In the earliest days of its existence, the Nissan Pathfinder was a sport utility fit for its own name.
While not quite as rough and rugged as the Jeep Wrangler, it was built to keep up with the likes of the Toyota 4Runner on the trail while remaining reasonably civilized off it. As time wore on, however, it traded in its adventurous persona for something far more family-friendly.
The 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek brings this midsize SUV at least a little closer to its roots, with rugged looks and a few features that should improve its performance off the beaten path. Best of all, it blends that newfound appetite for adventure with all the characteristics that make the Pathfinder perfectly suited for family life.
Pseudo-adventure SUVs are all the rage these days, and so it’s no surprise that Nissan gave the Pathfinder the same treatment. The styling’s been tweaked just enough to set the Rock Creek apart from the rest of the Pathfinder lineup, with extensive black accents that give it the illusion of more ground clearance than it actually has, plus beadlock-look alloy wheels, and a beefy roof rack. Finished here in a coat of semi-gloss Baja Storm paint ($300), this Nissan could easily compete for the title of best-looking three-row of its kind.
The interior is graced with subtle splashes of orange in the first and second rows, including Rock Creek insignia embroidered on the front seats and console armrest. It’s not as if it’s an unattractive cabin, and the contrast stitching certainly helps, but a little more excitement wouldn’t hurt. For example, swapping the gloss-black plastic panels on the dashboard and console for ones finished in a matching orange would add a bit more boldness without going overboard.
No, it isn’t going to chase down Toyota’s adventure-ready 4Runner TRD Pro, but the Pathfinder Rock Creek is better equipped than the average family SUV when it’s time to explore. Of course, there’s that tubular roof rack, though would-be campers take note: at just 100 kg (220 lb) of static capacity, it can’t support a rooftop tent setup. This version of the Pathfinder also comes fitted with all-terrain tires, although they were wisely replaced with winters on this tester.
It rides on an off-road-tuned suspension that sports a 16-mm (0.6-in) lift versus the rest of the lineup, resulting in a modest 196-mm (7.7-in) minimum ground clearance, while surround-view cameras allow the driver to observe and avoid obstacles on the trail. As with every Pathfinder sold in Canada, a fully automatic all-wheel drive system is standard, too.
More generally, the Pathfinder offers a spacious interior that can accommodate as many as eight occupants in the Rock Creek’s configuration (the range-topping Platinum features second-row captain’s chairs and space for seven as a result), with an easily accessible third row that’s impressively roomy. Massive sill steps inside the rear doors are great for reaching roof-mounted cargo, plus the cargo area’s liftover height is fairly low.
Cargo capacity measures 470 L with the third-row seats upright, a number that expands to 1,274 L with them folded. Finally, folding the second-row seats brings the capacity to 2,280 L. Those figures are competitive for the segment, although the redesigned 2023 Honda Pilot – which is now available in a TrailSport trim that’s similar to this Rock Creek – offers more space in all three configurations. In the Pathfinder’s favour is its 2,722-kg (6,000-lb) towing capacity that betters just about the entire segment, including the Pilot that tops out at 2,268 kg (5,000 lb).
Beyond outright space, the Pathfinder is packed with clever storage solutions for small items. From a large underfloor cubby in the cargo area to twin cup holders in both back doors, and a pass-through under the centre console that’s big enough to stash a handbag, there’s an emphasis on usability throughout the cabin.
Likewise, interacting with the climate and infotainment systems is straightforward, with large and plainly labelled buttons and dials front and back. The same is true of the steering wheel controls, as well as the drive mode and gear selectors (although the latter feels a little cheap and flimsy).
With oversized touchscreens very much in fashion these days, the Pathfinder Rock Creek’s eight-inch display suddenly seems a little on the small side; however, it’s bright and responsive, with crisp graphics and good camera resolution. While the interface itself isn’t exactly rich with features, there’s both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections for maps, music, and more.
Outward visibility is mostly good, although the rear headrests obscure the view out the rear window – a fairly common issue in an SUV like this one. More bizarre are the massive door mirrors that seem as though they should’ve been mounted just a little bit further forward. As they sit, the broad interior surfaces are larger focal points than they should be.
