In 2012, Nissan unveiled the latest iteration of its popular midsize sport-utility vehicle, the Pathfinder, for the first time based on a crossover. Gone were the days of body-on-frame, and the built-in-Tennessee Pathfinder would go up against a changing, softer class of sport-utes.
Just about a year into its lifecycle, Nissan is adding a new twist to the Pathfinder's repertoire: a "mild hybrid" option, with the goal of increasing fuel economy without stretching the bottom line too far.
We recently had the chance to try out Nissan's hybrid SUV over a limited test route at a media preview in Nashville.
Exterior: No Major Changes
Subtle changes to the exterior of the 2014 Pathfinder Hybrid serve to differentiate it from non-hybrid models. Spotting the restyled taillights and bespoke badging are your best clues for identifying a Hybrid.
This approach is consistent with others in the midsize crossover sport-utility hybrid class (try saying that three times fast), and from a distance, the non-astute shopper might jumble the Pathfinder's soft lines with those of the Toyota Highlander.
Interior: Familiar, with a Twist
The Hybrid treatment is available on all levels of Pathfinder, save for the stripper S trim. This means that the easy-to-use interface, replete with soft-touch materials and a plethora of knobs on the center stack, remains nearly the same.
The key, noticeable difference on the Pathfinder Hybrid is the inclusion of an energy monitoring gauges on the instrument panel. A charge indicator shows how much battery is available for use, and a separate gauge shows if and how the battery is being used or charged.
A rear-seat entertainment system and a dual panoramic sunroof were fitted to the model tested, extending the feeling of openness and luxury appointments to the rear-seat passengers.
Driving It: Hybrid Tech, Built to a Price
When describing the 2014 Pathfinder Hybrid, Nissan executives were careful to mention that the fitted system is a "mild hybrid," as opposed to a larger, more expensive setup that would require more space for batteries and electrical parts.
The result is a reactive, rather than proactive, powertrain. At standstills, the engine cuts out. Under any acceleration, regardless of the state of the battery's charge, the engine comes to life and acts as the primary source of power. While cruising -- or "sailing," as the automaker describes gradual coasting -- the engine cuts out entirely, presumably for the sake of fuel economy. Regenerative brakes kick in under normal braking, simultaneously recharging the battery.
The experience reads as normal on paper, but there is a noticeable lag between the engine cutoff and restart, which could prove dicey in emergency manuevers that require immediate throttle input. In addition, the Pathfinder Hybrid's air conditioning requires the use of the engine, leaving the hybrid system to boost power, not fuel economy, while the A/C is running.
Otherwise, the Pathfinder Hybrid's supercharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and 15-kW electric motor work together to produce a total of 250 horsepower and 243 lb-ft. of torque. The Hybrid's CVT does a commendable job of delivering smooth power, with torque steer only noticeable when the adaptive all-wheel drive system is left in 2WD.
Is It Worth the Cost?
Across all trim levels (except for the aforementioned S trim), checking the Hybrid option will add $3,000 to the Pathfinder Hybrid's bottom line. The manufacturer argues that a relatively low cost for the hybrid drive system -- compared to some of its competitors' -- will drive customers to consider a hybrid, much as they might consider a traditional option package.
At a starting price of $35,970 (with destination fees included), a front-wheel-drive Pathfinder Hybrid with few options makes sense against a Toyota Highlander Hybrid that starts over 40 grand. Pile on the options, however, and the Pathfinder Hybrid is nipping against the heels of the Infiniti QX60 Hybrid, its platform-mate that comes with an upgraded dealer experience and luxury brand cachet.
We'll have to wait for some more time behind the wheel of the Pathfinder Hybrid, and its competition, to see if the cost of the mild hybrid system does indeed justify the added cost.