I'm a big fan of Nissan's latest Pathfinder — a roomy, quick-handling seven-passenger crossover-type SUV with decent fuel economy, slick looks and a healthy dose of usable technology. What's not to like? Well, good as the gas mileage is, Nissan figures it could be better.
The 2014 Pathfinder Hybrid is nearly 20 percent more fuel efficient than it's gas sibling, but to find out how it performs Nissan invited me to drive a production-intent prototype on a short loop through the streets of downtown Nashville, Tenn.
Outwardly, there isn't much to distinguish the Hybrid from the normal Pathfinder. Some LED taillights and Hybrid badging are pretty much the only indication that this is a gas-electric ride. Inside, it's the same situation — there are no clues, other than some new display screens, that you're driving anything other than your average Pathfinder.
The Hybrid's lithium-ion battery is under the third-row seat, so even that doesn't impact interior room. But push the start button and get underway, and you won't soon forget that you're driving a Hybrid model, because it feels nothing like a normal Pathfinder - and that's a problem.
To make the Hybrid, Nissan swapped out the Pathfinder's smooth 3.5-liter V-6 engine for a supercharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder paired to a 15-kilowatt electric motor. That motor is integrated into the Nissan Intelligent Dual Clutch System that manages power from both the gas engine and the electric motor, sandwiched between the engine and the standard continuously variable transmission. This is the same system that debuted in the 2011 Infiniti M Hybrid, a rear-wheel-drive luxury car that made much more power than the Pathfinder Hybrid; it's been detuned here for the more sedate front-wheel-drive application of a family-hauling crossover.
Pop the shifter into drive, push the accelerator and the Pathfinder Hybrid initially rolls forward on the electric motor — which is to say a little hesitantly. Put your foot into it, however, with a more aggressive start and the gas engine adds decently quick, if noisy, acceleration. Regardless of model, any Nissan I've tested with the 2.5-liter engine and CVT makes a lot of noise under full throttle, and the Pathfinder Hybrid is no exception. With a combined 250 horsepower, the Hybrid is only 10 horses shy of the regular Pathfinder, and actually beats it in torque ratings (243 pounds-feet for the Hybrid versus 240 for the gas), so it's not slow. But the hybrid drive system itself isn't pleasant. The engine automatically stops and starts on its own but sometimes causes hesitation when it does so. Driving up a hill in downtown Nashville, I let off the accelerator and the engine cut out, but when I got on the gas again the lurch of the engine restarting and providing power was not proportional to the pedal position. It makes smooth driving rather difficult.
And then there are the brakes. Regenerative braking — using the motor to slow the vehicle and recapture some energy for the batteries — happens in all hybrids and electric vehicles, and some automakers do it better than others. Initial braking in the Pathfinder Hybrid is fine, but coming to a complete stop creates a low-speed lurch every time. Once stopped the engine usually cuts out — leaving you in relative silence, but I was still able to hear a chorus of hybrid system clanks, burps, gurgles and thunks from under the vehicle. When sitting at a stop with the engine off it's possible to restart the engine by moving your foot around on the brake pedal, but it will immediately shut off again. I was able, at a traffic light, to get the engine to stop and restart four times without ever lifting my foot off the brake or moving the crossover at all.
The benefit of adding this hybrid drivetrain to the Pathfinder lineup is boosted fuel economy — it is EPA rated at 25/28/26 mpg city/highway/combined (27 mpg highway with AWD). That's an 18 percent improvement over the Pathfinder V-6, and using the same size gas tank enables the Hybrid to go 546 miles between fill-ups. It's an improvement over Ford's turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder EcoBoost available in the Explorer, which turns in gas mileage numbers of 20/28/23, but that engine isn't available with all-wheel-drive like it is in the Nissan. The better-matched competitor is the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which gets 28 mpg across the board, and does so with standard all-wheel drive while retaining the 3.5-liter V-6 from the regular Highlander. Nissan comes in less expensive, however, with a significant price advantage over the Highlander Hybrid.
The parts of the Pathfinder Hybrid that do work well are the ones that carry over from the regular Pathfinder. Ride and handling are still top-notch — it corners and cruises very well for such a big crossover. It's also very quiet at speed, with minimal wind and road noise reaching the cabin. Seats are comfortable, visibility is good, and there's plenty of room for everyone inside or to haul a big load home from Costco. But the hybrid system itself feels unfinished and coarse.
Nissan's pricing for the Pathfinder Hybrid is attractive with a starting price of $35,970, including an $860 destination fee for the SV two-wheel-drive model. Two higher trim levels are available, the SL and the Platinum, ranging up to a starting price of $45,210 for a loaded Platinum four-wheel drive. This represents a whopping $5,060 less than the starting price of a 2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, or $3,520 less when the four-wheel-drive versions are compared. While the Pathfinder can be optioned up to match the Highlander for comfort and luxury items, the lower cost of entry may be appealing to family buyers. Once Nissan irons out the refinement of the hybrid system to match the smoothness of the Highlander Hybrid, it should be more appealing.