Despite the fact that the term "crossover" has proliferated throughout the automotive market, there still isn't a clear definition of what, exactly, makes such a vehicle. And perhaps that's by the very definition of the word itself – a crossover can refer to anything that blends various elements of well-established genres. In the automotive market, crossovers carry traits of not only sport utility vehicles, but family sedans and minivans, as well.
Case in point: We'd never call the truck-based body-on-frame Cadillac Escalade anything but an SUV, but does the unibody Jeep Grand Cherokee, which offers better off-road capability, really count as a crossover? Most would say no. The line between these two classes is blurred and Nissan can be held partly to blame for the confusion, having switched its Pathfinder "SUV" back and forth between body-on-frame and unibody platforms twice now. The completely redesigned 2013 Nissan Pathfinder finds itself back on a unibody platform, sharing that distinction with the second generation that was sold from 1996-2004.
It's with this in mind that we can't wholeheartedly agree with Nissan's branding of the new Pathfinder as a "next-gen SUV." Oh sure, it's a more modern offering packed with features never before found in the rugged vehicle that Nissan has offered since the mid-1980s, but is it truly an SUV? Moreover, do buyers even care about such classifications these days?
Oh, heck. The SUV is dead. Long live the SUV!
We've used this phrase dozens of times before, but you have to trust us here yet again: It looks better in person. Two-dimensional photography doesn't quite do the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder justice, though we'll admit, it's still no beauty queen. The all-new model doesn't have the same ruggedly handsome charm as the outgoing Pathfinder, but this new styling direction should indeed be more attractive to the eyes of folks who prefer softer crossovers to more traditional, boxy SUVs.
The 2013 Pathfinder is more stylized than before, incorporating a stronger character line along the side of the body that flows from the headlights down the hood, underneath the beltline and into the taillamps. The front fascia looks like something that could have come from a Saab design house, and the rear looks a bit lumpy, especially dead-on. All trims except the high-end Platinum you see here ride on 18-inch wheels that frankly look a bit small in the Pathfinder's large wheel wells, but customers who shell out the $39,170 asking price for this top trim will be rewarded with attractive 20-inch alloys wrapped in P235/55R20 Bridgestone Dueler tires.
Overall height has dropped by a full three inches, two of which are accounted for in the reduced 6.5-inch ground clearance.
Nissan's 2013 Pathfinder rides on the same platform as the recently launched Infiniti JX, and despite being swoopier and more civilized than the outgoing model, this new generation is marginally larger in all dimensions. The 114.2-inch wheelbase is two inches longer than the old Pathfinder (the body itself is nearly five inches longer overall), and the 2013 adds 4.4 inches of width, as well. In a telltale sign that this new generation is more of a crossover than an off-road bruiser, overall height has dropped by a full three inches, two of which are accounted for in the reduced 6.5-inch ground clearance that allows for better ingress and egress.
But the big gain for the new Pathfinder is all about what it didn't gain: weight. In fact, Nissan has managed to remove as much as 500 pounds from the vehicle's overall heft (depending on trim), and with a base curb weight of 4,149 pounds, the Pathfinder is lighter than most of the other three-row vehicles in its class. Our fully loaded, all-wheel-drive-equipped Platinum tester tipped the scales at 4,471 pounds – compare that to 4,935 pounds for a top-spec 2012 model and 4,731 pounds for a 2013 Ford Explorer 4x4.
That huge reduction in mass is mostly thanks to the new model's lighter-weight unibody construction, and thus, Nissan hasn't had to skimp out on interior amenities (or overall size) in order to trim things down. Overall EPA interior volume swells by a healthy 57.2 cubic feet to 157.8 total, and the end result is a cabin that feels airy, spacious and is decidedly well-appointed.
Nissan has managed to remove as much as 500 pounds from the vehicle's overall heft.
From a design standpoint, the interior has indeed made the transition from traditional SUV to more refined crossover. The outgoing cabin was awash in cold colors and sharp angles, giving it a work-before-play feel. On the other hand, this 2013 Pathfinder offers an inviting interior, especially when outfitted with the nicer leather upholstery available on the SL and Platinum trims. The sharp edges of the old dashboard have been smoothed out, hands find soft-touch materials on nearly every surface, and thoughtful touches like padded leather on the doors go the extra step to make this Pathfinder seem more like a tall luxury sedan than a rugged all-rounder.
