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2011 Nissan Pathfinder

Mike Ditz/Nissan

Overall Rating
Ruggedly built, but a harsh ride and poor fuel economy. You'll like this vehicle if: you want to go off-roading and take your friends with you.
Looks Rating
Definitely looks the part, and about as subtle as a cabbage.
Interior Rating
Practical and functional, not too many extras here.
Ride Rating
Harsh and stiff - like a proper 4WD SUV.
Safety Rating
All the goodies, including front, side, and side curtain airbags, and ABS and traction control.
Green Rating
Thirsty on or off-road and needs premium gas.

There's no shortage of SUVs on today's market. Every manufacturer has at least a couple in its roster and some have more than others. Lots more.

Not counting its Infiniti models, Nissan, for example, has six in its lineup and they range from grocery-getters like the Juke and Rogue to off-road warriors like the Pathfinder.

Now entering its 25th year of production, the Pathfinder is the second-largest SUV sold by Nissan in North America. The massive Armada is the biggest, and the Pathfinder shares many components with it, which until recently, included an optional V-8 engine, which was introduced in 2008 and then discontinued in 2009. File that one under "it seemed like a good idea at the time."

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Standard issue these days is a 4.0-litre V-6 engine, which develops 266 horsepower and 288 lb-ft of torque. Also found in the Maxima, Quest and 370Z, this engine is one of the VQ series and, in this configuration, is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission only, with a four-wheel-drive system that is accessed via a console-mounted rotary dial. With a rear-wheel bias, this system allows the driver to choose from high or low range, with an automatic AWD function as well. It's one of the more comprehensive 4WD systems out there and will see the Pathfinder through just about anything you can throw at it. This is one sport utility vehicle that really lives up to its name.

About those similarities with the Armada (and the Titan pickup). Basically, the Pathfinder has the same frame, which is boxed steel and of the "ladder" style of construction. Suspension is four wheel independent, with double wishbones front and back. This allows the Pathfinder to have a comparatively long suspension travel which, when the road deteriorates and things start to get hairy, is a good thing to have.

Hard-core off-roaders will tell you that one of the best things any SUV can offer is long suspension travel. It ain't no parking lot out there, and you need as much ground clearance as you can get. The Pathfinder is ruggedly built, and, depending on who you talk to, has the best of both worlds. In other words, when it comes to off-roading, body-on-frame construction has it over unibody nine times out of 10.

Moving inside, the Pathfinder has a less opulent interior than, oh, the Armada or some Infiniti models. It's not Spartan, but the overall theme seems to be function over design. My tester, a top-of-the-range LE, came with leather upholstery as standard issue, as well as heated front seats, powered adjustable front seats, a heated steering wheel (yes!), a massive power sunroof, dual-zone climate control and so on. The base S has cloth interior and you don't get the heated seats until you move up to the SV model.

But whichever trim level you choose, the Pathfinder will seat seven, which seems to be off-target. Nissan is pitching this as an off-road machine, and cramming seven people into it while you gallumph through the sticks seems irrelevant.

If carrying passengers is your primary goal, get an Armada – or even a Quest minivan. If I'm trying to get as far away from civilization as I can, the last thing in the world I want is a bunch of passengers along for the ride. Just my two-bits' worth.

As well, the V-6 engine – smooth and lively though it may be – could run out of breath with a full load of passengers and gear. This is true both on or off-road, which is probably why Nissan installed the aforementioned V-8. This is a large vehicle (between 2,132 and 2,243 kilograms, depending upon the model), and a couple of more cylinders would hit the spot nicely.

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Just for the heck of it, I compared fuel economy figures here; according to Transport Canada's Energuide, the 2009 V-8 Pathfinder consumed about 2.0 litre/100 km more than its V-6 counterpart, resulting in an extra $800 a year or thereabouts in fuel costs. In short, Nissan should have kept the V-8 – after all, it was an option, and if you didn't want one, you didn't have to get one.

Getting back to the equipment level. My tester had a couple of options in the form of a DVD entertainment system with headphones and remote controls ($2,000), and a navi system with touch screen controls and voice recognition ($2,000). Can't see the point in these two; if you want to entertain your passengers while you're driving, buy a minivan, and the navi system won't do you any good at all when you go off-road. Just about every navi system I've ever encountered over the years goes away as soon as you get off the beaten track.

Which is what this rig is all about. Theoretically.

2011 Nissan Pathfinder LE

Type: Seven-passenger SUV

Base Price: $47,748; as tested: $54,263

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Engine: 4.0-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 266 hp/288 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Drive: Rear-drive with AWD and 4WD on demand

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 14.9 city/10.3 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Toyota 4Runner, Toyota FJ Cruiser, Jeep Grand Cherokee V-6, Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, Volkswagen Touareg, Ford Explorer

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