Part I: In The Footsteps Of Kit Carson And John C. Fremont
As real life trailblazers go, General John C. Fremont was one of America's greatest. Together with frontiersman Kit Carson, they touched off the westward movement by mapping the route for wagon trains of pioneers, who made their way through the most uninhabitable and hostile terrains in the western U.S. As a result, Fremont would be hailed as a national hero and known forever as the great Pathfinder.
Can Nissan's Pathfinder blaze similar trails? Our first drive in a factory stock V8-equipped 4x4 provided some answers to its potential.
Into The Mojave
Our maiden excursion in the Pathfinder incidentally took us along a section of California's Mojave National Preserve called the Mojave Road that history suggests Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, and John C. Fremont explored back in the 1800s.
While these men would eventually go down in the history books as rugged, never-say-quit adventurers, no matter the environment or cause, our Pathfinder's off-highway ability along the Mojave Road trail would ultimately be pushed to its limits.
Unlike our early explorers, we soon discovered that the new Nissan Pathfinder really had no place being miles from nowhere without a clear-cut plan of any kind. It does have backcountry promise if you are enthusiastic to make some changes.
The Mojave Road trail stretches from Arizona to California or about 138 miles of tire-swallowing sand washes and even deeper ruts and ravines. It is nearly as harsh and potentially dangerous for all who tread there today, as it was when Fremont and Carson were mapping their way into California.
For a solid trail rig, Mojave Road is mostly easy going. But a factory stock ride will encounter some trouble. While the Nissan Pathfinder uses electronic traction controlled limited slip (ABLS) there's still only so much you should attempt to do with an open diff. The fact is we wrung out the vehicle for hours, got stuck in the sand and then punctured a tire sidewall on rocks. All in short order. Then there was the section of teeth chattering whoop-de-dos that sucked up every inch of travel we had remaining, pushing its narrow 18-inch stock tires into the wells with a sudden bang.
What You Get Stock
As a citified mid-sized SUV 4x4 (LE) starting around $33,070, the vehicle is well equipped from end-to-end: Independent double wishbone suspension with stabilizer bars (front and rear), third row seating, speed proportional power steering, shift on the fly four-wheel drive, interior cargo tie-downs, head and side airbags and four-wheel vented disc brakes with ABS to name a few things. Like many new SUVs, the Pathfinder uses an open differential that's electronically controlled to produce limited-slip whenever the computer senses a tire breaking loose.
By far the best improvement for '08 is the Pathfinder's 7,000-pound towing capacity and powerful 310-hp V-8 (388 lb-ft of torque, 32-valve DOHC) engine. That's enough performance to handle light-duty family trailers or other off-road towables. Against SUVs like the Chevy Trailblazer and Ford Explorer, the 5.6L Pathfinder is clearly a tough competitor that's been vastly improved over previous generations.
Cutting Its Path
From the start it was clear that the stock Pathfinder wasn't going to be the exceptional off-highway trail rig we had hoped, but we didn't give up. Shortly after our stock test drive, we paid a visit to Steve Kramer of Calmini Products in Bakersfield, California.
Kramer's built his share of Nissan projects and if anything could be done to this one that encourages more off-highway coolness, Kramer would be the man to do it.
In an upcoming issue, we'll show you how to get 33-inch BFG tires under the Pathfinder without cutting anything. After everything is bolted into place, we'll take you along for the first test ride in the mountains of Big Bear, California.