Giving credit where credit's due, we cannot thank Nissan enough for bringing its Around View Monitor technology over to the Pathfinder. It's honestly one of the best gadgets currently offered across the entire automotive market, and once you've used it in a tight parking situation, you'll wish every large vehicle had this composite overhead view as standard equipment. Speaking of tech, there's a host of other excellent amenities in the Pathfinder, including a full navigation/infotainment system, good-sounding Bose premium audio system (available on SL and Platinum trims only), a tri-zone DVD entertainment system, every conceivable alphanumeric safety system and Nissan's new Easy-Fill tire inflation system that honks the horn when tires are inflated to their optimum spec. That last feature is stupidly easy to use and falls under the "Why didn't we think of this before?" category; look for it to spread across nearly the entire Nissan line in the coming years, and don't be surprised if Federal authorities put the tech on their wish lists, too.
Equally nifty and family-friendly is a second row that allows you to slide the outboard passenger seat forward without needing to remove a child seat. (No, this isn't a minivan.) We climbed into the third row seats this way without issue, though adults will certainly feel more comfortable in the second row where there's a newfound heaping of leg- and headroom, along with no-brainer conveniences like cupholders in the door armrests and levers to slide and recline. Want a more upscale six-passenger seating configuration with captain's chairs in the middle row? You'll have to look elsewhere. But when it comes time to haul, all seats behind the first row fold flat to allow for 79.8 cubic feet of cargo space.
Want a more upscale six-passenger seating configuration with captain's chairs in the middle row? You'll have to look elsewhere.
All of this will surely impress while sitting in a parking lot, but there's a pretty rewarding experience to be had out on the road, too. Nissan let us loose on the roads around Napa Valley and had us blast down gorgeous stretches of asphalt ribbon that line the California coast, and while we definitely won't call the 2013 Pathfinder a hoot to drive – it isn't meant to be, after all – there's still a good deal to like about what's offered.
Truth be told, we didn't exactly have high hopes for the Pathfinder's on-road performance going in to our test. After all, on paper, the powertrain data doesn't seem all that impressive, and when West Coast Editor Michael Harley drove the Pathfinder's upscale Infiniti JX twin earlier this year, he walked away from his test stating that "as a driving machine, it completely failed to raise our pulse." Yikes. But a milquetoast Infiniti does not a bad Nissan make.
Under the hood is the Japanese automaker's familiar 3.5-liter VQ35DE V6, delivering 260 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 240 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. Compared to the last-generation Pathfinder, these are decreases of six horses and 48 lb-ft, and the old model could even be fitted with a more powerful (and thirsty) 5.6-liter V8 with 310 hp and 388 lb-ft. What's more, the old Pathfinder's conventional automatic transmission (a five-speed) has been swapped out in favor of Nissan's revamped Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission. And before you roll your eyes and groan, hear us out – it isn't bad.
Compared to the last-generation Pathfinder, these are decreases of six horses and 48 lb-ft.
The problem we have with CVTs isn't necessarily their operation, it's the God-awful noise that usually comes with them – there's nothing worse than listening to an uninspiring-sounding engine spin endlessly at a high rpm under acceleration. This sort of phenomenon definitely still exists in less-than-stellar cars like the Versa, but here in the Pathfinder, the CVT is a well-behaved companion. We wouldn't call it a joy to have the continuously variable unit on board, but really, it could be worse. Thankfully, the 3.5-liter VQ V6 makes a fairly pleasant sound, and with so much sound-deadening material, it won't disrupt the conversation or music playing in the cabin.
Nissan has essentially used the same formula that worked on the 2013 Altima sedan to improve fuel economy here in the Pathfinder, with the CVT really doing much of the legwork. The V6 itself has essentially been left alone from its various other applications over the past few years, but the transmission's 40-percent reduction in internal friction and use of a drive chain specifically designed for the Pathfinder helps it stay competitive in terms of overall performance. Long story short: Nissan can claim best-in-class six-cylinder fuel economy numbers for the 2013 Pathfinder, which in front-wheel-drive trim will achieve 26 miles per gallon on the highway (20 city). Adding all-wheel drive reduces those numbers to 19 city and 25 highway, but that's bad either, especially considering these numbers represent improvements of 5/5 mpg city/highway versus the old 4.0-liter four-wheel drive model. And from what we saw in the onboard readout during our drive through California, we don't doubt those numbers will absolutely be achievable in the real world. CVT or not, there's something to be said for a transmission that spins the engine at only 1,800 rpm while doing 70 miles per hour.
