathfinder’s new EZ Flex seating.  They make it far more easy to climb into the back row — which is suitable for adults, incidentally, albeit not for a cross-country drive. The seating system can even be operated with a child safety seat installed in the second row, where competitive products usually require you remove the child seats before someone can climb in back.

That includes control of the Nissan Navigation System Independent strut front suspension with stabilizer bar. The rear suspension uses a multi-link design with a stabilizer bar.

A hidden storage box is tucked into the cargo bay.

A range of available amenities are also offered, including heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, programmable Nissan Intelligent Key®, Bluetooth Hands-free Phone System, 13-speaker Bose® Premium Audio system, SiriusXM Satellite Radio (SiriusXM subscription required, sold separately), Tri-Zone Automatic Climate Control, RearView Monitor, Remote Engine Start, Tri-Zone Entertainment System and Dual Panorama Moonroof.

The Pathfinder is also equipped with the Nissan Advanced Air Bag System (including dual-stage front supplemental air bags with seat belt sensors, front seat-mounted side-impact airbags, and a roof-mounted air curtain system for rollover protection.

Nissan has been on a mission to dominate its competitors in the mileage category and that drive continues with the launch of a class-leading 2013 Pathfinder rated at 26 miles per gallon highway,20 miles per gallon city and 22 mpg combined for the 2WD model.  The all-wheel-drive Pathfinder yields 25 mpg highway, 19 mpg city and 21 mpg combined.

The new 2013 Nissan Pathfinder's CUV redesign is comfortable both on-road and off.

Prices for the Pathfinder officially start at $28,270 but the price ladder moves inexorably up with each of four different grades, topping out at $41,000.

The new Pathfinder does have a few flaws, but they are modest and few in number.  Though a sliver of today’s ute buyers might turn elsewhere in search of a “truck-truck,” that’s not where the market is trending and, even so, the sacrifices are slight. For the majority of today’s customers, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder is likely to hit the sweet spot.

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