My first car was a Nissan Tiida. It was a fuss-free hatchback that felt like a go-kart to drive, and squeezed into tight car parks and narrow streets without breaking a sweat.
Flash forward a decade and I'm reviewing the Nissan Pathfinder – a car that couldn't be further from the trusty Tiida of my teen years. If the Tiida represented my carefree, no-frills, single-girl years, the Pathfinder represents waving goodbye to disposable income and sleep-ins and embracing soccer mum status, stat.
The version I drove was the 2020 Nissan Pathfinder ST-L 4WD N-Trek special edition, a new addition to the range that hit showrooms in February 2020. The seven-seater SUV is purporting to be the ultimate brood transporter, marking itself out from its segment with its practical interior, 4WD capabilities and some added aesthetic X-factor.
But the question is, is it enough to inspire, excite and ignite my inner soccer mum?
At $60,640 plus on-road costs, the ST-L 4WD is the top-spec Pathfinder you can buy with the N-Trek body kit, which basically adds black detailing to the car's exterior. Without all those sexy black accents, the regular ST-L 4WD is $59,140 plus ORCs, so you're paying $1500 extra for the privilege of looking fly as hell.
That compares with the most expensive Pathfinder V6 variant, the 4WD Ti model, which starts at $67,140 plus ORCs or , and the most affordable Pathfinder, the 2WD ST, at $44,240 (plus ORCs).
They all come with a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty.
But how does 60 big ones compare to the rest of the market? Well, similar-spec variants from competing manufacturers include the Mazda CX-9 GT AWD at $65,720, the Skoda Kodiaq 132TSI 4x4 Sportline at $52,190, Hyundai Santa Fe Elite V6 2WD at $51,000 and perhaps the most closely matched rival, the Toyota Kluger GXL with a petrol V6 and all-wheel drive at $58,950, all before on-road costs.
That makes the Pathfinder uppish, if not unreasonable.
Under the bonnet
The Pathfinder ST-L N-Trek scores the same 3.5-litre V6 engine carried across the regular range, which produces an output of 202kW and 340Nm. That's paired with a continuously variable automatic transmission, a combo I found perfectly passable at both low speeds and on the freeway.
Engine noise isn't imperceptible, but the Pathfinder does a good job of cutting through road noise and harshness, although the engine can occasionally feel like it's vibrating slightly on idle.
For off-road enthusiasts, the Pathfinder offers three modes: 2WD, which sends power to the front wheels; 4WD auto, which sends power to the rear wheels if the car senses it's needed; or 4WD-lock mode, which ensures power is distributed evenly between the front and back all of the time.
Not enough to pick through craggy fire-trails or deep mud ruts in the absence of a low-range transfer case (or genuine ground clearance). On the gearstick there's also the 'L' option, or low-gear, which keeps the CVT in a lower gear set, providing slightly more torque useful torque for towing (up to 2700kg) or steep hills.
While the Pathfinder has been around in various forms since the late ’80s, the N-Trek iteration is essentially a cosmetic update across four variants (2WD and 4WD variants of the ST+ and ST-L).
Let's not beat around the bush – it essentially just makes the Pathfinder a little more photogenic, courtesy of black door handles, black roof rails, a black front grille and bigger wheels (same-sized 18-inch alloys with 255mm wide tyres, marking an increase of 20mm over the regular rubber).
There's a slight 'emperor's new clothes' vibe to it all, but I do think the updates modernise what would otherwise be a fairly pedestrian car, while the bigger tyres ensure a smooth ride – not that the standard fitment was lacking to begin with.
The car's inherent utilitarianism extends to the interior, which is clearly designed to accommodate messy kids and dirty dogs with its easy-to-clean black leather seats and hardy plastic dash touches. Not glamorous, but real-world ready.
Space, comfort and practicality
The Pathfinder clocks in at a touch over five metres long, meaning car park overhang is an inevitability you'll have to come to terms with. Turns out seven seats equates to a lot of rows – a set-up that can feel positively cavernous if you, like me, have no offspring. I half expected to yell 'coooo-eeeee' and have my voice reverberate back to me from the boot.
On the plus side, fold the 50:50 split rear row down flat and you'll be able to sleep in the Pathfinder should you find yourself stranded amid this coronavirus apocalypse (I genuinely tested this and, even though I'm almost six-feet tall, I was able to lie flat, albeit on an angle).