We drove both front- and all-wheel-drive Pathfinders during our time on the west coast, one riding on the smaller 18-inch wheels and the other – painted in Arctic Blue Metallic – on the 20s. Both offered a solid, stable, smooth ride, and this large crossover honestly didn't hate being pointed down more engaging roads, though again, this is not an enthusiast's machine.
Nissan can claim best-in-class six-cylinder fuel economy numbers for the 2013 Pathfinder.
The car-based platform means the Pathfinder no longer has that trucky feeling that traditional SUV drivers are used to. Instead, things are refined, with key elements of the driving experience all dialed in nicely for a 4,000-pound machine. The steering is a bit light and numb for our tastes – Ford does a better job in the Explorer – but the brakes, throttle response and handling are easily better than what the Blue Oval delivers. Most importantly, the Pathfinder just plain feels lighter and more nimble than its competitors, so you don't ever get the impression that you're driving a giant barge down the road. It's in no way fatiguing to drive for long distances.
Available on all models is Nissan's All-Mode 4x4-i system that allows you to switch between front- and all-wheel drive on the fly, as well as giving drivers a fully automatic mode. Left to its own devices, the auto mode will split the torque between the front and rear axles as much as it sees fit based on amounts of wheel spin, though it's important to note that the system does have a front bias and will never send a full 100 percent of its power to the rear wheels. Click the center console-mounted knob all the way to the right and you'll be in full 4WD Lock, using a 50/50 torque split at all times.
Nissan let us loose on a small off-road course to demonstrate the system's capability, and it coped well with modest tests like steep grades any hilly pastures. We don't expect any Pathfinder owners to take them mudding through the woods or down rocky trails, and neither does Nissan. It's a fine system, but if off-road prowess is your thing, the Ford Explorer will do you one better with its Terrain Management system.
We don't expect any Pathfinder owners to take them mudding through the woods or down rocky trails, and neither does Nissan.
The Pathfinder may be, in most regards, better to drive than the rest of its competitive set, but much like the JX, it's hardly exhilarating. That may not be what we look for in an Infiniti, but here with a Nissan badge, it's absolutely acceptable and not anything to complain about. With well-sorted steering, braking and handling, three-row CUV shoppers would be smart to shop the Pathfinder, if only because it's simply easier to drive than the others without feeling numb or totally uninspired.
Pricing for the 2013 Pathfinder starts at $28,270 for a front-wheel-drive S model and can climb as high as $40,770 for an all-wheel-drive Platinum. That excludes options like the $2,300 Platinum Premium Package (tri-zone entertainment, panoramic moonroof) and $400 Trailer Tow Package (with a 5,000-pound tow rating), but even so, a fully decked-out Pathfinder tops out at $44,295 including $825 for destination. A similarly equipped Explorer Limited goes for just under $50,000, though the latter does include features not available on the Nissan including Xenon headlamps and more luxurious six-passenger seating.
Speaking of Ford, there's a lesson to be learned here regarding the whole SUV/CUV dilemma. When the Dearborn automaker launched the 2011 Explorer, it ditched the body-on-frame architecture of the previous model in favor of a unibody platform, and the results have proven successful. Ford sold over 135,000 Explorers in 2011, compared with just 60,000 of its dated utility in 2010. Considering the fact that Nissan managed to move only around 26,000 Pathfinders in 2011, there's vast room for growth here.
Considering the fact that Nissan managed to move only around 26,000 Pathfinders in 2011, there's vast room for growth here.
So regardless of what you call it – crossover, SUV, whatever – Nissan has a people mover on its hands with the potential to do great things for its maker here in the US, especially in this three-row, family-friendly segment. It may blur the lines of traditional classes even further, but we don't think buyers will be put off. By offering a well-appointed cabin, lots of functionality and decent driving dynamics wrapped in a sleek (well, sleeker) new wrapper, we don't see how this new Pathfinder could be anything less than successful.