Nissan Pathfinder

The Nissan Pathfinder has come a long way since it was introduced in 1985 as a two-door sport utility based on the Nissan compact pickup truck chassis. In the last 15 years the SUV segment has transformed itself from a fringe area for single, young off-roaders to one of the broadest-based portions of the auto industry, and the Pathfinder has transformed itself several times along the way. What was once a truck with a four-passenger body perched on it has become a tall luxury vehicle with off-road capabilities. The current Nissan Pathfinder is more powerful and more refined than ever.

One thing the Pathfinder has retained is its fun-to-drive demeanor. While most SUVs offer the driving enjoyment of a UPS truck, the Pathfinder always had a sporty edge to its handling. It was no 300ZX, but it did deliver sharper handling than its brethren. Now, though, all that's changed - for the better. New this year is a 250-horsepower V-6 3.5-liter engine that makes the Pathfinder the most powerful SUV in its class. Derived from the Maxima engine, the new powerplant is a sweetheart. It whirs out power with a turbine-like smoothness, and when it is coupled with the five-speed manual transmission, you might think you're piloting a very tall sports car. More buyers will opt for the sophisticated automatic transmission, however, and in this application the engine is de-tuned by 10 horsepower, but you'll never miss them.

The additional horsepower is big news in itself, but there's more. The LE version of the Pathfinder also offers an automatic All-Mode four-wheel drive system that makes four-wheeling a totally user-transparent process. The system has the ability to choose among two-wheel drive and high and low ranges of four-wheel drive automatically or, if you're a Type A control freak, you choose any of them manually with the flick of a switch. Leaving the switch in Automatic mode keeps you prepared for all eventualities, and, at the same time, permits the Pathfinder to handle like a normal rear-drive vehicle when the weather and roads are clear.

The Pathfinder offers handsome exterior style, and the beauty goes deep into its MonoFrame unibody construction. Some off-road purists might decry the shift from body-on-frame construction, but the MonoFrame is tight, tough and good-looking. It also increases interior space, while retaining the Pathfinder's handy overall length.

When you step into the interior, you'll see how upscale Nissan has taken its mainstay SUV. The seats are leather-covered comfort, and the instrument panel is clear, concise and rich-looking enough for a luxury sedan. The standard equipment list is generous, and in the LE version you can order a video system that includes a flip-down LCD screen, videotape player and PlayStation 2 compatibility. Luckily, you can only view the screen from the back seat per federal law. On the safety front, antilock brakes and side airbags are available. Maximum cargo area is a substantial 85 cubic feet.

Priced from $27,000 up to the mid-$30,000's, The Nissan Pathfinder is a sharp-handling, stylish sport utility vehicle with a terrific engine and excellent refinement.