The SUV market has changed greatly since the first-generation Nissan Pathfinder made its debut in 1986, with car-based unibody construction models now making up the overwhelming majority of the options. Even the Ford Explorer, widely credited with popularizing the SUV in the early 1990s, abandoned its body-on-frame roots for a unibody platform in 2011. Thus, it was hardly surprising to find that the decidedly rounder and sleeker 2013 Nissan Pathfinder was following Ford's path.

Depending on configuration, the new Pathfinder is up to 500 pounds lighter than its predecessor despite being larger in every dimension except height. The wheelbase is 2 inches longer, overall length is up nearly 5 inches, and width is up more than 4. As result of this repackaging, interior volume grows by 8.4 cubic feet. The drop in height, meanwhile, totals 2 inches, part of which can be attributed to an equivalent reduction in ground clearance, which now sits at 6.5 inches.

Nissan is claiming best-in-class overall passenger interior volume, front seat head- and legroom. While we can vouch for the front seats being quite comfortable, the Pathfinder subjectively still trails the GM Lambda triplets for third-row comfort. However, it's important to keep in mind the Chevrolet Traverse rides on a 5-inch-longer wheelbase and stretches approximately 6 inches longer overall.

Reflecting its more family-friendly orientation, Nissan is especially proud of its EZ Flex seating with Latch and Glide, which allows the second-row seat to be moved forward with a child seat still attached. The second-row seat can also be moved fore and aft for optimal passenger comfort.

The biggest improvement, both relative to its predecessor and compared with its competitors, is fuel economy. The two-wheel-drive Pathfinder earns an EPA rating of 20/26 mpg, and the four-wheel-drive model gets 19/25. The front-drive Explorer V-6 and Chevrolet Traverse get 17/24 mpg, the Toyota Highlander, 18/24, and the Honda Pilot, 18/25. More impressive, it’s a massive 5/4mpg city/highway improvement over the outgoing Pathfinder.

Power for the 2013 Nissan Pathfinder still comes from a V-6, but the engine downsized by a half-liter. In fact, the 260-hp, 240-lb-ft, 3.5-liter V-6 is the only engine available -- the burly 5.6-liter V-8 optional on the 2012 Pathfinder is gone – and Nissan’s CVT is the sole available gearbox. Although the new Pathfinder is built on the same line and shares much of its hardware with the Infiniti JX35, there are a few notable differences, one of the most significant of which is a hardware change in the CVT. It uses a steel chain-link pulley instead of a belt, which allows the Pathfinder to tow 5000 pounds. The JX and its belt-driven CVT are limited to just 3500. Performance is competitive for the three-row crossover segment, with our fully equipped 4WD Platinum model going 0-60 in 7.6 seconds, and completing the quarter mile in 15.9 seconds at 90.1 mph.

Although the topline Platinum trim is well-equipped with leather seating, heated and cooled seats for and front passenger, power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with memory, including the driver's seat and exterior mirrors, and a power rear liftgate, the Pathfinder does forsake a few features found on competitors. HID headlights and LED driving lights or taillights are not available on any trim level at any price. Nissan representatives were somewhat vague on the reasoning, but acknowledged product differentiation from the platform-mate Infiniti JX is a logical conclusion.

Noise, vibration, and harshness are well-controlled in the Pathfinder. The 3.5-liter V-6 goes about its business unobtrusively, but not anonymously. Road noise is also well-isolated. An unlike many other companies that offer CVT transmissions, Nissan doesn't try to mask its configuration with artificially superimposed "ratios" to mimic the operation of a conventional automatic. Nissan sees the CVT's smooth, stepless operation as an asset and has tuned the transmission to match the engine's power and torque output well. Even at wide-open throttle, the engine doesn't just hang at redline as do some CVTs. The Pathfinder will briefly rev up, but then adjusts engine rpm and transmission ratio appropriately.

Staying focused on the core content and features that consumers asked for allows the base Pathfinder S model to come in at a competitive $28,270. Assuming the same $825 destination fee as the current model, that brings the total to $29,095, undercutting the starting MSRP of the 2012 model by more than $1000. It's also $600 less than the starting price for the Explorer, and undercuts the starting MSRP of a Toyota Highlander V-6 by more than $2000. It puts the 2013 Pathfinder's price a mere $10 more than a four-cylinder Highlander. Nissan has not announced pricing for the other trim levels, but it's clear value is going to be a big part of the new Pathfinder's marketing strategy. Although the Pathfinder's starting price is noteworthy, Nissan expects the volume seller to be the SL trim, and notes approximately 50 percent of midsize SUVs and crossovers are sold with leather upholstery.

The 2013 Nissan Pathfinder may not be the rough-and-tumble bruiser its predecessor was, but marketplace realities mandated a change, as the outgoing Pathfinder sold only a little over 20,000 units a year, compared with close to 100,000 for most of the popular midsize three-row crossovers. It’s clear Nissan has left a lot of potential sales on the table in the lucrative segment. The 2013 Pathfinder looks to be a solid entry, and could become a major player among midsize crossovers, just as the strong-selling Rogue has been a surprise in the compact segment.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder 4WD Platinum
BASE PRICE (S FWD) $29,095 (est)
PRICE AS TESTED $ N/A
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, 4WD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 3.5L/260-hp/240-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION Cont variable auto
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4536 lb (54/46%)
WHEELBASE 114.2 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 197.2 x 77.2 x 69.6 in
0-60 MPH 7.6 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.9 sec @ 90.1 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 124 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.75 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 29.2 sec @ 0.53 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON (FWD/4WD) 19-20/25-26 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 169/130 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 EMISSIONS 0.87 lb/mi