You can take the truck out of the wilderness, but can you take the wilderness out of the truck? That's the big question mark hovering over the 2009 Nissan Pathfinder. Built on a sturdy frame derived from the full-size Nissan Titan and Armada, the current Pathfinder definitely has its roots firmly planted in the truck world. With this lineage, the Pathfinder delivers plenty of utilitarian brawn and off-road prowess. Yet the value of this is increasingly dubious, considering what most people want out of their SUVs these days.
Thanks to its beefy engines, the Pathfinder can meet just about any towing or hauling need. Last year, Nissan made its 310-horsepower 5.6-liter V8 an option, and with it, the Pathfinder's tow ratings are competitive against competing body-on-frame SUVs like the Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Kia Borrego and Toyota 4Runner. Overall, the Pathfinder gets high marks in terms of performance, interior design/quality and bang for the buck.
Unfortunately, with trucklike ability also comes trucklike ride quality and fuel economy. The stiff ride and cramped rear seating rows also detract from the Pathfinder's positive attributes. If you need a traditional workhorse, the Pathfinder is probably worth a look, along with the Kia Borrego. But those planning on using a midsize SUV as an urban people carrier more than a toy hauler or off-road workhorse may want to consider newer car-based crossovers like the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Flex, Hyundai Veracruz or Mazda CX-9.
Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options:
The 2009 Nissan Pathfinder is a seven-passenger midsize SUV offered in four trim levels: S, SE, SE Off-Road and LE. The base S trim level includes 16-inch alloy wheels, full power accessories, cruise control, air-conditioning and a six-speaker CD stereo. The SE trim level adds 17-inch alloy wheels, running boards, foglamps, a power driver seat, a fold-flat passenger seat, a 7-inch information display, dual-zone automatic climate control, rear air-conditioning and a six-CD/MP3 changer with an auxiliary audio jack. Opting for the SE Off-Road model adds 16-inch off-road alloy wheels with rugged trail tires, Bilstein shocks, skid plates, Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist, a rearview camera, satellite radio and a sunroof. The range-topping LE is the only Pathfinder offered with the V8 and comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, keyless ignition/entry, leather upholstery, a power front passenger seat, heated front seats and steering wheel, wood grain trim, Bluetooth and a 10-speaker Bose audio system.
Most Pathfinder options are available in packaged bundles. Typically, the SE-level packages, such as the Journey Package and Premium Package, allow one to get the most of the extra features that come with the LE. Other options include a hard-drive-based navigation system with digital music storage capability and a rear-seat entertainment system.
Powertrains and Performance:
Two engine choices are offered for the 2009 Nissan Pathfinder -- a very competent 4.0-liter V6 that produces 266 hp and 288 pound-feet of torque, and a raucous 5.6-liter V8 producing 310 hp and 380 lb-ft. The Nissan's big V8 edges out the eight-cylinder power plants from Ford and Toyota, but falls short of Dodge and Jeep's thumping Hemis. Towing capacity weighs in at 6,000 and 7,000 pounds for the V6 and V8, respectively. For both engine choices, a five-speed automatic transmission is standard. Nissan offers the Pathfinder with either rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. SE Off-Road and LE V8 are 4WD only.
Acceleration is impressive for either engine choice, with the Pathfinder reaching 60 mph from a standstill in only 7.4 seconds for the V6 and an even quicker 7.0 seconds with the V8. The eight-cylinder spreads gobs of power throughout the rev range, but at the expense of fuel consumption.
EPA fuel economy ratings for the rear-wheel-drive V6 Pathfinders are estimated at 15 city/22 mpg highway and 17 mpg combined. Ordering 4WD drops the estimates down to 13/19/15 mpg. For a 4WD V8 Pathfinder, the EPA estimates 13/18/14 mpg.
As with the previous model year, the Nissan Pathfinder is equipped with antilock disc brakes and stability control as standard equipment. For 2009, side and side curtain airbags are also now standard across the entire line.
In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing, the Pathfinder was awarded four out of five stars for frontal-impact safety. Current side-impact protection results are not available, but a similarly equipped 2008 model received the highest rating -- five out of five stars. Likewise, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the 2008 Pathfinder its highest ranking of "Good" for both frontal and side-impact protection.
Interior Design and Special Features:
Inside the Nissan Pathfinder, occupants will find an attractive cabin with excellent ergonomics. Optional amenities like navigation, Intelligent Key (keyless ignition/entry), Bluetooth and a hard-drive-based music server only add to the luxurious ambience. Front seating is quite comfortable, but the same cannot be said for the other positions. Rear passengers will feel cramped, and long for more foot and shoulder room. The third row is suitable for children only, and even they will find access problematic due to the Pathfinder's high-mounted door handles and tall step-in height. Cargo space provides a maximum of 79 cubic feet -- typical for this class -- thanks to the ability of both rear rows to fold down flat.
In either engine configuration, the 2009 Nissan Pathfinder is an impressive performer. The eight-cylinder variant smokes the Ford Explorer's V8 on the way to 60 mph by a full 2 seconds, with perfectly timed, smooth gearshifts from the automatic transmission. Steering is surprisingly responsive and sharp, especially for an SUV of this size, giving it an almost sporty feel in traffic. Overall, the Pathfinder still feels more like a truck than a car-based crossover, however, with its heavy curb weight and pronounced body roll. In SE Off-Road trim, this body roll is even more evident.
There's no denying the Pathfinder's accomplishments when the pavement runs out, but for the vast majority of owners, a lumpy construction zone is as wild as it'll get. For that reason, unless your driveway looks like a hiking trail or you're expecting a coming apocalypse, you're better off choosing among the many similarly priced crossovers on the market.