Winter is the cruelest of seasons. Ice, snow and cold all conspire to make driving a hellish endeavour. Bears, birds and other furry mammals, all of which have smaller brains than us, really do have a better approach.
And while Ottawa, Ont. is known to be the coldest Capital in the world, the past three winters have been anything but brutal. Not so this year, as week after week some low pressure system from Lord-knows-where brought the suffocation of deep snow, then freezing rain followed by more snow and merciless cold. It was enough to make any driver trade in his or her wheels for anything with four-wheel drive and heavily-siped Blizzaks.
The winter of 2012-13 was also perfect for testing the all-new 2013 Nissan Pathfinder. It was the kind of winter I hope for when conducting a long-term test — a messy, ugly, dirty two months that pits the test vehicle against the worst Mother Nature can dish out. While she spared us her worst fury, we got enough attitude to seriously challenge the Pathfinder through myriad conditions, from pure ice to extreme cold to all kinds of snow.
Yet no matter what difficulty we faced, no matter how horrible or white-out the weather, the $41,000 Pathfinder SL we borrowed from Nissan Canada from January through February never faltered, never got stuck, never left us cursing at the side of the road. Despite pushing this unibody SUV through conditions that few Pathfinder owners will ever face, the seven-seater never failed to bring my family or me to our destination, which was mostly to our old cottage, where we go to escape on weekends. The tranquil place sits at the end of an unmaintained road on the shore of Bobs Lake; yet even after a 30-centimetre snowfall recently, the Pathfinder pushed through it without much effort, mostly because the 4WD system can be taken out of full-time automatic mode (or 2WD powering the front wheels) and locked to split the torque evenly between the front and rear wheels. The lock mode works well off road or in snow as the Pathfinder stoically revealed. It carried all our gear in the 1,201-1,354 cargo hold, ferrying our two sons and Chocolate Lab in comfort, their backsides cosseted by the heated rear seats, the boys’ electronics powered by a handy 120V outlet.
Rolling on good-looking 18-inch wheels wearing Michelin Latitude winter tires, the Pathfinder registered reasonable average fuel economy of 12.5L/100 km; it kept my hands warm with a lovely heated steering wheel and made every long drive a pleasant outing, such was the level of quiet found inside the cabin and a brilliant sound system. The smooth, forgiving suspension produces an especially forgiving ride. No squeaks or rattles were detected over the whole eight weeks, even with its large, rear glass roof.
The interior is smartly laid out with good storage and ample 7-inch colour monitor that displays multiple functions but also acts as the monitor for the backup camera.
The Cayenne Red Pathfinder was, in short, a thoroughly enjoyable SUV, one that proved it could quite successfully negotiate a tough and snowy Ontario winter, one that soldiered on with plenty of warmth even when the temperature bottomed out at -32C. Yes, the 2013 Pathfinder has lost its truck roots by going to a unibody structure, which will no doubt push away some of those who counted on the Pathfinder for off-road prowess. But the new design, which is much more luxurious, has proven that it’s no wimp on the back roads. It will undoubtedly appeal to families who spend a lot of time outdoors and need something that is not a minivan, something that can carry seven people plus some gear — even a trailer weighing up to 5,000 lbs. The integrated hitch and harness even looks good.
If I could change anything, it would be better highway fuel efficiency (the best I got was 10.2 L/100km), brighter headlamps, and the interior lighting might as well go all LED instead of just LED for the front two map lights. I’d do away with the faux wood trim, make the power gate open more quickly (and fix the clunk when opening). The driver’s window became slow to close in the cold and the steering could use plenty more feedback. Tow hooks up front would help, especially if carrying a canoe up top, and the Bluetooth system needs a better manual mode over and above the voice-operated commands. The two centre-console cupholders should be adaptable for various-size cups. I’d like a bit more ground clearance, but also like the ease of entry and exit with the current 6.5 inches.
Hard to believe I’m saying this, but I wouldn’t change the continuously variable transmission. While I’ve never been a fan of CVTs, Nissan’s gearbox doesn’t feel elastic like so many others. Nor is it loud. It operates efficiently, even providing what feels like a deliberate shift at various points. At 120 km/h, it allows the engine to turn at a mere 2,000 rpm. There is also a tow mode and button to disable overdrive. Having gone through transmission issues in older models before, Nissan will have — we hope — engineered this one to be bulletproof.
Coupled with this transmission, the 260 horsepower 3.5-litre V6 and its 240 lb.-ft. of torque motivate the Pathfinder well. There’s some welcoming deep snarl under acceleration. It’s no rocket, of course, in part because it weighs 1,987 kilograms, and the Pathfinder will lumber through the corners if too liberal with the throttle; but it’s as quick as it needs to be. A lover of horsepower, I don’t recall any occasion when the Pathfinder felt lethargic, though that might be different when pulling a trailer.
Essentially, the Pathfinder has become a solid, all-around family vehicle that’s hard to criticize. Nissan may have drastically altered a model with a dedicated following, but it has nonetheless created something substantially better that will ultimately do the Pathfinder nameplate proud, not to mention yield more sales. Like an old friend, it became a reliable and trustworthy companion over the long-term winter test. I’m going to miss it.
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2013 Nissan Pathfinder winter journal: So long good friend