The Pathfinder doesn’t, and probably won’t, get any better than this.
You may not remember, but the first generation Nissan Pathfinder was a rugged little thing. It was a traditional body-on-frame SUV and meant to compete in the U.S. with Ford Broncos, Chevrolet Blazers, Jeep Cherokees, and Toyota 4Runners. Over the years, though, it softened into the family-oriented three-row crossover that’s sold today. In order to draw a line back to the Pathfinder’s rugged roots, though, Nissan introduced the Pathfinder Rock Creek Edition last year.
This special edition of the Pathfinder includes mostly aesthetic enhancements. While beefier mechanicals and more off-road capability would have been nice, the styling upgrades are still welcome considering the current generation Pathfinder has been on sale for seven years now.
Is springing for the Rock Creek Edition worth it? Let’s find out.
The as-tested price of this 2020 Nissan Pathfinder SL 4WD Rock Creek Edition is $44,635, which is quite reasonable for a fully loaded, full-size, three-row crossover SUV. The new 2020 Ford Explorer Platinum, for instance, can ring up over $60,000. To be fair, the 2020 Explorer has been redesigned from the ground up and the Pathfinder is seven years old, but the Rock Creek Edition, especially on the SL trim level (it’s also available on the less expensive SV trim), is a well-featured crossover for the price.
The Pathfinder is also offered in a range-topping Platinum trim that’s a bit more expensive than the SL 4WD with Rock Creek Edition package, but the only feature difference between the two is the availability of a rear seat entertainment system. Otherwise, the main difference is styling, with the Rock Creek Edition offering a more traditional SUV-like design and the Platinum looking more sleek and sophisticated.
We’ve always thought the Pathfinder’s design was too soft and aerodynamic to appeal to SUV buyers. The Rock Creek Edition goes a long way to fixing this with upgrades designed to add some muscle, at least visually, to the Pathfinder’s frame.
To start with, the Rock Creek Edition’s overall theme is dark with black trim all around, including door handles, mirror caps, the grille, fascia accents, and badging. The dark 18-inch wheels are also unique to the Rock Creek Edition, and the chunky black fenders that shade them mimic an actual off-road set up even though the rubber all around are all-seasons.
Our favorite part of the look is the Pathfinder’s Midnight Pine Metallic green paint. While not exclusive to the Rock Creek Edition, it looks best with this model’s rugged accents.
The Rock Creek Edition’s interior isn’t altered much from a regular Pathfinder. All that’s new are two-tone leather seats with Rock Creek badging, high-contrast stitching, and a new metallic interior trim material.
The Pathfinder has long had one of the best solutions for easy access into and out of its third row. To get in, you pull a lever on the second row of seats that tilts their bottom seat cushions up while the back tilts forward. Then the whole seat slides forward about 10 inches. The giant hole it creates is more than large enough for adults to climb through to get to the third row. The only difficulty is the step up and down. Despite the fact this three-row crossover is seven years old, though, we haven’t found many better solutions for third row ingress and egress.
The Pathfinder features a 3.5-liter V6 engine that produces 284 horsepower and 259 pound-feet of torque. That’s not class-leading, but it’s not shabby either, and it’s good for a maximum towing capacity of 6,000 pounds. That’s a good bit more than many competitors that top out at 5,000 pounds. What puts the powertrain in the dog house, though, is the transmission to which it’s mated. Nissan uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT) in the Pathfinder that not only hurts the driving experience, but has a history of reliability issues.
The nature of a CVT is that, unlike a stepped gear transmission, it has access to near infinite gear ratios and is able to find and hold the right one for any given situation. Sounds great in theory, but the real world result is an engine that monotonously drones at the same speed under acceleration, as well as wild swings in engine speed when you suddenly ask for more power (more so than when a stepped transmission downshifts).
Early model years of this generation Pathfinder were also plagued with transmission problems, with numerous recalls and Technical Service Bulletins issued by Nissan to attempt to fix them. Thankfully, recent model years do not appear to exhibit transmission issues, but that history does give one pause.
Nissan has not seen fit to upgrade the Pathfinder’s infotainment system in its many years on the market. That’s unusual; many automakers address this during a vehicle’s mid-cycle refresh. Not so with the Pathfinder, which uses a fossil for an infotainment system.
The touchscreen is relatively large at eight inches diagonally, but that’s where the compliments end. The graphics look pixelated and stutter as they move. The menu structure is deep and unwieldy to navigate. And lastly, the response times are so slow it makes us wonder if there’s a TI-84 calculator behind the dash that powers the whole thing. And in terms of its feature set, the infotainment system is even missing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Nissan has an excellent suite of active safety features that it offers on some of its vehicles, but the Pathfinder isn’t one of them. Called ProPilot Assist, this driver assist system includes important safety features like adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, and some degree of semi-autonomous driving.
While the Pathfinder can be had with some of these features individually, ProPilot Assist has newer versions of them with more range and capability, as well as additional ones the Pathfinder just doesn’t offer like lane-keep assist. More importantly, ProPilot Assist synthesizes these features so the vehicle itself can brake, accelerate, and steer on the highway with driver supervision. Some of the Pathfinder’s competitors offer this higher level of active safety technology, and it’s a shame Nissan doesn’t, considering it’s available elsewhere in the brand’s lineup.