Nissan’s Pathfinder isn’t a bad all-rounder but a serious 4×4 it is not. There are significant shortcomings in terms of drivetrain and dimensions. Add the low-slung running boards and it becomes a bundu-basher in the true sense of the word, having drivers gritting their teeth and waiting for the inevitable crunching sound from down under?
Anyone who has owned a bicycle will confirm that it is invariably a bad idea to start on an upgrade path to better performance, simply because of the law of diminishing returns. Economies of scale dictate that a machine custom-made for the job and produced/sold in significant volumes ultimately represents better value than something which is improved piecemeal.
It’s the same with cars: upgrading retrospectively isn’t usually cost effective, but at the end of the day both cyclists and motorists take this approach because
a.) they made poor decisions in the first place
b.) their usage pattern has changed, or
c.) while they mostly enjoy their current machine, they’re bored and simply want the feel-good factor that often comes with a change.
Which is kind of where we found ourselves with our long-term Pathfinder. A recent trip to Lesotho revealed its off-road limitations, destroying the running boards and re-sculpting some of the lower bodywork.
With the collateral damage sorted out, we decided to upgrade the stock suspension with a TJM XGS (Expanded Gas Shocks) kit — an Australian-made damper and spring combo sold locally through LA Sport. The springs are about 20% stiffer than standard and increase the payload by some 150kg while raising the body by 50mm.
We also changed the rubber, opting for slightly wider and taller BF Goodrichs (265/70 versus 255/65) on the stock 17-inch alloys, now powder-coated in a charcoal hue. We didn’t bother to replace the side sills, which in any case hang much lower than the chassis rails and severely compromise the ramp angle.
The overall effect is very pleasing in dark bronze metallic, the hidden rear door handles and privacy glass giving it a certain moody menace.
Features and equipment
Other than the above, the Pathfinder is stock, but being the V9X version, it boasts Nissan’s new three-litre V6 oilburner, rated at 170 kW and 550 Nm – numbers which put it near the top of the class. This impressively well-endowed and refined engine is mated to a seven-speed automatic, with a Sport mode plus the ability to shift sequentially. It is rear drive in normal usage, but an Auto setting on the hi/lo selector means you can leave the system to decide whether torque needs to be sent to the front wheels.
Cabin accoutrements are plentiful and it’s pretty much a full-house offering, the only option being satellite navigation. It has a screen of decent proportions and is particularly user-friendly, as is the Bluetooth pairing for cellphones. You also get heated and electrically adjusted front seats, dual zone climate control with independent controls and roof vents for the rear compartment, crisp-sounding Bose ICE with integrated 40 gig hard drive, opening tailgate glass and a sunroof as standard.
Thanks to the features outlined above, it’s no wonder the Pathfinder gets a maximum five stars under this heading. But it isn’t just about the kit count: the leathered front seats are both comfortable and commanding, and while the steering column doesn’t adjust for reach, we didn’t feel this was a significant drawback. The facia and centre console are busy in the way an airplane cockpit can be, but important ancillaries (telephone, audio and cruise control) can be accessed from the wheel, so that’s a non-issue.
To the right of the steering column are features such as hill descent control and folding mirrors, while to the left is the rotary dial to switch between Auto to 4Hi and then – after stopping and selecting neutral – into low range, in which mode HDC can be activated.
When it comes to carrying a load, the Pathfinder is very impressive, and being able to open the rear glass independently of the tailgate is a handy feature and compensates for a rather clumsy, segmented luggage compartment cover.
The third row seats are definitely of the “occasional” variety (but not really worse than those of its rivals), while the three-way split middle row seats are compromised ever so slightly by a highish floor.
The Pathfinder is a big and angular beast and with the economy class seats lowered into the floor and the middle row stowed (they’re split into three – 40/20/40) by tilting the cushions forward and then collapsing the backrests, there’s a massive, geometric load space with a 1,8-metre load bay length.
Even the most determined overlanders should find that there’s sufficient space, and there are also roof rails for loading up the exterior.
We gave the smooth and silent nature of the multivalve V6 a thumbs-up in our recent Navara test, though the tardiness off the line was a little disappointing. Well, it is much the same here: there’s a delay when you floor the throttle caused by a combination of the vehicle’s 2400kg weight and electronic engine/gearbox management systems which reduce torque on sudden, low-gear throttle applications.
In fact, it is a little worse in this regard than the Navara, because the 265/70 rubber (compared to the original 255/65) also lengthens the gearing, and at a true 120 km/h in top the engine is ticking over at a leisurely 2000 revs. This is about 5% longer than standard, making for very relaxed cruising.
