AutomobilesExtra

[REVIEW] 2014 Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid – An old name for a new way of thinking

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As a small boy, one of my favourite toys was a scale model of a Nissan Hardbody pickup truck. I carried that toy truck almost everywhere I went, keeping it in pristine condition. Even customizing it as it got older.

Using a fine tip silver pen, I strategically painted in the matte black plastic areas to simulate a chrome brushguard. I even added tiny luminescent strips to simulate the turn signals and lighting.

I scoured the pages of car brochures and magazines to find the right sized Nissan logos to simulate decals on my beloved toy truck. But not just any magazine would do. The paper stock had to be thick enough to match the longevity of the truck. This, ladies and gentlemen, was arts and crafts to me. Yup, my love/obsession with cars goes back that far.

Who knew that 27 years later in the making, my little pickup truck would lay see its claim to fame as the foreword in my review of the Nissan Pathfinder.

It’s almost like fate…like kismet.

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History

My first experience in a Nissan Pathfinder was around the age of 10. My classmate Stuart (Hi Stuart!) was picked up and dropped off from elementary school by his mom in a red Pathfinder.

On a school field trip day, I was assigned to his car as his mom chaperoned us to the UBC museum of Anthropology.

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Back in those days, the Nissan Pathfinder was based on the Nissan Hardbody pickup truck, just like my scale model toy. Over the next 2 generations, the Pathfinder would continue to be built this way, honing its reputation as a tough machine.

And as such, the previous generation Nissan Pathfinder was genuinely capable in the rough stuff. For the first time ever, its cabin even offered seven-seater versatility.

However, because it was still based on the Nissan Frontier, it rode and handled like the pickup truck that it shared its chassis with, and was outmatched by more civilized unibody-based competitors with their car-like handling and ride characteristics

Although the previous gen Pathfinder still garnered loyal fans, especially due to its ability to tow heavier loads as a result of its body-on-frame construction and available 5.6L V8, its rough and tumble nature didn’t win enough new fans, especially from those who were looking to buy an SUV for the school run.

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Traditional fans of the Pathfinder name may lament the death of the SUV as it used to be, but the sales numbers tell the story. In the past, Nissan used to sell two Pathfinders for every Xterra SUV. With this new 4th generation Pathfinder, they sell five for every Xterra sold.

Like it or not, Nissan is a business and in the words of our favourite Dragon (or Shark, depending on which show you watch), Kevin O’Leary, they have to “make moneeey”.

The Exterior Looks

Pathfinder three-quarter front

In a nutshell the 2014 model is attractive, has a dose of Nissan DNA (at least from the front), but is also now rather generic past the A-pillar.

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While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the design is forgettable, unlike some of my fellow automobile journalists out there. But I will concede that it is pretty telling that Nissan has finally given into years of Consumer Reports’ complaining, and even done away with the trademark Pathfinder high mounted C-pillar rear door handles.

Consumer Reports has long groused about this quirky Pathfinder characteristic, saying that the high mounted door handles were out of reach for small children.

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And so this gives us a first indication as to what today’s Pathfinder is designed to be. A proper kid and family-friendly 7 passenger seating crossover SUV.

But all hope is not lost for traditionalists. If you want a mid-sized off-road capable SUV that you can take off-road, you can still go for the Nissan Xterra.

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With its chrome nose, the Pathfinder still looks somewhat brutish, truckish. I think it still gives buyers the tougher SUV, minivan-rejecting look that they’re looking for. Moving further further back though, the shape blends into a more generic rounded SUV tail-end.

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I think Nissan’s designers have done a good job here in keeping the Pathfinder looking more SUV and less minivanish. While the Hyundai Santa Fe XL, one of the Nissan’s main competitors, has a prettier nose, the Pathfinder has a better looking rump that will be sure to avoid any comparisons with the dreaded “v” word.

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Finished in a classy dark blue paint job (called Artic Blue Metallic) and attractive 20” two toned wheels, my top level Platinum Premium-trimmed Pathfinder was definitely still pleasing to the eyes.

But wait, there’s more! These little badges on the front doors and tailgate are a hint of something a bit more special, or at least more unique, with my test vehicle.

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Yup, for the first time ever, the Pathfinder is now available in hybrid form, entering a relatively empty space in the market place that is currently only occupied by the other non-luxury three-row hybrid crossover, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

Aside from the special badging, the hybrid Pathfinders are fitted with unique LED tail lamps that are unavailable on the purely petrol powered models. Otherwise, else is essentially the same. A good thing especially when we delve into the cabin.

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The Cabin

The Pathfinder’s interior won its way to the prestigious WardsAuto World 10 Best Interiors list for 2013 and it’s not difficult to see why. Inside there is a neatly trimmed interior. Everything is put together very nicely, in typical Nissan fashion. Functional, pleasant but a bit boring. The dashboard plastics are hard, so you’ll have to go to luxury branded Infiniti for soft-touch materials.