Boot space with the rear row up is 453L and 1354L with it folded down (2260L with all rows stowed). So, if you can't fit your luggage in there, only Marie Kondo can save you.
The middle row of seats also has a 'cargo mode' that folds them in half into a 'V' shape to create more floor space if required, while the headrests snap down for easy stowing.
There are seat heaters and cupholders in the front, but back-seat passengers aren't forgotten – the dual sunroof means even the third row is soaked in sunlight, while there are air vents, cupholders and speakers all the way to the back row.
Leg room in each row is also ample and the rear feels like a proper back row, not like the rear-facing, cramped, fold-up seats in the ’90s station wagons of my childhood.
Basically, if you don't need a car, you could purchase the Pathfinder and convert it to a small house, minus the mortgage.
The real price you'll pay for all this extra room? The ST-L is an undisputedly thirsty beast. Nissan claims a combined-cycle fuel consumption figure of 10.1L/100km, which compares to the CX-9 AWD at 9.0L/100km or corresponding Hyundai Santa Fe at 10.6L/100km.
You'd have to be driving fairly conservatively to get that 10.1L figure, however, given according to the car's trip computer, my working week returned a fuel consumption figure approaching 15.0L/100km based purely on city and suburban driving.
This may be an appropriate time to mention that the ST-L 4WD variant is also available as a hybrid (sans N-Trek upgrades), with a claimed fuel consumption figure of 8.7L/100km, for $62,140 – $1500 more than the N-Trek ST-L on test. Not incredible, but better.
Ultimately, if you're someone who frets over fuel consumption, you might be better off choosing a diesel family SUV, or just not having so many children in the first place (I kid, I kid).
Behind the wheel
Despite its heft, I found the Pathfinder unexpectedly zippy to drive – once I managed to figure out where the foot parking brake was. I thought I'd experience that unwieldy, top-heavy sensation you get going around corners in lots of SUVs, but the Pathfinder felt surprisingly tight to the road.
Similarly, steering is unexpectedly light and agile given the size of the car. I wouldn't say the driving experience in the Pathfinder is exhilarating or particularly awe-inspiring, but it's certainly disproportionately nimble for its size.
Where it falls short is purely just handling tight bends or snug parks, where its length encumbers ease of movement.
The Pathfinder ST-L N-Trek scores Nissan’s advanced Intelligent Mobility features as standard, including intelligent emergency braking (AEB) with forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, around-view cameras, and intelligent cruise control.
The ST-L adds adaptive LED headlights with auto-levelling, but misses out on the rear-door alert technology that tells you if you've left your kids unattended in the vehicle. That's available on the top-spec Ti.
It can be difficult to ascertain distance from the car's reverse sensors, which convey a sense of urgency quite far out from an obstacle, meaning I often unnecessarily parked a metre away from the garage wall.
All in all, key safety boxes are ticked, with a highlight being the car's overhead camera that can counteract the difficulties imposed by its sheer size.
On the tech side of things, I personally found the Pathfinder's dash set-up immediately overwhelming. There are buttons galore, but the infotainment screen itself is dated and certainly a lot more basic than others in this class. A major oversight is the lack of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay – although the car's Bluetooth system will read your text messages out to you – and a head-up display.
What you do get works well, though, particularly the sat-nav, which is precise, user-friendly and displayed both as a split-screen on the main monitor and in between the instrument clusters.
Finally, Bluetooth pairing was occasionally temperamental, so I preferred to plug my phone in via USB, but I loved the 13-speaker Bose stereo, which produced great sound throughout the car.
If practicality is the name of the game, the ST-L N-Trek certainly covers all bases. It’s a versatile family car with plenty of room that treats its back-seat bandits as well as it does its front-seat occupants.
The N-Trek update adds some much-needed pizzazz to the car’s exterior, giving it a more premium look than previous versions. Somehow, the Pathfinder manages to retain a zippy feel on-road despite its length, which can make it feel cumbersome at times.
Safety and tech offerings are comprehensive, if not groundbreaking, although the interior finishes and infotainment system feel like they belong to a cheaper car.
Value for money would be my only question here, with the car’s uppish pricepoint and thirsty engine potentially ruling it out for bargain hunters – although you certainly get bang for your buck when it comes to price-per-centimetre.
It's definitely a worthy contender, but I'd advise exploring other options to see whether the added space, functionality and practicality make it worth sacrificing other perks.
Soccer mum Susannah, signing off.