Pathfinder took a leaf out of the HiLux/4Runner book when it was launched back in the mid-1980s. Using what were basically Navara ute panels and chassis, the carmaker created a compact wagon with true 4x4 running gear. Its key difference was styling – penned at Nissan’s California studios it was unlike other Japanese vehicles of the time.
In February 1988, the Pathfinder range was expanded, to include DX and ST specification levels. Then in January 1990, the DX equipment level was raised to almost ST level, while the ST was equipped with power windows and central locking.
The next upgrade was in October 1992, when a four-door body was released, with 3.0-litre V6 power and an automatic transmission option. Variable damping shock absorbers were standard on the Ti.
Evolution continued and the 1994 models were distinguished by a new interior, with a curved dashboard. The Ti version scored aluminium wheels. An optional CD stacker and leather upholstery were also added.
In November 1995, a completely new Pathfinder was released: the first monocoque (unit construction) large 4x4 wagon out of Japan. Two models were available: the RX and the Ti, with both having the same 3.3-litre petrol V6/automatic transmission powertrain.
The Pathfinder had a tough row to hoe, because it started off with lacklustre performance and came up against the marketing might of Toyota which was pushing the 4Runner. When it did get the right engine, it then had to compete with a V6 Toyota offering, plus the four-litre, bargain-priced Jeep Cherokee.
On top of that, the Pathfinder was stuck with a part-time 4x4 system while others were benefiting from full-time or on-demand systems.
Nissan corrected the 4x4 drivetrain situation in February 1999, with the introduction of All-Mode 4WD. This drive system is still used in the current Pathfinder and uses a multi-plate wet clutch in the transfer case to distribute torque automatically in the ‘Auto’ setting to as much as 50:50 front:rear.
At the same time as All-Mode was introduced Nissan upgraded the Pathfinder by introducing a CD player.
The next upgrade came in 2002, with a facelift that included roof rails and cross bars on the Ti and cruise control. That package was enhanced further in 2003 by the addition of leather upholstery to the Ti model.
What you get
The original Pathfinder's onroad performance was awful thanks to Nissan's carburettored Z24 four-cylinder petrol engine good for just 74kW at 4800rpm and 177Nm at 2800rpm. The engine was a good bush slogger but a slug on the highway. Only the ST came with a limited slip rear differential.
The 3.0-litre V6 introduction was timely and transformed the Pathfinder. The engine had better on and offroad characteristics than the V6 in Toyota's 4Runner. The Pathie’s handling was also better than the Toyota.
Compared with the previous Pathfinder, the 1996 model's V6 power of 125kW at 4800rpm was a 12kW improvement, thanks to a displacement increase from 3.0 to 3.3 litres. Peak torque was 266Nm -- up only 18Nm -- but it was produced at a very useful 2800rpm (12000rpm lower than the previous engine). Matched to a new electronically-controlled four-speed automatic transmission, the modest outputs translated into rapid progress.
What made the Pathfinder such a pleasant vehicle to steer on all road surfaces was its balanced handling and sharp steering. The Pathie was the first 4x4 wagon to have the benefits of McPherson strut front suspension in conjunction with a coil-sprung live axle at the back.
Unfortunately Nissan cut back on powertrain sophistication to limit costs. Since the pre-1999 Pathfinder had no central differential or viscous coupling, it could only be put into 4x4 only in true off-road conditions (lest expensive transmission damage occur). Thus a pre-1999 Pathfinder could be in limbo on tracks too firm for 4x4 engagement but offering marginal 2WD grip such as tight, winding dirt roads or bitumen that had random ice patches. In such conditions most of its opposition machines could be in full-time 4x4 or have automatic or manual selection of it.
In low-range driving conditions, Pathfinders were surprisingly agile, however, with much better front suspension travel than the equivalent Pajero, for example.
Despite their old-fashioned disc/drum braking arrangement, Pathfinders pulled up well -- with or without the antilock braking option. There were, however, badly affected by water crossings which doused the rear drums.
Fuel consumption when new varied from around 13L/100km for bitumen cruising, up to around 30L/100km for offroad slogging.
The Pathfinder's driving ergonomics were very good, with an excellent driver's position and well-placed instruments and controls. The V6 models had a quiet interior, with little mechanical or road noise intrusion.
Of the early models, the ST is the preferred used-vehicle buy, because standard equipment included a tachometer, tilt steering column, a height-adjustable driver's seat and an external spare wheel carrier.
An infuriating cost-cut saw manual door locking on the 1996-model RX but without pop-up door buttons! You needed long arms to reach inside the front door openings to lift the rocker switches, halfway down the rear doors. This situation was rectified in October 1997, when central locking was incorporated.
Pathfinders always had funny tailgates, but the original model’s was easier to live with than post-1996 versions which had insufficient travel on the lift-up tailgate, putting the sharp edge of the door right at temple level for the 1.8-metre-tall brigade. Ouch!
Nissan Pathfinders don’t have serious in-service problems and many have never been offroad making them ideal used-4x4 buys. A consistent service history is the best guide to vehicle condition.