PATHFINDER is a new name to us, but in other parts the globe it has been around since the 1980s. This model, says Nissan SA, slots in between the X-trail and the Patrol, although it isn’t much smaller than the latter.

At the front, the grille is meaty, imposing and very, very bright. Following the Nissan corporate design, it manages to look more muscular than the X-Trail and Hardbody versions, and other chrome items are restricted to the side mirrors and a strip across the centre of the tailgate. An unusual feature is the position of the rear passenger door handles, placed on the C-pillars instead of the doors themselves. The rear end, as with so many SUV’s and double cabs, is less interesting, with rather ordinary-looking detailing and lighting.

The 4,0-litre engine is a longer stroke version of the 3,5-litre mill used in the 350 Z. If one expected a stretched version to be rougher than the short-stroke derivative, one would be wrong. If anything, it seems smoother, with a seamless spread of torque. 198 kW endows the 2,2 ton heavywight with instantaneous get-up-and-go. Not only that, but the five-speed automatic gearbox has super slick and super quick gear changes.

A rotary switch ahead of the gear lever is used to switch from rear-wheel drive only, to auto 4x4 (sending torque to the front wheels when necessary), to permanent four-wheel drive (50/50 split), to low-range four-wheel drive. All, save the low range engagement, can be done at speeds of up to 100 km/h. Thanks to modern ABS technology, the need for separate limited slip differentials has been replaced by much more affordable electronics using the brakes to stop spinning wheels and allowing others with more traction to get on with the job. With low range engaged and the gear lever held in first, engine braking while descending is substantial, inspiring a good level of confidence.

The interior quality is definitely up-market for a Japanese design, with partial soft-touch facia material and classy controls and buttons. Multi-level air-conditioning is standard and rear passengers have the option of choosing their own temperature and fan speed if the driver moves the relevant control knob to “R”.

The seats are trimmed in black leather. Front seats are not overly supportive but are spacious with sufficient padding. Electrical adjustment is supplied on both front seats in addition to a memory control for the driver. The only small criticism as regards space is the limited room for the driver’s left foot, due to an encroaching transmission tunnel. On exiting, the driver’s seat moves back a couple of centimetres, returning when the driver inserts the key in the ignition once again. This is unnecessary complication on a spacious vehicle, made worse by the fact that now and then the feature would not comply, leaving the driver sitting too far away from the wheel. An overhead sunglasses holder is sensibly large, big enough to house bulkier items.

The sunvisors are large and the driver has an extension piece for added coverage. A small pocket is fitted to the visor for quick storage of parking tickets, cards or a pen. A facia-top bin with flip-up lid is lined, another one (unlined) sits below the ventilation controls with the centre armrest housing a large dual-lidded compartment. Spacious door pockets are supplied and behind the gear lever are the expected tandem drink holders plus a removable ashtray. The front passenger seat backrest can be folded flat for use as a table, or transporting long items. Centre row seats offer sufficient space with adjustable backrests and flipup cushions for temporary item storage. Under the centre cushion is another compartment, handy for concealing valuables such as a camera. The seats can be folded away, creating a flat floor area and the rearmost two seats, normally stashed into the floor, can be folded up from the cargo area. With these in use the Pathfinder still has a respectable load area of 176 dm3. This increases to 432 dm3 with the usual five seats in use and a sizeable 1568 with all seats out of action. The 17-inch alloy wheels are accompanied by an identical spare wheel mounted underfloor.

This vehicle is designed for serious off-road use, judging by the number of grab handles around the cabin. Apart from the four, overhead items, sturdy handles are fitted to both A and B-pillars for help entering or exiting the vehicle. This does help, since the seats are high-mounted, providing a clear view over most other road occupiers. The accelerator is a bit trigger-happy and care needs to be taken not to overdo things when moving off. Acceleration is brisk for such a large vehicle and the torque spread starts from idle and does not stop until the limiter says “whoa”. Accompanying the grunt is an engine growl that is infinitely more satisfying than the clatter of a turbodiesel. In acceleration tests, there was nothing to be gained by using manual shifting to increase the shift point from about 6 100 r/min to 6 400, just before the limiter at 6 500 r/min, so we let the gearbox have things its way and returned a figure of 8,47 seconds from standstill to 100 km/h. Top speed was electronically limited to 191 km/h, and achievable in fourth or fifth gears. Off-road excursions were equally effortless. For most situations the auto selection, using high range with variable drive diverted to the front wheels, was acceptable. For more serious work, the centre diff can be locked for a 50/50 front to rear split and for steeper climbs or descents, low range gives a speed of about 10 km/h at 2 500 r/min.

Fuel consumption? Well, the short answer is “thirsty”, the longer answer says that our best figure, achieved by relaxed trundling about, enjoying the scenery from an elevated perch, was 16,1 l/100 km. The worst was 21,0 l/100 km with more spirited driving including performance testing. Overall consumption depends heavily on the driver’s attitude, but our index gives a figure of 17,7 l/100 km giving a range of 452 km on the 80 litre tank.

The suspension set-up has been softened to allow a comfortable ride on and off-road, a sensible move since this capable vehicle will still spend most of its time on tar. Some shake from the separate-from-body ladder chassis can be felt over small bumps at speed but it is not harsh or disturbing and handles slow-speed bumps and potholes with enough suspension travel to allow passengers not to lose their grip on the grab-handles too often. This means that higher speed lane changes can be unnerving with the high centre of gravity causing the body to sway and pitch. Cornering composure fares better, albeit with plenty of tyre squeal. Steering feel was very communicative. The claimed ground clearance is 234 mm while we measured 225 mm to the engine cover plate with a full tank of fuel. The clearance below the rear differential is slightly more at 250 mm. Approach angle is a generous 35 degrees with a less impressive 27 degrees departure angle.

Test summary

While some may argue that there are too many models on the South African market, at least consumers are spoilt for choice. All road testers were impressed with the all-round character and refinement of this Nissan. A serious competitor to rival established market leaders.