The topsy-turvy history of the Nissan Pathfinder

Zac Palmer
·4 min read

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With the introduction of the new 2022 Nissan Pathfinder, we wanted to take a look at the long-running SUV's history. And while this Pathfinder is more of an evolution of the previous model, it turns out that the SUV's history is a topsy-turvy one filled with wholesale reinventions.

In quick summary, the Pathfinder went from a body-on-frame, truck-like SUV, to a unibody crossover, back to a body-on-frame SUV, and then back to unibody construction. The flip-flopping finally stops with the fifth generation 2022 Pathfinder that made its debut yesterday, which retains the same unibody construction as the previous Pathfinder.

First generation (1987-1995)

This Pathfinder is the enthusiast darling of the bunch. It started as a two-door, later added a set of rear doors, and shared a front end with the venerable Nissan Hardbody pickup. The rugged body-on-frame chassis meant big off-road performance in this little SUV. It’s hard not to love this Pathfinder’s design. From the three-slot grille to the unique window design and greenhouse, it’s an attractive fellow. Even the four-doors looked good with the intriguing C-pillar-mounted door handles, a feature that became a signature design for both the Pathfinder and the later Xterra. Available engines included a 2.4-liter four-cylinder and 3.0-liter V6, the latter of which maxed out at 153 horsepower after an update for 1990.

A series of commercials featuring the Pathfinder taking the road less traveled to Rio de Janeiro helped catapult the Pathfinder into the enthusiast space and even helped set the tone of selling SUVs as “adventure vehicles” — a story we’ve heard told countless times since. You can see one of the commercials in the series above, and the last commercial in the series on YouTube here.

Second generation (1996-2004)

The 1996 Pathfinder switched to unibody construction and went a very different way in styling. It was still relatively boxy, but with a clear aero slant. It no longer looked like a pickup turned SUV. Appealing to the masses with a better ride and less-focused purpose saw sales rise for the big crossover.

2001 Nissan Pathfinder
2001 Nissan Pathfinder

Another big update came in the 2001 model year where the Pathfinder, now featuring an updated exterior from the 1999 model year, adopted its first VQ-series engine — the 3.5-liter V6. Power rose dramatically to 240 horsepower, which is the single biggest jump in the vehicle’s history.

Third generation (2005-2012)

Things would change dramatically once again in 2005. Just under 10 years from the unibody Pathfinder coming into existence, it went back to body-on-frame construction. Not only that, but the styling switched from its aero look back to a chiseled and blocky off-road vehicle style taken from the Frontier pickup. It used a modified version of the F-alpha platform that also underpinned the new Frontier, Armada and Titan. A 4.0-liter V6 with 266 horsepower was standard, but a 5.6-liter V8 eventually made it under the hood — it made 310 horsepower, 388 pound-feet of torque and could tow up to 7,000 pounds.

In addition to being more utilitarian for hitting the trails or towing things, it also gained a third row of seats. Nissan has kept the third row around ever since.

Fourth generation (2013-2020)

Surprise! Another massive switch-up was in store for the 2013 Pathfinder as it ditched the truck platform for a unibody strategy once again. This Pathfinder is the one we had up until yesterday when Nissan finally pulled the wraps off its fifth-generation car. In addition to the platform change, the design went from tough and rugged to blob-like. The 3.5-liter V6 engine it had was rated for just 240 horsepower (less than both outgoing engines), but fuel economy went up drastically at a time when gasoline was brutally expensive. It also offered a hybrid powertrain for the first time, but that model was discontinued after just one year on sale.

Nissan dropped any off-roading or adventure pretenses with this model. It still offered all-wheel drive, but it was nothing like the enthusiast off-roaders offered in previous generations. Instead, it appealed to families looking for tons of cargo space and three rows of seats. A mild refresh in 2017 improved the looks, but only by a little.

Fifth generation (2022-)

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That brings us to the current generation of Nissan Pathfinder. It keeps the same unibody platform and construction as the outgoing model, but Nissan does move the design needle. It tries to appeal to fans of the original Pathfinder with its three-slot opening in the front, but it’s an effort in appearance only.

For the full download on Nissan’s new Pathfinder, make sure you read our in-depth reveal post where we cover the car from bumper-to-bumper.

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