But at least the textures and grain look nice, match well, and seem like they’ll last decades. Even the plastic wood trim is decent.

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A large 8” touchscreen display is mounted high up for easy viewing. The Platinum Premium trim includes the Nissan Navigation System with NavTraffic real-time traffic information (via SiriusXM), streaming audio via Bluetooth, and a standard RearView monitor.

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The buttons are refreshingly simple with clear fonts and good sizing. I really liked the hard button controls for the climate and audio system. Much better than the half-baked unresponsive touchscreen nonsense from other cars.

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However that being said, I wish Nissan took a stand in some respects. For some information displays, you have to use a mix of the hard button and touchscreen controls and it can be slight confusing at times which is what.

With the Platinum you also get a class-exclusive AroundView Monitor system which gives the driver a virtual 360-degree image of the area around the vehicle. The system uses a front mounted camera (in the Nissan badge), two side mounted cameras integrated into each wing mirror, and a rear view camera under the tailgate latch.

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The result is a beautiful and useful top-down look at where you’re going, sort of like a video game. Parking is a snap especially where there are painted lines, as you can see exactly where you are positioned in the spot.

Kudos to Nissan for using a headunit with enough computing power to process the multiple video feeds simultaneously, and also for using high quality cameras with decent low light sensitivity. During my test week with the Pathfinder, I was also testing a $125K 2014 Range Rover Supercharged.

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The Range Rover’s cameras and headunit were nowhere as good as the Pathfinder’s, with disappointingly grainy images in low light and laggy live video footage when there was more than one video feed being displayed onscreen. Great job Nissan!

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Other standard technology on the Platinum Premium includes heated and cooled front seats, heated 2nd row seats, and even a heated steering wheel! Tri-Zone Automatic Climate Control, Bluetooth® Hands-free Phone System, and a power rear liftgate are standard on this trim level.

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Also fitted to my test Pathfinder was iPod integration and tri-zone entertainment system with 2nd row head restraint-mounted DVD display screens and RCA inputs.

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In an era where even kids have iPads, I was ready to write off the head restraint-mounted DVD displays. However after spending some time using them, I have to say that I really liked them for their optimal positioning and their image quality. With the Pathfinder’s adjustable 2nd row seats (for both legroom and seatback angle), the rear cabin experience reminded me of a business class seat in a commercial airline.

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And so the well packaged interior means that there is loads of storage space and getting in and out is a snap with the low door sills. No running boards or sidesteps needed here.

It’s not even bad getting into the 3rd row seat, where there is ample room for two smaller adults. A unique feature of the 2nd row sliding seat is that you can move it forward without removing a child seat that is installed in it.

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The huge panoramic moonroof, standard on this Platinum Premium Pathfinder, while not as large as the Hyundai Santa Fe XL’s, is positioned further back and really does help to open up the space and eliminate any claustrophobia. A power sliding sunshade blocks out the light when it’s too sunny or hot.

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With all these features in play, it’s easy to see that the Pathfinder is going after a different audience and doing a great job at it.

Hybrid Technology

For the Hybrid Pathfinder, the well renowned Nissan 3.5L V6 engine is replaced by a new supercharged 2.5-litre gasoline engine and an electric motor paired with a compact Lithium-ion battery. The 15 kW (20hp) electric motor and gas engine work in tandem to provide performance similar to the conventional Pathfinder.

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The system is rated at 250 net horsepower and 243 lb-ft of torque – versus the 3.5-litre V6’s 260 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque.

The hybrid system also uses a Nissan Intelligent Dual Clutch System (one motor / two clutch parallel system) that efficiently manages power from both the electric motor and the gas engine.

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Positioned between the gasoline engine and the next-gen Xtronic CVT transmission (where the torque converter would normally be), the motor also functions as a generator, conveying energy from the CVT to the battery upon deceleration. One clutch is installed between the gasoline engine and the electric motor, the other between the motor and the CVT.

In order to preserve the Pathfinder’s unique 2nd row sliding functionality and easy access to the 3rd row, engineers cleverly positioned the space-saving Lithium Ion battery under the 3rd row seat. The result is no loss in passenger or cargo room at all.

The hybrid’s 2nd and 3rd row seats still fold completely flat. Very impressive as other hybrids I’ve tested have had significantly compromised cargo room.

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A regenerative braking system automatically recharges the battery by converting the vehicle’s kinetic energy that would be otherwise lost in braking.

The downside of packaging a small battery and motor is that Pathfinder rarely runs in pure EV mode. I only experienced the EV mode when coasting downhill, or when waiting in traffic with the air conditioning off (as the compressor is otherwise powered by the gas engine).

Fuel economy is officially rated at 7.4L/100km combined, an improvement of 22 percent over the standard Pathfinder. With the Pathfinder Hybrid’s large 73-litre fuel tank, the same as 3.5-litre V6 models, driving range (highway) is more than 1,000kms. I averaged about 11.2L/100 kms in mixed city/highway driving.

