Testing a new car for a week is a lot like dating — exciting and different but without all the emotional vulnerability and wretched insecurity.
The brief courtship with the refreshed 2017 Nissan Pathfinder followed a familiar pattern: initially impressed, ultimately disappointed.
From across a crowded lot, the Pathfinder three-row SUV will catch some eyes, but not in a good way if it wears Sandstone garb like the press car, which both kids and adults called “poo-colored.” But in the right setting — against Lake Michigan and a clear blue sky — the beige metallic color looked more commanding.
Overall the Pathfinder looks wider up front and bulkier in the back, giving it a more trucklike presence reminiscent of the days when it was truck based instead of softened into a car-based crossover. Large 20-inch alloy wheels, standard with the top-of-the-line Platinum trim, buff up the profile.
Nissan and Kia both take design risks in making their crossovers stand out in a homogenous segment. Nissan applies the V-motion grille from Pathfinder’s platform mates the Maxima and Murano — two of the more distinctive designs in their respective segments — that rises up from the grille into symmetrical lines over the raised hood and down the beltline on either side of the car, culminating in bulkier taillights that are taller than they are wide.
The Pathfinder looks smaller on the outside then it feels on the inside, which is a nice touch.
Platinum trim has all the gloss you’d expect on a first date: fine leather-wrapped surfaces paired with sleek black dash material and fake wood trim on the door panels and center stack. The sunroof and dual moonroof that spans both rear rows of seats enhances the spaciousness, the possibility that this car’s style could go formal or outdoorsy.
Engaging in conversation with the powertrain enhanced that comfortable, approachable feel. The 284-horsepower V-6 is capable without being overbearing or needing coaxing; this three-row SUV is built for comfort, not speed, and does the job quietly, almost modestly. The continuously variable transmission is more refined than other CVTs, shifting in and out of its infinite gears without much detection. It seems normal, despite being different.
As the outing continued, things were starting to add up. On paper, the Pathfinder had most everything a customer would need in a family SUV: it has intuitive four-wheel drive, which goes to front-wheel drive in most conditions (we averaged 30.2 mpg at 62 mph), until the system detects slippery roads or rough terrain; towing capability of up to 6,000 pounds; easily adjustable fold-down middle and rear seats; and advanced safety and convenience technology like adaptive cruise control and rear object detection. The numbers matched up too, with 21 mpg combined and a price of $43,785, fully loaded. That’s on par with Mazda’s CX-9, and about $10,000 less than Ford’s fully loaded Explorer or Honda’s decked out Pilot, which are all worthy of top consideration in the crowded three-row class.
Once the Pathfinder’s initial charms had settled in, after getting used to the visual and performance elements, it seemed that we had communication problems. I could say it’s not you, Pathfinder, it’s me, and maybe if I set all my radio presets and spent an hour with the manual, I could have mastered the main source of interaction with the car other than the pedals: the infotainment and climate system.
Under the 8-inch display screen is a control panel of 14 buttons surrounding a dial that has eight directional arrows and an enter button. It’s good for zooming in and out of the map, but there’s so much going on, and a reach to access it, that eventually I chose not to engage for fear of its response. Despite being able to access all the audio and climate functions from the confusing control panel, there was an audio-only interface below it, including a (fashionable as a fanny pack) CD player. Below that was a climate control interface.
The Pathfinder’s is a system straddling the past and the present, unable to commit to either, so it just throws everything it has out there in an attempt to please everyone. It’s hard to come to grips with its technological identity, which includes diminutive dials for the heated and cooled seats, with a tiny yellow status light that is impossible to see in daylight.
Is confusing tech enough to sink a $43,000 car? It shouldn’t be. But with so much competition that has better systems and more complete packages, you wonder why you should settle for something that is almost a match.
2017 Nissan Pathfinder at a glance
Vehicle type: Three-row SUV
Base price: $30,290
As tested: $43,785 (excluding $900 destination)
Mpg: 19 city/ 26 highway
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Transmission: Continuously variable
Parting shot: Capable three-row SUV that falters on infotainment system