It also blunts overtaking acceleration, and while the Navara was tested at sea level and the Pathfinder at Gerotek (some 1400m higher) the key in-gear acceleration times stretch by just over a second. The longer gearing generally calls for keener anticipation, and looming inclines train you to apply pedal pressure sooner rather than later to prevent a gradual loss of speed and a subsequent downshift. In the greater scheme of things, it doesn’t negatively affect the overall driving experience.
Around the suburbs, the gearbox tends to get lost in a No Man’s Land, either unable or unwilling to respond swiftly enough on occasion. We countered this by moving the lever across the gate to the Sport position (but still letting the box shift automatically) when in traffic, which results in significantly quicker responses. Of course, one must remember to go back to the conventional “Drive” position, otherwise the box won’t willingly shift into top gear on small throttle openings.
As you’d expect, there are some minor performance losses in the stopping department due to a higher centre of gravity and the dirt-specific tyres. However, on dry tarmac there is little obvious sacrifice and emergency stops from 100 km/h take about 3.2 seconds. We liked the level of feel and feedback. There was a generally good initial bite, and the driver could modulate the pedal precisely.
Ride and handling
The Pathfinder feels large, but not ponderous. Having said that, it takes a while to react to, and then obey, requests from the helm. The spring rates feel firm, so there isn’t as much body roll as expected, and driving on tarmac isn’t an unpleasant affair at all. High-speed stability is exemplary.
The turning circle is a middling 12.4m, but the gearing of the steering is ideal for this kind of vehicle. A reverse camera (needed more than ever now that ordinary cars are at bumper height!) is fitted, making backing-up a fairly hassle-free event.
From a confidence point of view, few drivers will have cause to complain about all-round visibility once on the move.
The chassis upgrades were intended to make the Pathfinder a peerless 4×4 and we started by putting the Pathfinder over a full battery of obstacles at Gerotek, checking if the improvements to ground clearance and approach/depart angles measured up in the real world. Some tests are man-made for repeatability and one particularly severe test features a concrete middel
mannetjie with deep ruts either side. Thanks to the taller tyres the Pathfinder, which now has 300mm of ground clearance under the front bash plate and 320mm at the rear diff, only touched once — and then briefly.
According to our tape measure, the approach, departure and ramp angles have all improved by between four and six degrees over the claimed standard numbers, and not having to worry about vulnerable side sills does a lot for driver confidence, too.
Many of Gerotek’s more traditional 4×4 routes are heavily overgrown at the moment, and we had reached the point of no return when our regular trail all but disappeared at the bottom of a steep decline from which it would have been virtually impossible to reverse. We were forced to press on, and despite some tense moments we managed to claw our way through, the traction control working furiously as the four wheels fought for grip on a mix of loose rocks, sandy ruts and grass.
That said, the lack of a mechanical limited slip diff between front and rear axles, and the absence of any method of binding the rear wheels together, proves to be the Pathfinder’s undoing in extreme conditions. Get those axles twisting in opposite directions and there’s nowhere for that torque to go (even though 500 Nm is available at just 1 500 revs/min), despite the best efforts of Nissan’s Active Brake Limited Slip (ABSL) system. Sometimes a ?virtual’ diff lock just ain’t enough?
Based on our off-roading experiences, spending the best part of R25 000 on suspension and tyres has improved but not perfected the Pathfinder’s off-road capabilities, though it is way better than standard and far less likely to get stuck and/or damaged.
But we’d think carefully about these particular tyres for year-round use, and while they are commendably quiet on tar and excellent in mud, they do reduce road-holding in the wet. They also stretch the gearing, accentuating the relatively leisurely step-off that is part of this engine/gearbox combo. While we’ve learnt to drive around that, the lag will be compounded when towing, notwithstanding the Pathfinder’s impressive 3500kg braked trailer rating.
While we have a definite soft spot for the Pathfinder, it still isn’t 4×4 Nirvana, highlighting the point that starting with the perfect machine for the job generally ends up being the best answer.
“Without those absurd side steps and with some added height, this Pathfinder really looks the business – those powder-coated wheels and lovely body-colour help, too. So it still can’t climb Kilimanjaro? but it’s got enough off-road clout for me.” – Adrian Burford.
“I initially fell in love with this Pathy. The looks, the ride, the engine, the sound system, the space, and the way it drives really impressed me. But then I got it very stuck on a challenging 4×4 track – a rear differential lock would have had the Nissan through the obstacle in a jiffy. Then it couldn’t get up a slippery, rocky hill. The traction control’s intervention compromised momentum, halting the Nissan in its tracks. As a 4×4 it’s certainly way better than the standard version – but it’s still far from perfect.” – Danie Botha