Like a ballet dancer who would prefer to be a Sumo wrestler, the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder has aspirations that exceed its talents.
That's not a condemnation; simply a fact. The all-new Pathfinder is a graceful three-row crossover utility vehicle that would fit the needs of many families, including some who have graduated from minivans.
But it promises more than it can deliver. It is the legacy of a vehicle that has alternated between a truck chassis and automobile underpinnings. Now it has likely forever abandoned its rugged sport utility past in favor of a softer, more comfortable and economical personality.
The difference between a truck-based SUV and a car-based crossover is substantial. Generally, an SUV uses body-on-frame construction, has rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive and, because of its greater weight, requires a more powerful and thirsty engine. It also rides harder, has off-road capabilities and can tow heavy loads.
A crossover, on the other hand, has a unit body like a car, comes with front-wheel or all-wheel drive, and can get by with a smaller and more economical engine. It usually has a better ride and handling, but little off-road or towing capability.
The new Pathfinder is a fraternal twin of the Infiniti JX from Nissan's luxury division. They use many of the same components, like the multi-adjustable second-row seat, but the JX is unabashedly a luxury vehicle with a striking, comfortable interior and no interest in venturing anywhere off of paved roads or hauling big loads.
No doubt because of its SUV past -- and a desire to satisfy loyalists -- the Pathfinder has different aspirations. For example, the JX lists a towing capability of 3,500 pounds; the Pathfinder is set up to pull 5,000. This is despite the fact that both vehicles use the same engine and similar transmissions.
The power plant is a 260 horsepower (265 on the JX), 3.5-liter V6 linked to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), a unit that uses belts and adjustable pulleys to deliver seamless acceleration without shift points. Because the Pathfinder came to the market after the JX, it uses an upgraded version of the CVT.
The JX has a manual shift mode, but the Pathfinder also has a switchable drive system. Where the JX is always in all-wheel drive, which varies the power to the wheels under different driving conditions, the Pathfinder's system can be switched from front-drive to all-wheel drive and a lockup mode. The last mimics the part-time four-wheel drive systems on many SUVs and pickup trucks.
It is a nod to the Pathfinder's past as an SUV between 1986-1995 and 2005-2012. Those vehicles had true off-road virtues with the capabilities to slog along on muddy forest trails and other wilderness venues.
The new Pathfinder doesn't come close. The adjustable drive system and an unexceptional 6.5-inch ground clearance when empty allow for some limited off-road duties, as long as the going doesn't get too tough.
Also, the Pathfinder is no great towing machine. Handling gets a bit spooky even with loads less than its upper limit. If you want to test the maximum capability, you'll need to install an aftermarket trailer brake.
On the other hand, the seven-passenger Pathfinder is a great people hauler without the perceived stigma of a minivan. It has a sliding second-row seat to divvy up legroom between the second and third rows and, like the JX, has a clever modification. The right-side seat can be folded for third-row access even with a child seat installed.
It also comes in enough versions to fit different family budgets. The base front-drive Pathfinder S with the CVT has a sticker price of $29,050 -- less than some compact crossovers. It delivers alloy wheels, tri-zone climate control, 18-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, power windows, remote locking and an audio system with a six-disc CD changer -- in short, just about anything anyone would need. The upholstery is a comfortable cloth.
Handling is competent, power is adequate and the ride, though a bit lumpy on rough surfaces, is not tiring over long distances.
Of course, some buyers will want more luxury, as in the tested Platinum all-wheel drive model. With leather upholstery and a host of convenience items, it is nearly as luxurious as its sibling Infiniti JX -- at a lower price. The full load tester had a bottom line sticker of $43,850. A 2013 JX tested earlier came in at $49,450.
2013 Nissan Pathfinder veers from powerful past