Nissan goes for softer stance in Pathfinder

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Nissan Pathfinder fits the bill for those who value a large 4WD for its on-road load-carrying and towing capacities. Photos David Thomson/Supplied

Nissan is expecting a strong showing from its latest Pathfinder, which represents a marked change in appoach from the model it replaces. David Thomson has been spending time behind the wheel.

Off-roading purists may shudder at the way in which Nissan has turned its back on old-school four-wheel-drive fundamentals with the latest Nissan Pathfinder, but if the Japanese company has called shifting market taste correctly, the new model could become the sales success its predecessor never was.

Longer and wider, and using modified road-car underpinnings rather than a separate chassis, the new Pathfinder is pitched at those who want a large SUV for its family-carrying capacity first and foremost.

The visual differences between old and new are striking, with very little - if anything - in the way of styling cues carrying over. Most obviously, the new Pathfinder is curvaceous and rounded where its predecessor was square and chiselled. If you are wanting some hard data to support the apparent move away from a rugged demeanour and all-terrain capability, it can be found in two key areas: ground clearance has been reduced by almost 90mm, to a mere 165mm; the vehicle's approach angle, which determines the changes in slope it can handle without crunching the nose, drops from 33deg to 14.7deg.

One might also look to the Pathfinder's transmission of choice - the latest version of Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable setup rather than an auto or manual - to confirm the softening of the Pathfinder's stance. The same conclusions could be reached by considering its space-saver spare wheel and the absence of any low-ratio transfer case.

One of the benefits of the new Pathfinder's lower stance is easy access into a cabin that impresses both for its roominess and flexibility.

Most of that flexibility is packed into the middle and rear row of seats and the boot, the capacity of which ranges from a respectable 400 litres with all three rows of seats up, to a cavernous 2260 litres with all but the front pair of seats folded flat. Add to this a 2700kg (braked) towing capacity, and the Pathfinder excels as a load-carrier.

Raising and lowering one or both of the rear pair of seats is made simple by Nissan's EZ Flex system. The middle seating row is split 60:40 and slides forward easily to allow access to the back of the cabin. The middle seats are positioned fairly high to provide a good view, and include both fore, aft and back angle adjustments as well as a fold-down centre armrest with integrated cup-holders.

Nissan has chosen to open the Kiwi Pathfinder range with a $54,990 2WD ST variant for those who really do not want four-wheel drive, as well as a $59,990 4WD ST.

These models are pretty well-equipped, with a standard features list that includes parking sensors and a rear-view camera, a power-adjusting driver's seat, push-button start, tri-zone climate control, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, cruise control, and seven-inch centre display screen.

However, the test car was the flagship $65,990 Ti 4WD. It comes with a further array of features including leather trim, heated front seats (both power-adjusting), a power-operated front sunroof and fixed rear panorama sunroof, heated mirrors and front fog lamps.

Taking in the vehicle from the driver's seat, I was immediately struck by the sense of space. The seat was wide and supportive, the headroom was generous, and the broad centre console included a decent-sized storage bin.

While the cabin was very nicely finished and instruments and key controls neatly laid out, a touchscreen (such as that fitted to Nissan's new Altima saloon) would have been preferable to the combination of a centre dial and associated switchgear used to control several of the Pathfinder's systems. In particular, while the Bluetooth audio connection was great once operating, setting it up required a patient few minutes with the vehicle's manual in hand.

Nissan's decision on engines for the Pathfinder is an interesting one, involving, as it does, the choice between a conventional 3.5-litre 190kW/325Nm V6 petrol engine (as tested) and a hybrid (not here yet, but surely coming soon). The hybrid will offer frugality comparable to that of a diesel, but the probable economy gains of around 20% compared to the V6 petrol will need to be considered against a probable 30% reduction in towing capacity.

In the meantime, the V6 ST 4WD, as tested, managed to better the Pathfinder's standard cycle consumption figure of 10.2l/100km on the highway components of the test, but the overall return on a drive programme that also included urban and light off-road motoring was 11.6 l/100km.

When the going gets tough, the V6 needs to be worked hard to deliver its best via the vehicle's CVT gearbox. Otherwise it is smooth and obliging, with sufficient pep to make light work of everyday motoring.

Round town, one is conscious of the vehicle's considerable size but with light controls and good visibility urban driving is easy enough. Out on the open road, the new Pathfinder covers the ground smoothly so long as the twists and turns are not too tight; when they are, it ploughs into gentle understeer if pushed too hard, though not nearly to the extent of its predecessor.

It is a fine-riding and remarkably quiet highway cruiser, too. These qualities were appreciated over half a day spent traversing a fairly gentle Central Otago back-country gravel and dirt trail. Anything more onerous than that trip, which involved half a dozen small water crossings (cue to select the transmission's locked 4WD mode) and a few mildly rutted sections of track, would have pushed the vehicle beyond its comfort zone.

Stay within that comfort zone though, and the Pathfinder 2014-style fits the bill for those who value a large 4WD more for its on-road load-carrying and towing capacities than for its go-anywhere ability.

Nissan goes for softer stance in Pathfinder
At a Glance

NISSAN PATHFINDER TI 4WD

Rating: Three and a-half stars

For: Roomy and flexible cabin, ride comfort and refinement, towing capacity

Against: Thirst of petrol engine, limited off-road prowess

Verdict: Placing Pathfinder on, rather than off, the beaten track is the right call for the times

SPECIFICATIONS

Price (as tested): $65,990

Engine: 3498cc six-cylinder petrol, max power 190kW, max torque 325Nm

Transmission: Xtronic CVT, variable four-wheel drive

Brakes and stability systems: ABS, VDC, EBD, BA

Safety rating: Five-star Euro NCAP

Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 235/65 R18 tyres

Fuel and economy: 91 octane petrol, 10.2 litres per 100km on standard cycle. 73-litre capacity

Dimensions: Length 5008mm, width 1960mm, height 1768mm