2014 Nissan Pathfinder Driving Impressions

The 2014 Pathfinder's 3.5-liter V6 doesn't have the thrust of the 4.0-liter six that powered the third generation, particularly in the torque department; but with its reduced mass, the power-to-weight ratios work out about the same. So does acceleration from a standing start: expect 60 mph to come up in about 7.5 seconds. There's also enough thrust to make two-lane highway passing a reasonable exercise, even with family occupying all the seats.

On the other hand, while throttle response is prompt, putting the pedal to the metal doesn't always produce maximum haste. Blame the CVT for this. Nissan has done more with CVT development than any other carmaker, to exploit the virtues of this transmission type in terms of fuel economy. But big throttle demands will still provoke a bit of the asthmatic wheezing that's been a CVT characteristic, as well as the sense of slipping clutch as the transmission's belt mechanism catches up to the engine.

Some drivers are bothered by this sensation, deeming lack of actual gearchanges to be unnatural. Others are unfazed, and may even grow to appreciate the non-traditional feel of a CVT.

All but the most ardent CVT naysayers may have trouble finding fault with the performance of Nissan's new Pathfinder Hybrid. So might those who aren't ordinarily hybrid fans. In addition to accelerating with a delicious level of smoothness, the battery/gasoline version of the Pathfinder exhibits virtually none of the straining or over-revving sensation that's plagued many CVTs (hybrid and otherwise), particularly in the past.

Engine noise is carefully subdued, and the Pathfinder Hybrid's supercharged four-cylinder responds to the gas pedal with considerably more spirit than most drivers are likely to expect. Better yet, that energetic response arrives in a neatly linear fashion, enhancing the sense of smoothness.

Overall, the 2014 Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid comes across as one of the most satisfying examples on the market of this type of powertrain, extracting no penalty in either pleasure or highway capability as a tradeoff for its frugal fuel usage. For city driving, in particular, the EPA figures tell an enticing story: an estimated 25 mpg for a seven-passenger SUV. Except for the Altima Hybrid sedan that disappeared after 2011, Nissan hasn't been a big player in battery/gasoline powertrains; but it hits the hybrid mark with this Pathfinder.

One caution must be stated, however. As with other hybrids, under certain conditions, including cold weather, the gasoline engine does not shut off when the vehicle comes to a stop. So, gas mileage during those periods will be significantly less thrifty than the EPA estimates suggest.

Steering, on all Pathfinder models, falls short of some drivers' expectations. Like most carmakers, Nissan has adopted an electric power steering system, as a fuel economy measure. Also like most, the system varies power assist as a function of speed: the higher the speed, the lower the assist. However, in the Pathfinder, the system is basically numb, providing almost no tactile information to the driver. As a consequence, the driver may wind up making tiny adjustments during cornering maneuvers, matching intention to the vehicle's actual response. A relatively slow steering ratio, 3.3 turns lock to lock, doesn't do much to enhance the experience.

Still, even if the Pathfinder's dynamic persona is deemed all but devoid of fun, it has other virtues. The suspension tuning, for example, strikes an excellent balance between ride comfort and limited body roll in hard cornering. There's enough compliance to smooth out nasty patches and freeway expansion joints, with enough roll stiffness to provide decisive responses in situations requiring quick maneuvers.

Braking is a strong suit, with excellent pedal feel that makes it easy for the driver to modulate pressure.

With a long wheelbase and modest ground clearance, the latest Pathfinder isn't designed for tough off-road use. The simplified four-wheel-drive system provides three settings: front-drive, automatic (sending power to the rear wheels when the fronts begin to slip), and four-wheel lock, which fixes front/rear torque split at 50/50. It should serve well in wet, slushy, and icy road conditions, but it's not on the same page as its predecessor for serious off-roading.

Let's not forget towing. Nissan is proud of the Pathfinder's capability; 5000 pounds is high for a vehicle with front-wheel-drive architecture (Nissan claims best in class), and a noteworthy achievement for a CVT vehicle. It would resonate even better if the previous Pathfinder hadn't been capable of dragging 7000 pounds.

Still, assessed as an all-purpose family hauler, the Pathfinder's dynamics grade out quite well. The overall priority may be smooth ride and quiet comfort, but not at the expense of competence.

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