I have zero patience with people who make pricing comparisons between new cars and used cars. It is almost always done to show off the supposedly superior financial acumen, automotive knowledge, or enthusiast credentials of the person making the comparison. “I sure feel bad for that single mother emergency-room nurse who just wasted her money on a new CR-V. Doesn’t she know that she could get an ’86 Silver Spur for that kind of money? Or a early 308GTS roller chassis? Or a Cessna 152 that just needs a major overhaul to be pretty close to airworthy?” I have a pal, Freddy, who specializes in that sort of article for the nice folks at Jalopnik: “For the price of a new Mirage, you could be the owner of a 1991 Mercedes-Benz 600SEL with 178,000 miles on the clock and half of a wiring harness!”
Just this once, however, I am going to make an exception to my own self-imposed rule, and it goes something like this: Last week, I rented the 2016 Nissan Pathfinder S that you see above. I drove it from Columbus, Ohio, to High Point, North Carolina, over the course of a long morning. It was pretty much okay, as you will read below. If you go a Nissan showroom, you will see the 2017 Pathfinder, which offers some nontrivial improvements, starting at $30,200. And you will see the Nissan Rogue Sport, which is the company’s smallest crossover in this market, starting at $21,800 or thereabouts. But if you open up the used-car search engine of your choice, you will see that a 2016 Nissan Pathfinder S — just like the one pictured above with reasonable mileage and still very much under the factory warranty — can be had for the mildly astonishing sum of $18,000.
So let’s evaluate this Pathfinder in the context of its current price, which is $18,000. Is it worth paying less to get “more truck” than you would get with a brand-new Rogue Sport? Or should we leave questions like this to the Bring-A-Trailer types out there?
The fourth-generation Pathfinder arrived in 2013. It’s basically an Altima on stilts, related to the Murano and the Infiniti QX60. The first and third generations of Pathfinder were Frontiers with hard caps, while the second-gen “Pathy” was a unibody unicorn, a sort of weird-science Japanese take on a Grand Cherokee that somehow managed to display all the individual shortcomings typically associated with both body-on-frame and unit-construction SUVs. If you liked the Pathfinder before this one, you’ll want to shop for a used Xterra rather than consider this plump, soft, CVT-equipped tall wagon any further.
The specification of the Pathfinder S is so sparse that I spent most of my drive through West Virginia thinking that I was driving a special rental-only trim. Not until the Burger King at the Beckley service island did I manage to pull up the Nissan website to find out, no, this is actually something Nissan will sell to regular people right off the street. Any attempt to enumerate the standard features of the Pathfinder S quickly devolves into the kind of stuff you used to see in print advertisements for the Chevrolet Chevette: Dual-diagonal braking system! Radial tires! Laminated safety glass! Some of the equipment choices seem just plain mean-spirited, like the power window buttons that clearly have an auto-up feature molded into a the plastic switch but which have just as clearly had that feature disabled so you’ll consider the SV or Platinum trims.
I cannot say I ever got truly comfortable behind the wheel of this Pathfinder. The seats are very high and the dashboard is very low. The tilt wheel doesn’t tilt up very high, either. I had it in my lap the whole time. This is the “command seating position” as theater, and community theater at that. It would probably work much better for a five-foot-four woman, which is a phenotype that must occur far more often in the Pathfinder owner base than does a six-two man with short legs and an ultra-long torso.
The entire cavern, I mean, cabin is rendered in fifty slightly different shades of black. The center console is some sort of fake black bamboo that surrounds a shifter that would make anybody but Anton Yelchin yearn for a Jeep’s rotary transmission controller. Every attempt to shift into “D” results instead in a shift to “L,” which is directly behind “D” and uses the same lockout button position. This is doubly ironic because in an Pathfinder both “D” and “L” are merely different programming modes for the CVT. New Pathfinder owners will find themselves jackrabbiting out of every parking spot and gas station until they learn the appropriate shifter shuffle: Jam it down to “L” then notch it back to “D.” Once you accept the necessity of this annoyance, you will be fine.
The infotainment system appears to be two old-school LCD arrays tossed indifferently into the blank space left by the S model’s lack of a nav screen. I have to admit some genuine affection for the blocky orange displays; they made me nostalgic for the handheld electronic games of my late-Seventies childhood. There’s not quite enough resolution for a decent game of Pong, but I think I could whip up a single-pixel Adventure simulator like the early Atari VCS port, assuming that the player would be okay with a very small cave.
The sound from the stereo system was definitely recognizable as music, though it lacked much of the definition, power, and depth found in such paragons of audio reproduction as the Accord Sport, the standard-equipment iPod earbuds, and the piezo-electric speaker on the motherboard of a Packard Bell PC. It’s very well-suited for talk radio.
None of the above sounds very promising, I have to admit. But there’s some value to be had here. The familiar 3.5-liter Nissan V6, sans direct injection in all model years prior to 2017, is reasonably sprightly and never feels overwhelmed. The CVT is responsive and programmed to act in a consistent, graceful manner. If you put your foot to the floor for an impromptu freeway maneuver, you will probably be satisfied with the power on tap. Fuel economy, too, is entirely acceptable — slightly over 22 miles per gallon through the West Virginia mountains even though I rarely let the speedometer fall beneath 80 mph.
Road noise is more than acceptable and wind noise is almost nonexistent by the standards of the class. The seats are not luxurious but the cloth appears to be utterly unaffected by rental abuse and there is plenty of space in the first two rows.
With the third row down, there is a truly mighty amount of storage area available. I don’t think it’s significantly less than what you’d get from my wife’s Tahoe, although I’m not going to actually check the published storage numbers because I suspect they reflect the Tahoe’s considerably greater width. This would suit the needs of a five-person family in a way that a Nissan Rogue simply cannot.
And that is where this 2016 Pathfinder comes into its own. At eighteen grand, it’s a strong value for a family that doesn’t have money to throw away. It’s efficient, spacious, and entirely free of unnecessary frippery. There’s not much to break in the cabin. All the moving parts are well understood and reasonably reliable. It gets “Good” crash ratings across the board from the IIHS. I would feel comfortable driving my son around in this car-that-pretends-to-be-a-truck.
Once upon a time, I fell in love with a woman who had two young children. She was always a few dollars away from utter financial ruin. Money didn’t mean much to her, which was good because she had no idea how to handle it. After we split up, she bought herself a Pathfinder of the generation previous to this. She drives around now with her new blended family in that Pathfinder, going to parks and lakes and things that are artsy and fun but most importantly free of charge. I think of her sometimes, completely happy in her pretense-free family wagon. You could give her an AMG G65 and she wouldn’t like it any more or get any more use out of it.
This 2016 Pathfinder is a still a good choice for owners like her. If you’re like me, then the automobile plays a starring role in your life — and star quality is one thing that the Pathy doesn’t have. But if you’re the kind of person for whom a vehicle is more of a supporting actor, then the $18,000 used Nissan wagon is absolutely Oscar-worthy.
[Images: © 2017 Jack Baruth]