Off the Path
Originally, I was renting a Nissan Rogue. The name alone is enough to make me want literally anything else (speaking of names, Nissan upped their game and replaced the Juke with a new model called Kicks. Plural. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ). I was renting an SUV to visit my wife’s parents for the holidays. For $10 more, I could move out of the Rogue and into a Hyundai Santa Fe, which is also a bigger SUV. For the price, I went for it. Then the bait and switch – at the dealership, I was given a Pathfinder. I was, as you can guess, extremely disappointed.
Outside the Pathfinder is inoffensive enough – it’s pretty much your typical lumbering behemoth of an SUV. Tall, slab-sided flanks sandwiched by a front- and rear-end that are decidedly Corporate Nissan – if you’ve seen a Rogue or Murano in recent years, the Pathfinder seems content to draw within familial lines. There aren’t any risks taken, so those seeking bolder (but not necessarily better) design need to look at Infiniti. Up front, a large dominating grill is flanked by LED daytime running lights and HID headlamps and honestly I’m bored even describing it.
Inside is where things get legitimately
infuriating intriguing, in a “how the hell does this thing work” kind of way. If you love the interior of a seven-year-old Infiniti FX35, you’ll be right at home in your 2017 Pathfinder, minus quality trim and plastics. In fact, the quality of the plastics and trim in a modern compact car would embarrass the Pathfinder. It’s telling that the only quality complement I can give is that everything seems to fit together well. The overall feel of the cabin is imposing but hollow, like a schoolyard bully who runs away crying the moment that one of victims finally hits back.
I have serious, serious problems with the infotainment system. The large control knob in below the screen can rotate and has 4-way direction and selection buttons. But the knob is too short to comfortably use it and the touch screen is easier anyway. It begs the question of why the knob is there to begin with, but Nissan insists that their infotainment systems work this way. For some reason. There is no “home” button to get to a screen that lists all the functions, no “Phone” button to access the connected Bluetooth phone options (no, that button is on the steering wheel). There’s no rhyme or reason to why the layout is what it is. See the photos for more exasperated confusion.
The power train exists and I can confirm that the engine does, indeed, work. Pushing a button on the dash brings the engine to life, so at least it has push-button start, I guess. The engine puts out a number of horsepower and torque and gets to 60 mph in a certain amount of time and who really cares because this thing has a Continuously Variable Transmission and I’ve lost all interest in what power plant this SUV has.
More trespasses: The driver’s seat will move back in its track to make driver egress easier, but then doesn’t quite remember where to go back to. The steering wheel looks leather-wrapped but isn’t. The toggle switch on said steering wheel looks like it controls the oddly-angled multi-function screen in the gauge cluster. It doesn’t. The driver’s seat is short in the thigh and feels oddly stuffed.
Driving this SUV is more akin to piloting a boat than a car. The transmission sounds like a motorboat, ceaselessly loud and disconnected to driving motions, annoying and unsatisfying all at once. Navigating parking lots is to be an overly-self-aware bull dosed up on anti-anxiety meds perilously making its way through a china shop while on-lookers stare on. It’s both mind-bendingly boring and nerve wracking.
This all brings to me why I really can’t stand this SUV: it’s a bold-faced lie. Like Sublime with Rome or the current Blink-182 lineup, Nissan is trading off brand goodwill to direct buyers into a vehicle that resembles its past in name only. The new Pathfinder is not a capable off-roading SUV like its predecessor. It doesn’t have the right transmission, the right size, the right temperament – it’s playing in the crossover-segment sandbox now. But Nissan doesn’t want to let go of the past. The interior is parts-bin cheap and tough-guy looking. The exterior is a nip-and-tuck refresh of an aging design language. The wheels have ridiculous mud and dirt spots painted onto them. I’ll let you decide if that was a good idea or not (spoiler: it’s not).
I’ll give Nissan some credit. My passengers said they were comfortable. The front seats are heated, of course, but so are the middle outboard seats and the steering wheel, which is welcomed. Cargo space is good and there is a neat below-floor bin for items that will slide around. Fuel economy was higher than my expectations. But these are all mainstays in the crossover segment. As much as the Pathfinder is trying to straddle the line between rough-and-tumble SUV and soft-footed crossover, it’s more comfortable in the latter role. The problem here is that the crossover segment is very competitive and the Mazda CX-9 is leaps and bounds ahead of the Pathfinder – and cheaper when compared to my rental’s trim level.
Looking around the Nissan lineup, with the aging Z and GTR, nameplate changes, and revamped focus on the Maxima, it’s clear that Nissan is in an evolutionary stage both in purpose and design. It takes time for car makers to figure out what they want to be and how to get there. In the case of the Pathfinder, Nissan seems unsure of what to do. And while that’s terrible for the Pathfinder, this rudderless lack of purpose is even worse for Nissan.