"They should call it the Mallfinder," quipped associate editor Mike Febbo, referring to the all-new, fourth-generation Nissan Pathfinder. I chuckled, as I couldn't disagree. When I first saw the 2013 Pathfinder in person, I was taken aback -- it looked a lot wimpier than it did in photos, and it appeared droopy and saggy. If the boxy previous gen were a block of cheese, this new one looked like Nissan left the ol' brick of cheddar under the sun and said, "Who's hungry?"
Well, I wasn't quite ready to take a bite. When I think Pathfinder, I envision my pristine hand-me-down 1987 SE V-6 4x4 from high school that my parents and sister drove before me. I loved -- and still love -- that original Pathfinder. It was rugged, thanks to a ladder-type frame based on the Hardbody truck and a 3.0-liter, 145-hp V-6 that transferred power through a five-speed manual to a shift-on-the-fly 4WD system. And it looked rugged, with 31-inch tires, a stocky two-door body, a big spare hanging off the back, and bulging fenders with black flares. Of course, it also had that way-cool triangular window just aft of the B-pillar. Slow and underpowered by today's standards, that first Pathfinder was one of the best SUVs of its time, on- and off-road.
About 15 years after I said goodbye to my Pathfinder, I attended the launch of the third gen in Seattle. Replacing a unibody-based second gen that was a solid and capable SUV, but not a rig that wore a formidable facade, the 2005 promised a return to the original formula: ladder frame (though with IRS), large all-terrain rubber, beefy looks, and a go-anywhere make up that really meant you could go anywhere. I was so impressed and enamored with this Pathfinder, and how it reminded me of my '87, that I called my dad and told him he should buy one. For six years he, my mom, and their two dogs enjoyed it, but when gas prices spiked to $5 a gallon, he'd had enough. "I'm only getting 15 mpg," he complained. So he downsized and bought a Subaru Forester.
Enter the melting-cheese fourth gen, which -- gasp! -- might just be the best Pathfinder yet. (By no means my favorite, but, yeah, arguably the best.) When we judge vehicles in an "of the Year" competition (the 2013 Pathfinder is one of the contenders for our 2013 SUVOTY crown), one of the key criteria is Performance of Intended Function, or how well the vehicle does the job its maker intended it to do. According to Nissan vice president and general manager Al Castignetti, that means the following: "The next-gen Pathfinder is stepping up with new and unique features and technologies designed to enhance comfort, increase fuel efficiency, and, most important, add flexibility for busy, everyday family lives." Following a week in the 2013 Pathfinder, I can't say Nissan hasn't met the criteria. It gets up to 26 mpg highway; boasts 5000 pounds of standard towing capacity; seats seven in a handsome, user-friendly interior; and makes life easier with an AroundView monitor and EZ Flex Seating System. Oh, and it drives small, thanks in part to trimming around 500 pounds of fat.
I don't love its styling, and I don't love its softer character in light of my 1987's rough-and-tumble identity, but the new 2013 Pathfinder is what it has to be to compete with such six-figure sales leaders as the Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander: a generally excellent three-row crossover that's good on-road and just good enough off-road. Hey, who said going soft wouldn't be hard?