First drive: 2017 Nissan Pathfinder [Review]

Nissan\'s three-row gets a refresh.

Nissan is calling 2016 the "Year of the Truck." If you've been following trends in U.S. auto sales, you're probably already comfortable with that label.

For the Japanese automaker, however, it's not so much about current trends in the industry, but rather the confluence of product development schedules. Last week, we talked about Nissan's redesigned Armada SUV. In seven days, we'll be telling you about the new Titan pickup truck. This fall, the company is promising a brand-new SUV model unveiling.

In this company, it's easy to dismiss the 2017 Nissan Pathfinder as the least significant of Nissan's truck-related efforts. Indeed, it's a simple mid-cycle overhaul rather than an all-new or redesigned model, so in a way that's not an entirely inaccurate assessment.

At the same time, when it comes to bread-and-butter people-movers (when the inventory is available, Pathfinder even out-sells Murano), any change is important. The Pathfinder has been a staple of the SUV market for three decades. To stick around for that long in this market, you have to be doing something right. This refresh just to has to keep it in the game.

What's oldThe Pathfinder changed over from a body-on-frame SUV design to a unibody crossover back in 2012, and the fundamental platform is unchanged for 2017. While other new models in Nissan's lineup have seen the company's seven-speed automatic transmission trickle down, the 2017 Pathfinder still makes use of a Jatco-sourced CVT. We'll talk more about the powertrain in a moment.

What's newFor 2017, the Nissan Pathfinder receives some styling updates, a powertrain overhaul, suspension and steering adjustments, and some new safety and convenience tech.

Let's start with the biggie: the engine. Nissan's 3.5L V6 has essentially been redesigned. While it has a common displacement with its predecessor, the new iteration has been designed around direct injection, making it more powerful and more fuel efficient. It's up 24 horsepower (from 260 to 284) and 19lb-ft of torque (now boasting 259). Peak torque comes a little later than it did before (4,800 RPM vs. 4,400 RPM), but the area under the curve is just as fat (or fatter) everywhere, so there's no downside.

Despite the EPA's new fuel economy rating standards for 2017, the Pathfinder maintained its 20 MPG city, 27 MPG highway and 23 MPG combined ratings. We said above that the 2017 model is more efficient, which is true even if it's not reflected on paper. All things being equal, the new Pathfinder should deliver better real-world fuel economy than its predecessor. It will also still tow more than its competitors (6,000 pounds--1,000 more than the Explorer, Highlander or Pilot).

At the corners, Nissan put a priority on improving the Pathfinder's steering response and body control. The front and rear springs were stiffened to reduce pitch and roll and corresponding adjustments to the shock/strut damping improved ride quality at the same time. The steering ratio was also quickened (by 11%) and a new tire compound has been specified to improve turn-in response and overall vehicle balance.

On the convenience side of things, Nissan has improved the 2017 Pathfinder's third-row access. On the passenger side, a new tilting/sliding mechanism for the second-row seat allows easier access to the rear bench even with a child seat installed. Rounding out the access improvements is a motion-activated tailgate.

Family cars are often strong candidates for the inclusion of safety tech, so it should come as no surprise that some new alphabet soup electronic aids have been added to the updated Pathfinder. Forward emergency braking and forward collision warning are new for 2017, as is moving object detection for the existing "Around View" camera system. Intelligent cruise control, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert were already available in 2016 and carry over.

What worksTo be perfectly frank, we've never been blown away by the unibody Pathfinder's road manners. While it is certainly more car-like and compliant than its body-on-frame predecessor, it's not the first model to spring to mind when we think of "fun to drive" family cars.

The 2017 model addresses that somewhat. The ride is better, for sure. It's more composed and more predictable. The quicker steering is not quite as noticeable as we'd hoped, but it's still an agreeable upside. We were pleased with the comfortable ride and relatively unobtrusive road and wind noise--all pluses for family road-tripping.

Thankfully, the re-engineered 3.5L V6 delivers as promised. We found it to be responsive, delivering excellent acceleration--both from a stop and in passing situations--and while we still aren't completely in love with CVTs, we'll grudgingly admit that this particular drivetrain pairing works pretty darned well. The (relatively) large, naturally aspirated engine doesn't create the same NVH nightmares you typically experience in cars equipped with CVTs, and that makes a huge difference in terms of noise comfort. We also found that it didn't seem to hunt around for ratios as incessantly as it did previously, perhaps due at least in part to the V6's increased torque.

We were also pleased with the infotainment system improvements. Despite some glaring omissions (which we'll get to in a moment), it was responsive and relatively easy to navigate thanks to increased use of icons rather than endless text.

What doesn'tWe have two major gripes with the 2017 Pathfinder--one relating to the infotainment system and the other to its driving manners. We'll start with the latter.

Despite the quicker steering and suspension improvements, the 2017 Pathfinder is not a precision instrument. There's very little steering feedback and quite a bit of on-center vagueness, meaning any glance away from the road is an opportunity for wayward meanderings. We're not typically fans of lane departure warning systems, but experiences like this remind us why they're becoming ever more popular.

Our second gripe revolves around connectivity. Like the rest of Nissan's U.S. lineup, the 2017 Pathfinder is conspicuously unavailable with either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay support, and from what we're hearing, it's not a "maybe later" sort of situation. The hardware simply isn't compatible, meaning we'll have to wait for another overhaul (at this point, likely a redesign) before either is supported.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2017 Nissan Pathfinder is more of the same, but that's not a bad thing. The three-row segment is a crowded one, and loyalties are starting to matter more than they once did. Those who liked the 2016 Pathfinder will feel right at home here, and buyers coming from another manufacturer will find enough familiarity in both features and driving style to acclimate quickly.

2017 Nissan Pathfinder base price, $TBA

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Nissan.

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