The new Nissan Pathfinder made a bold departure from its ute-based predecessor when it arrived last October, bringing with it a more car-like execution and greater cabin flexibility.
This shift in execution made a great deal of sense in that it took Nissan back right to where the money at this end of the market lies (Pathfinders of two-generations ago had a more car-like layout) and gave it a viable rival to the likes of the popular Toyota Kluger.
As with the Toyota, and unlike the outgoing Pathfinder, this new US-made option launched with a glaring omission: no diesel option. It was a big move, given the existing Pathie was only sold as a diesel in its twilight years.
While being petrol-drive is not such a big deal in North America, oil-burning engines are the go-to choice in Australia — even if the dominant Toyota has managed to somewhat buck the trend, along with (to a much lesser degree) Mazda and its CX-9.
Most key players in the large seven-seat SUV space - including the locally made Ford Territory and the South Korean-sourced Holden Captiva 7, Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento - come with a diesel offering. More rugged offerings such as the Isuzu MU-X come with nothing else.
But unlike Toyota or Mazda, Nissan Australia has a consolation prize in the form of what you see here, the Pathfinder Hybrid, which pairs a petrol engine to an electric motor and a battery pack to cut fuel use over the regular V6 petrol models by about 15 per cent.
With claimed combined-cycle fuel use of 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres (91 RON fuel), the AWD Ti variant tested here is in fact nominally more fuel efficient than a turbo-diesel Ford Territory, though about 20 per cent off the Santa Fe and Sorento. Of course, petrol is cheaper at the bowser than diesel.
Furthermore, hybrid powertrains are at their most efficient at low speeds in urban areas, where the battery does more of the heavy lifting. This sort of inner-city driving is precisely where the average Pathfinder Hybrid will spend much of its time, on school runs and the like.
Theoretically, considering our generally positive review of the regular model thanks mainly to its hugely practical and cavernous cabin, this model should be on the money. But then again, you pay for the privilege.
Like the average diesel, this hybrid costs $3000 more than the petrol equivalent. At $68,090 plus on-road costs as tested in flagship, top-of-the-pops guise, it’s far from cheap (you can have an entry ST version with 2WD for $42,990, or an ST-L 4WD for $57,490), though it’s about on par with a Kluger Grande.
You’ll get a diesel Territory Titanium for a shade under $60K, and a Santa Fe Highlander for $52K, though each is smaller inside.
See full pricing and specifications here.
So the question emerges: does the Pathfinder Hybrid address one key shortcoming — fuel efficiency — of the regular petrol model sufficiently to offset its cost premium?
Under the bonnet in place of the regular 190kW/325Nm 3.5-litre V6 sits a direct-injected 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine with a supercharger, paired to a 15kW electric motor and a 144-volt lithium-ion battery pack under the cargo floor. Total output is 188kW at 5600rpm and 330Nm at 3600rpm.
The Hybrid channels power to both axles as required via an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT). Mercifully, Nissan hasn’t bothered to fit stepped artificial manual ratios like some other brands. They would be supremely pointless on this lumbering giant.
Unique to the Hybrid is a dual-clutch system (of a different sort), with one that operates the engine and one that manages engagement of the electric motor. The electric torque-assist motor also acts as a power generator during braking (regenerative) and deceleration.
Supposedly improving refinement are the active engine mounts to counteract vibrations from the smaller engine, and Active Noise Control, a system which cancels outside noise by piping equal and opposite sound frequencies into the cabin. The Pathie is indeed supremely quiet, and certainly more refined than an average diesel.
The powerplant hustles the Pathfinder along in urban environments well enough and in relative quietude. The CVT has some signature drone, and showed a penchant for holding the engine around 3000rpm at highway speeds.
We did, on the other hand, record commendable fuel use on our stop-start urban loop of 7.4L/100km, and around 9.0L/100km combined. Keep your right foot on a leash and you can keep fuel use fairly muzzled.
What the powerplant lacks is the mumbo of the V6, which is smoother and crisper. It doesn’t leap off the line like a Kluger V6, nor does it offer the endless reservoirs of low-down torque of a diesel, like the ripper Hyundai Santa Fe/Kia Sorento unit. Towing capacity is reduced from 2700 kilograms in the V6 to 1650kg, too.
