To be honest, the 2013-2020 Nissan Pathfinder lost us. Its jarringly abrupt transition from a burly, square-jawed, broad-shouldered, rear-drive-truck-based bushwhacker to a kinder, gentler, lozenge-shaped, FWD-car-based soft-roader prompted us to dub it the “Mallfinder.” That pejorative has dogged the model ever since.

Towing capacity dropped by one ton, and the Pathfinder’s off-road clearance dimensions went all carlike. On the upside, the space-efficient sideways powertrain freed up abundant passenger and cargo space. Curb weight plunged by about 400 pounds, and fuel economy jumped by 30 percent. But our enthusiasm for the Nissan dropped by considerably more than that.

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder doesn’t return to a truck frame or V-8 power, and there’s no lift kit to restore the R51-generation’s ground clearance figures. But by squaring up the styling, ditching the continuously variable transmission for a proper nine-speed planetary-gear transmission, and applying a decade’s worth of technical know-how to the AWD system, Nissan has us cautiously optimistic this new R53 2022 Pathfinder might restore some credibility to its storied name.

The CVT is Dead. Long Live the 9A!

Allow us to sing a hosanna or two for this transmission. Although we have no evidence to suggest that a belt clamped between two shiny, variable-diameter pulleys (CVT) can’t reliably tow 6,000 pounds, we just inherently trust enmeshed gear teeth to do this job better over the long run.

Nissan says the new nine-speed automatic has a 55 percent broader gear ratio spread than the former Xtronic CVT. The shorter first gear provides 38 percent more leverage to the torque acting on the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder’s wheels, so we expect 0-60 times to improve even though power, torque, and curb weights mostly carry over. The new transmission should more confidently accelerate a 6,000-pound travel trailer, and a new trailer-sway control system will keep it in line. (Nissan notes that towing capacities top out at 5,000-5,600 pounds for most competitors.)

By keeping the overall top-gear ratio close to the CVT’s and adding auto stop/start, the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder’s fuel economy mostly improves, with AWD models gaining a single mpg in city and combined ratings. Proving that you can’t assess aerodynamics with your eyes, the blockier new bodywork is sleeker than the outgoing lozenge; its drag coefficient drops from 0.34 to 0.32. But wider tires and bodywork add frontal area, lowering highway economy by a single mpg on front-drive and Platinum AWD models.

How Good Is the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder at Finding Paths?

Should you venture off the beaten path, the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder finally provides one of those de rigueur dial-a-terrain knobs, complete with a hill descent control switch in the center. (The outgoing model provided only a simple 4WD lock.) Its seven modes include Standard, Sport, Eco, Snow, Sand, Mud/Rut, and Tow. As with most such systems, each mode modifies throttle response, VDC tuning, steering weight, and 4WD torque distribution.

But that knob isn’t the biggest off-road improvement. The mechanism that engages drive to the rear wheels is also greatly improved. A motor-actuated clamp can now proactively engage drive to the rear in varying amounts up to a 50/50 split. Previously, engaging the rear axle required activating an electromagnetic clutch that then relied on a certain degree of front wheel slippage to lock a multiplate clutch. This slurred the initial application and risked bogging the front wheels.

We had a chance to sample the Pathfinder at southeast Michigan’s new Holly Oaks ORV Park, where Ford has demonstrated the Bronco and Bronco Sport. We didn’t attempt all the same obstacles, but on all-season 255/50R20 Hankook Dynapro HP2 tires, the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder scaled slippery grades with relative ease in both Sand and Mud/Rut modes, allowing the brakes to sort out side-to-side slippage.

Hill descent control effectively maintains the speed at which you release the accelerator, and a handy forward camera helps you see the trail when cresting a hill, superimposing useful lines that indicate the direction the body is pointed and the arc the wheels are aimed to follow. Sadly, this camera shuts off when the front wheels hit 6.2 mph, and this happens frequently even at much lower vehicle speeds in slippery conditions, due to wheelspin.

What About Carving Paths on Pavement?

Back on pavement, the widened track and tire contact patches team with increased roll stiffness (up 28 percent in front, 14 percent in back) to provide sure-footed and stable handling. The ride is appropriately firm and controlled, and it all sounds plusher than it is, thanks to added sound-deadening materials. Nissan claims rough road noise at 30 mph drops by a full decibel, and engine noise under hard acceleration and wind/road noise at highway speeds are similarly stifled. All the better to enjoy the 13-speaker Bose premium audio system (standard on Platinum, or part of a $2,900 SL Premium package).

The full suite of Nissan Safety Shield 360 gear comes standard on all new Pathfinder models. This can be upgraded with ProPilot Assist (adaptive cruise, steering assist, traffic sign recognition) and further enhanced with Navi-Link to slow for freeway curves and exit ramps. Our Platinum test vehicle had the whole megillah, and we appreciated its alerts about changes in speed limit. Pressing “OK” resets at the new limit, but more often we’d just manually reset to 10 mph over the new limit. We do wish the system beeped and chimed less. Like many Subarus, it sings whenever the lane markers come and go and in response to other triggers we never identified. TMI. And even after we unchecked “alert” on lane departure, the steering wheel continued to buzz every time we strayed over a line.

How Do People and Stuff Fit in the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder?

This butch new Pathfinder will really win families over with its attention to passenger- and cargo-carrying details. Got kids in car seats? Wider-opening rear doors with handles for proximity-key unlocking makes loading them a breeze, and new second-row captain’s chairs (available on all but the base S grade) feature an electric release that lifts and tilts the entire chair forward—even with an empty child seat mounted—providing a 10-inch-wide opening at the floor for easy entry to the third row. And that third row is now wide enough to fit three preteens comfortably enough to expect them to sit there while their booster-seated sibs hog the middle-row thrones.

Cargo-wise the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder’s carpet-lined caboose now lets 4×8-foot sheet goods lie flat on the floor with the seats down. With them all up, there’s room for six roll-aboard suitcases or a jumbo 120-quart cooler in the way back. And nearly 2.0 cubic feet of stuff fits in the easy-to-clean plastic underfloor bin, which features friction hinges to hold it open.

Up front, parents will appreciate jumbo-sized door cupholders, under-console storage, and a passenger-side shelf wide and deep enough to fit two of today’s largest smartphones while a third parks on the center rubber charging mat. The latter is positioned to retain the phone during extreme handling maneuvers.

How Much Does the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder Cost?

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder FWD S model starts at $34,560 with standard Safety Shield 360, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. AWD adds $1,900 to any trim grade. The $2,790 bump to SV grade ($37,350) adds ProPilot Assist and a Wi-Fi hot spot. Throw down another $2,170 for the SV Premium package’s captain’s chairs, panoramic roof, power liftgate, and 6,000-pound towing package. At $40,740, the SL gets a bigger 9.0-inch touchscreen, wireless CarPlay/Android Auto, and the around-view monitor. A $2,900 package adds everything in the SV package plus 20-inch wheels, Bose audio, heated rear seats, and a wireless device charger. The range-topping Platinum model ($47,430) adds all of the above plus a 12.3-inch digital cluster and a 10.8-inch head-up display.

Should You Buy the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder?

Only a proper comparison test against the existing class leaders in our MotorTrend Ultimate Rankings—Kia Telluride, Subaru Ascent, Hyundai Palisade, Honda Pilot, and Toyota Highlander—will say for sure, but this first drive suggests the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder may indeed elbow its way onto that leaderboard.

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