2009 Nissan Pathfinder SE 4×4 Review
By Chris Haak
Save perhaps the new-for-2009 Kia Borrego, which we have yet to test at Autosavant (though that will be remedied soon), the Nissan Pathfinder may be the best, most credible entry in the midsize traditional SUV segment. Unfortunately for Nissan, that’s like saying you have the driest stateroom on the Titanic. Midsize body on frame SUVs are simply a dying breed, in many cases suffering steeper sales declines than even their full-size cousins, as casual SUV buyers flee to sedans and crossovers, and only those who truly have large families or need the cargo and towing capability of the Expeditions and Suburbans of the world still buy those vehicles.
The current Pathfinder is in its third generation, tracing its lineage back to the Nissan Hardbody pickup-based version introduced in 1986. The first Pathfinder was a body on frame two-door SUV, but Nissan elected to add rear doors in 1990 to avoid a punitive US tariff on imported two-door SUVs and pickups. The Pathfinder’s second generation, which made its debut in 1996, switched to a unibody platform while maintaining its off road capabilities (similar to the current Jeep Grand Cherokee’s setup). The 1996-2004 Pathfinder was unrelated to the Nissan Frontier pickup because the pickup continued to be built as a body on frame vehicle. Finally, the current Pathfinder was first sold during the 2005 model year, and switched back to a body on frame architecture, again sharing its styling and much of its underpinnings with the Nissan pickups and other SUVs.
Nissan took an interesting approach to the current Pathfinder’s engineering a few years ago, and probably would not have done the same thing again knowing what they know today about gas prices and the lack of consumer interest in SUVs. However, the Pathfinder shares Nissan’s F-Alpha truck platform with the full-size Armada and QX56 SUVs, the full-size Titan pickup, the midsize Frontier pickup and XTerra SUVs. The robust frame makes for a solid foundation, but also added around 500 pounds on top of the unibody 2004 Pathfinder’s weight. While some of that heft improved off road and towing capabilities, as well as adding a enough space for a fairly small third row, two-position seat, we hopefully won’t see many redesigned vehicles packing on 500 pounds, since that’s not a recipe for great fuel economy.
The Pathfinder’s styling is almost excessively truckish and rugged looking. That being said, I am a fan of it, and apparently so was the designer of the Dodge Nitro, which is as close to a clone as you’ll find in the segment. For the 2008 model year, the Pathfinder’s styling was refreshed with a slightly less-brutish shape in the front end. Without seeing the 2005-2007 and 2008-2009 models side-by-side, it’s pretty tough to spot the external differences, with the newer models having a slightly more swept-back look in the nose. The styling on the sides is pretty nondescript with the exception of huge fender flares. They aren’t tacked-on plastic, either; they are part of the sheetmetal, and really kind of spruce up an exterior that could charitably be called “functional.” Flush-fitting glass? Nope, not here, except between the C- and D-pillars. The front doors have conventional horizontal exterior handles, but the rear doors have handles about a foot higher (at the height of the windows), which is a common quirky trait of all Nissan SUVs and hearkens back to the original Pathfinder that was a four-door variant of the original two-door Pathfinder. The SE model that I tested had body color moldings, which aren’t as sharp-looking as the chrome-enhanced ones included in the uplevel LE model.
Inside, the Pathfinder’s age is starting to show. Frankly, the interior materials are no longer up to modern standards. The door panels are hard grey plastic with soft vinyl armrests; the top of the dash is also hard plastic. The weakest point of the 2005-2007 Pathfinder’s interior was its center stack, which had Chinese-grade HVAC controls and a non-intuitive series of 16 identical buttons below the navigation screen. The 2008 update replaced only the center stack with a higher-quality (albeit still hard plastic) version with improved ergonomics. My test vehicle had the appearance of a navigation screen, but in reality, the LCD screen is for everything – fuel economy, HVAC mode, audio display, and rearview camera – but navigation. Pathfinders that are equipped with navigation have parallel user interfaces of a rotating knob below the screen as well as touchscreen capabilities. My test vehicle, however, had the rotating knob for input only, which wasn’t a very big deal since it didn’t require nearly as much user input as navigation usage does.
