Nissan has been a strong player in the midsize SUV market ever since the first Pathfinder made its debut in 1987. Back then, it was based on the then-new, mas macho Hardbody truck platform--remember that flared-fender beast that muscled out the bland, boxy Datsun pickup?--and immediately found favor with sport/utility buyers.

While Pathfinders sold during the 2001-2004 model years are the fourth generation of the SUV, they are the first to benefit from Nissan's decision to build the Xterra. How? With the Xterra on the scene in 2000, Nissan could appeal to the younger crowd with a slightly brash, more extroverted truck-based 'ute. Having that part of the market covered, the company made the Pathfinder more upscale, moving the vehicle away from its original body-on-frame foundation to unibody construction shared with the then-recently launched Infiniti QX4 luxury SUV.

For the fourth-gen, Nissan did some cleaning up in the engine room. The old SOHC V-6 was dumped in favor of a new 3.5-liter DOHC V-6. Power rose from a comparatively paltry 170 horsepower to 240. Actually, there was a 250-horse version, but only with the five-speed manual, and that trans came only in the lower-end SE model. Nissan decided to up the Pathfinder's profile, equipping a large portion of the Pathfinder build with leather, automatic transmissions, and sophisticated AWD systems.

Indeed, the lower trim levels could be equipped either as rear drive or with a conventional transfer-case 4WD setup, including low range; this system was intended only for slippery conditions. New to the Pathfinder lineup was the All-Mode electronic 4WD system borrowed from the QX4.

Nissan had the Pathfinder well under control during this generation's four-year span, so relatively few changes were made. In 2002, a new grille was introduced just as the base XE model was dropped, making the SE and the LE the only trim levels from which to choose. For 2003, Nissan offered a Vehicle Dynamic Control Package, including traction control, Vehicle Dynamic Control--Nissan's term for stability control--and a tire-pressure-monitoring system. In the final year of this generation, the LE model became the Platinum Edition. Because Nissan altered so little--and virtually nothing of consequence in the drivetrain--the decision about which model year you choose comes down to price, condition, and equipment.

Generally, the Pathfinder seems to provide strong, reliable service, though owners occasionally complain about sub-20s fuel economy even with just six cylinders under the hood. Even though the Pathfinder is based on Nissan's compact pickup, it's really not a Jeep-like off-roader. Apparently, the front suspension is prone to suffer from off-road abuse. Online guides recommend checking the suspension for damage and listening carefully for creaking and groaning during the test drive. In addition, this generation of Pathfinder became much more electronically sophisticated--particularly with the All-Mode 4WD system--so check all the accessories and systems, and be sure the Check Engine light is not on during your test drive.


2001-2004 Nissan Pathfinder
Body type Four-door SUV
Drivetrain Front engine, RWD/4WD
Airbags Dual front
Engines 3.5L/240-250 hp DOHC V-6
Brakes, f/r Disc/drum, ABS
Price range, whlsl/ret (IntelliChoice) $4956/$8049 (2001 RWD XE); $8485/$12,582 (2004 4WD Platinum Edition)
Recalls Too many to list, see www.intellichoice.com
NHTSA frontal impact rating, driver/pass 5 stars/5 stars