At 2073kg, the Hybrid is only 8kg heavier than the equivalent AWD Ti with a V6. It’s still a heavy beast though, and its numb regenerative brakes that feel wooden at first, and bite sharply near the end of the pedal travel, amplify this perception. It’s an acquired taste, but you get used to it.
The car itself is, as its US roots suggest, softy sprung, but its body control is acceptable over most surfaces. The sole concern is the fact that the 20-inch wheels make it a trifle fidgety over low-speed corrugations, such as the tram-infested roads of Melbourne.
Let’s switch to the inside: the seven-seat cabin is massive. When Nissan says seven seats, it really means it. The Pathfinder is 140mm longer than a Kluger at a tick over 5.0 metres, and has three properly useable rows.
The middle row has a pair of cushy outboard seats trimmed in leather, with three cupholders in each door (the whole car has 14 in total, for some reason). The are also two screens, each in the back of the driver/passenger headrest, and full ventilation controls amidships.
This middle bench, which splits 60:40, tilts and slides, and pitches forwards via a simple and high-mounted latch to provide access to the third row. The generous travel makes egress from there easier than in many rivals. There are also vents and cupholders for backseat bandits.
Flip the second and third rows downwards and you get a flat-ish loading space, though the bulky seats do not fit flush into the floor. The battery’s compact size means the Pathfinder Hybrid shares the same rear occupant space and cargo capacity as its V6 counterpart.
Access to the rear loading area is via an electric button in this spec. Under the loading floor is a tyre-change kit, and a space-saver spare wheel is mounted under the car itself.
Up front, the cabin is largely functional but not overly inspiring. In the topline Ti grade, which comes packed to the nines with a standard equipment list as long as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Features include a three-pane panoramic sunroof, 20-inch alloy wheels, the aforementioned power tailgate, a 360-degree bird’s-eye Around View Monitor, satellite navigation (which really ought to be available on lower grades), a BOSE audio system, 8.0-inch colour LCD display, a 9Gb music box, a dual seven-inch rear screen DVD entertainment system with IR headphones, wired jack and remote control, heated and cooled front seats, reverse synchronisation mirrors and memory settings for the steering wheel and driver's seat.
Less inspiring is the layout of the dashboard fascia. Up top is the infotainment screen flanked by an array of buttons that adjust functions such as the maps, audio system outputs and driving information such as energy flow, fuel economy and maintenance.
Below are the audio controls — a feature you’d expect to be positioned higher up — while lower on the fascia still are the ventilation dials that are partially obscured by the gear-shifter. The whole arrangement is a little counter-intuitive at first (yes, you adapt with time) and fussy in its execution.
The quality is good at least, though the faux wood on the transmission tunnel feels a little cheap. Storage and functionality in other areas is also excellent: there is a huge two-layered console, three 12V adaptors, large door pockets and storage under the fascia.
The foot-operated parking brake may save space on the transmission tunnel, but it feels old-world.
Potential customers should note that, unlike many other hybrids on the market which are offered with warranties up to 10 years for their batteries and electrics systems, the Pathfinder Hybrid is not covered by an extended warranty, meaning the standard three-year, 100,000km cover applies. Servicing is every six months or 7000km for the first six years or 84,000km of ownership, with an above-average annual fee of $644.50.
We'll be honest: we still think a diesel fills the role at this end of the market better. A good oil-burner is punchier down low, and can tow that big boat or caravan. That said, the Pathfinder hybrid does what is promised on the box.
It saves fuel over its V6 sibling, though you pay for the privilege. Lower down in the range is where we suspect it would really come into its own. The base version Pathfinder Hybrid ST 2WD - priced at $42,990 - may lack some goodies but could be a sharper offering, given it has the same momentous amount of space and likely a softer ride on its chubbier tyres.
Whatever your take, it's an interesting exercise and we commend Nissan Australia for doing all it can to offer a greener alternative to its big V6, even if it's not in the form we'd suggest suits the car best.