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Putting it all together…how does it drive?

By switching from a body-on-frame to a unibody design, the Nissan engineers saved about 300-500lbs of weight. This pays dividends as the power from the hybrid drivetrain is good but not mindblowing. The CVT dulls the overall responsiveness and unless you stab the accelerator pedal, the power delivery is smooth but won’t pin you into your seat.

The sensation from a dead stop is also a bit weird because you can feel and hear the clutch “slipping” as it balances between battery and traditional engine power. It almost sounds a bit like a manual transmission car. A new experience for me in an SUV.

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At full throttle, due to the CVT holding the engine revs, the supercharger makes its presence noticeable with a characteristic whine. It’s not unpleasant but unexpected. The supercharger whine is also particularly noticeable when engine braking downhill in the manually selected low gear.

But like all Pathfinders, the hybrid version still offers an otherwise quiet, comfortable ride. Handling is provided by an independent strut front/multi-link rear suspension combined with an electrohydraulic power-assisted steering.

Handling, while acceptable, is nothing groundbreaking. Due to the soft springs, there is a fair amount of body roll when pushed, along with slow weight transfer motions. But this is not to say that the ride is at all wallowy because it isn’t. It’s just comfortable but not sporty.

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As for the steering, it’s efficient but not sporty either. I didn’t find it to be as vague on centre as I had read in other road test reviews, however I did find it numb and the weighting rather artificial. It’s not particularly quick either, unlike the Mazda CX-9. But honestly speaking, will buyers notice it? Probably not. Nor would they care.

With an available intuitive all-wheel drive system, Pathfinder continues to serve as an excellent vehicle for inclement weather driving conditions.

It’s the only vehicle in its class with selectable 2WD (front wheel drive), Auto or 4WD Lock modes for its “ALL-MODE 4×4-I” system. The system lets the driver choose full-time 2WD for maximum fuel economy, Auto mode to automatically monitor conditions and adjust the balance of power between front and rear wheels for best traction, or 4WD Lock mode when the confidence of full-time AWD is desired (with a 50% front/50% rear torque lock). In addition, standard Hill Start Assist helps add control when starting and driving away on a steep incline.

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I left the system in Auto mode 98% of the time. The other 2% of the time I tested the 2WD mode or 4WD Lock. I didn’t like the 2WD mode mainly because the front wheels would easily spin due to the torque from the electric motor plus the less than impressive Toyo winter tires (which I also complained about in the Mazda CX-9).

There is a nifty display in the 4.2” LCD screen between the speedometer and tachometer that can be configured not only to show hybrid power mode, but also to show the live torque distribution between the front and rear wheels.

In Auto mode, most of the time 90% of the power is going to the front wheels upon acceleration. When you’re up to speed, the system gradually tapers to 100% front wheel drive anyway.I really liked that the system was dynamic enough to actively transfer power to the rear wheels to prevent front wheel slippage before it occurred. A far more intelligent system than a purely part-time all wheel drive reactive system.

According to Nissan, with the exception of what’s under the hood and the lower tow rating, the Pathfinder hybrid is pretty much the same as the gas-powered Pathfinder.

Hybrid-equipped Pathfinders retain the ability to tow boats, ATVs, trailers and a variety of other recreational gear up to 3,500 pounds (1,588kg) when properly equipped.

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Final Thoughts

To be competitive these days, a car company needs a car-based 3 row SUV. The segment has really shifted from the demands of a body-on-frame design to a unibody construction which is focused more on fuel economy, passenger comfort, and the safety and security of all-wheel-drive to get to the campground (but not necessarily past it).

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When Nissan last designed the Pathfinder they went the truck based route when many of the top sellers were based on car based platforms. Oops.

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There are a few things you give up. It’s no hard-core off-roader, but with enough ground clearance, it’s certainly enough to go off onto a dirt road to a camp site. With a 5000lbs towing capacity (for the non-hybrid version), this is down on the previous generation Pathfinder but more than enough for most buyers.

But more buyers are going to enjoy what they gained rather than what they lose with this latest Pathfinder.

This new car-based platform (shared with the Nissan Murano) means that this 4th generation Pathfinder rides better, handles better, and is more economical on fuel than before. It drives a lot like a jacked up Altima sedan.

So while it’s no longer just a rough and ready SUV based on a pickup truck like my toy, it’s certainly better suited to today’s families. And these families have indeed been flocking to the Nissan dealerships to check out this strong contender in the competitive crossover market. Guess what? So should you.

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2014 Nissan Pathfinder Platinum Price Sheet

 

Andrew Ling
Andrew is a proud car and tech geek who has worked in Surrey for over the last 10 years. He comes from a communications/marketing background and has worked for automotive-related companies such as Edmunds.com, BenzWorld.org since 1999. From track driving, to rally driving to autocross, he has done it all! When he’s not reading about the latest automotive news, he can be found outdoors snapping pictures at various events around town.
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