Designing a new four-by from a clean sheet of paper is not an easy task. And we give Nissan credit for accepting the challenge and not pulling any punches. The new Nissan Pathfinder, debuting in 1997, was from a completely new blueprint, with the mission of expanding performance in every category. The 3.0-liter V-6 went through a thorough freshening for greater low- and top-end performance, as well as gaining an extra ten percent in size. In addition to a smoother 3.3-liter powerplant, Nissan engineers traded the body-on-frame configuration in favor of the more-tunable unibody chassis design.
Our initial impressions during our '97 Four Wheeler of the Year had us thinking this new four-door could have the best on-road feel of any sport-ute in its class. And that the Pathfinder's off-highway competency had been retained. To check ourselves, we opted for a new Pathfinder in our long-term fleet.
Our Pathfinder came equipped with the Off Road package that includes the largest available tire, external spare tire carrier, some skidplating, and a limited-slip differential. The package also included a set of side-step bars, which we removed-not because we didn't like how they looked but to save them from trail dings. Although they can act as trail protection in jagged terrain, we decided to store the steps and keep them free of inevitable scratches and bends. Thus far, the body panels are without a dent. We opted for the five-speed manual transmission for better gearing and a slightly sportier feel (First gear in the automatic is 2.79:1; the manual is 3.58:1). We think the five-speed is better match to the 3.3-liter V-6 for owners who like to drive.
All Pathfinders come with the new cast-iron block, aluminum-head, single-overhead-cam, 60-degree V-6 engine. Nissan lists the horsepower output at 168 at 4,800 rpm, with 196 lb.-ft. at 2,800 rpm. Although these numbers may not be stellar, they get the relatively light (3,900-pound) four-by moving off the line pretty quick. Also, there was obviously some tuning-time put into the throaty sounds on the exhaust side that didn't go unnoticed by our testers. Comments on the board included, "Better than the radio," "Sounds best when pushed," and "How does a V-6 sound so deep?" Sound aside, we can say that the new V-6 feels good, delivers on-ramp satisfaction and ready passing power on the highway.
The biggest change in direction for Nissan engineers was with the chassis. Moving away from the ladder-bar frame design to the more carlike unibody structure allowed for some big improvements in ride and handling. MacPherson-type front struts and rack and pinion steering combine to make the Pathfinder the most refined and forgiving setup we've seen in the compact segment. That makes sense to us, given the design team that created the Pathfinder knew that a premium luxury vehicle (the Infiniti QX4) would have to be based on the same platform.
Because of the chassis design, the Pathfinder has one of the smoothest transition feels we've had the chance to take up snaking mountains passes. The soft shock valving and coil rates of the suspension, combined with speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering, make for a pleasantly agile vehicle on higher-speed mountain roads. The Pathfinder never threw us into or out of a corner. The steering setup allows this import to dive and jump out smoothly with relative ease, with the coil-link rearend glued to the ground. It's clear the design team and test-track engineers spent countless hours fine-tuning this setup to tame the most treacherous broken and paved-road scenarios. Likewise, several testers noted the fluidity of the clutch engagement: "There is no jump or lurch, even if you (heaven forbid) pop the clutch," one driver commented. Braking, as well, is tuned to engage gradually, progressively, using almost the entire stroke of the pedal.
In addition, it's not often we comment about OEM tires, but the 235/70R15 Bridgestone Dueler HTs deserve some note. Clearly biased for street performance and fuel economy, they were remarkably quiet during moments where other tires we've tested sung out high and loud. Even on the trail, we found the aired-down HTs gave us enough traction at the right moments to keep things predictable. To compensate for a more street-biased tread, we took our 235s down to 15 psi for more contact patch to combat the rocky terrain. It seemed to help, and certainly improved our ride quality-but we also lost an inch and a half of overall ground clearance. That made us thankful we removed the factory sidesteps.
There were other aspects of the new Pathfinder, usually at moments on the trail, that left us wanting. Specifically, the Pathfinder was left at the previous-generation's rather highly geared 2.02:1 low-range. With the manual transmission, we found ourselves stalling the engine occasionally, and desperately searching for the clutch defeat switch. There is none. As it stood, where the rear limited-slip couldn't help, we played the E-brake like a violin to get us through the rough spots. The rack-and-pinion setup, generally a subject of debate among trail-oriented buyers, has so far been no problem. The unibody has not shown any tendency to flex on the trail when doors are opened. We have no paint chipping or other symptoms to report in that regard.
Thus far, our Pathfinder has performed quite well, with only one regularly scheduled dealer service stop at 7,500 miles. With the exception of a recalibrated airbag sensor (flashing dash light) and a CD-player sensitivity adjustment (it was skipping when we changed lanes), our lube, filters, and oil change totaled $69.95. With close to 8,500 miles under its belt, our Pathfinder rarely ran below 15 mpg, with a best tankful running 17.9. Our "worst" (we did do most of this tank in low-range on a high-elevation mountain trail) was 11.5 mpg. After 30 fuel pump stops, with an average price per gallon at $1.35, we never needed more than a $20 bill at the fill-up station.
As with any significant redesign, risks must be taken and compromises made. The new Pathfinder is now a more refined sport-ute, still very sporty and easy to drive. More interior creature comforts, a surprisingly compliant chassis and suspension, as well as an on-road-biased, civilized start and stop strategy, all combine to make the new Pathfinder just right for those who don't want their four wheelers too hot or too cold. In the import arena, it could the on-road standard others will try to match.