The leather seating surfaces on the first two rows of seats (vinyl on the third row) felt reasonably soft, but the padding beneath the surface didn’t feel supportive enough on longer stints. Spend an hour in the front seats, and they feel fine, but spend two hours, and your rear end starts to fall asleep. Speaking of seats, there just is not enough length in the Pathfinder to comfortably fit three rows into a vehicle that isn’t terribly long. The consequence is that there isn’t much legroom in any of the three rows. For tall people like me, adjusting the front seat to a comfortable distance from the dashboard meant that there wasn’t much room left behind the driver’s seat in the second row. The third row, predictably, is far smaller than the third rows of similarly-sized crossovers.
Under the Pathfinder’s hood is a 4.0 liter version of Nissan’s ubiquitous VQ series of V6 engines. The engine produces 266 horsepower and 288 lb-ft of torque, and is coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission. Although the VQ is a very well-regarded engine family, it’s not known for it smoothness. In this application – whether it’s because the engine is larger than the VQ’s typical 3.5 liter displacement, or because the Pathfinder might not have as much sound insulation as the other Nissan and Infiniti products I’ve driven with the 3.5 liter V6 – the engine is not the quietest or smoothest, particularly in the higher RPM ranges. I have no criticism, however, of the engine’s output. Zero to sixty times aren’t anywhere near sportscar-like, but considering the Pathfinder’s curb weight (4,801 pounds), the mid-eight second range is more than respectable. For additional smoothness and/or towing capacity, Nissan has offered a V8 engine option in the top-of-the-line LE model since the 2008 model year. The V8 produces 310 horsepower (44 more) and a substantial 388 lb-ft of torque (100 more). The V8 allows the Pathfinder to tow 7,000 pounds versus 6,000 pounds in the V6-equipped models. Fuel economy ratings are 14 city/20 highway for 4×4 V6 models such as my test vehicle and 13 city/18 highway for the V8 4×4 models. These figures are substantially below the Pathfinder’s crossover competition, but on par with the Chevrolet Trailblazer I6 (also rated at 14/20) and behind the Trailblazer V8 (rated at 14/20). Mid/large three-row crossovers, however, blow the Pathfinder out of the water in terms of fuel economy. The Highlander 4×4 is rated at 17/24, the Pilot 4×4 is rated at 16/22, and the Chevrolet Traverse is rated at 16/23.
On the road, the Pathfinder has a better ride than do its competitors with solid rear axles such as the soon-to-be-canceled Trailblazer because of its independent rear suspension. In fact, its ride is about as carlike as is possible in a traditional SUV. It still handles pretty awfully, thanks to its tall body and the laws of physics, coupled with tires that howl when navigating the truck around corners instead of gripping the road. I don’t think that any reasonable owner would ask the Pathfinder to hug curves, however. In fact, I didn’t bother taking the Pathfinder to my secret set of curvy roads to put it through its paces because doing so would have been any combination of not fun, dangerous, and proving something I already knew.
Pricing for the midlevel SE 4×4 model that I tested starts at $33,255 including destination. My tester also included the $1,300 Journey Package (17″ alloy wheels, rearview monitor, HomeLink, roof rail, and auto dimming rearview mirror), the $1,000 Power Moonroof Package, the $1,750 Premium Package (10-speaker Bose stereo, Bluetooth, Intelligent Key, and XM Satellite Radio), and the $1,850 Leather Package. The grand total, including destination, was a significant $39,310. Nissan currently has a $1,000 customer rebate on the Pathfinder, and they are available pretty close to invoice price even before the rebate if you’re a decent negotiator.
The 2009 Pathfinder SE 4×4 is a solid, capable vehicle that does what it’s asked to do. It’s not as spacious, efficient, or comfortable as some of its newer crossover competitors, but also manages to out-tow all of them, while maintaining far better off road capabilities for those who plan to take their Pathfinders further from the beaten path than a gravel road. However, unfortunately for Nissan, the number of buyers who genuinely need that capability but don’t want a full-size truck is dwindling rapidly, to the point that the next-generation Pathfinder is likely to move back to the unibody camp.
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