Powering the 2023 Pathfinder is a 3.5L V6 that’s paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission. It makes 284 hp and 259 lb-ft of torque, although this Rock Creek version has had its computer optimized to run on premium-grade gas, with output swelling to 295 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque.
While there’s nothing wrong with a little extra oomph, it’s wholly unnecessary given the price of premium gas these days, not to mention the way the six-cylinder performs on 87-octane. While it doesn’t sound especially stout, there’s plenty of pick-up across the rev range, with a strong surge at the torque’s 4,800-rpm plateau.
Fuel Economy: 6/10
The 11.1 L/100 km the Pathfinder is rated to consume in combined driving – 11.9 city; 10.0 highway – is fairly standard amongst V6-powered sport utilities like this, with the Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia (which is also available in an off-road-inspired trim), Hyundai Palisade, and Kia Telluride all falling within range of this Nissan’s official numbers.
With regular-grade gas in the tank, a shorter-than-normal initial evaluation drive returned an average of 10.5 L/100 km across about 120 km of driving, most of which was done at highway speeds. Meanwhile, heavy snowfall during testing made the corresponding drive mode a useful tool on unplowed roads, sending more torque to the rear wheels in the name of traction but at the expense of more fuel burned. Even so, the week-long tally came in at a still respectable 12.0 L/100 km across approximately 350 km.
Nissan has outfitted the entire Pathfinder lineup with a variety of driver assistance and advanced safety systems, including adaptive cruise control with steering assistance, forward collision warning with pedestrian and cyclist detection, automatic emergency braking front and back, lane departure warning and keeping assistance, and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. Automatic high-beam control and rear parking sensors are also standard, while the Rock Creek version adds front parking sensors, too.
All the systems work as they should, with few (if any) erroneous warnings during testing, while the adaptive cruise control keeps a reasonable distance from preceding traffic. It’s also easy to activate (or deactivate) individual systems on the fly through the digital instrument display.
As a mid-grade trim, the Pathfinder Rock Creek isn’t exactly brimming with creature comforts, but it’s not missing much, either. There’s increasingly common stuff like a heated steering wheel and front seats, as well as proximity door locks (with sensors on all four door handles), and tri-zone automatic climate with dedicated rear-seat controls. There’s also a six-speaker stereo that’s just so-so in terms of sound quality, satellite radio and a Wi-Fi hotspot (both of which require subscriptions, of course), and USB ports in all three rows.
Specific to this trim is the embroidered fabric and faux-leather upholstery and roof rack, as well as the tweaked suspension, all-terrain tires, and unique wheel design. This tester’s semi-gloss paint is also exclusive to the Pathfinder Rock Creek, and it can be paired with a black roof and mirror caps ($950).
Driving Feel: 7/10
The Pathfinder may no longer feature a body-on-frame construction, but it certainly still feels like it from behind the wheel – at least when it comes to this Rock Creek version. Whether it’s a by-product of the trim-specific suspension setup or the unique steering tuning (or both), the only sport utility this size with a more truck-like ride is the Toyota 4Runner, which still features an old-school body-on-frame build.
Given that rigid ride, the Pathfinder’s nimble handling is a pleasant surprise. There’s a nice – and nearly natural – feel dialled into the electric power steering system that matches well with the dynamism and overall character here, with the sharp response of a smaller vehicle. No, it’s not going to be confused for a Nissan Kicks, but the Pathfinder is impressively agile.
The downside to that stiff ride can be felt over potholes and uneven surfaces, where the wheels pull noticeably at the suspension and road imperfections reverberate through the chassis. Pressure cracks can be quite jarring, especially at city speeds, but the Pathfinder rolls along smooth stretches of pavement like a poised family hauler.
The driver’s seat proved plenty comfortable during testing, with 10-way power adjustability and three-stage heat that warms in a hurry. The combined fabric and faux-leather leather upholstery isn’t outstanding, but then it’s far from offensive. The more egregious issue in terms of materials is the black textured plastic used on the door panels and centre console, which feels cheap and is prone to scratches.
Stickered at $51,998 – plus a non-negotiable freight charge of $1,920 – the 2023 Pathfinder Rock Creek isn’t exactly cheap, but then the similarly executed Honda Pilot TrailSport is significantly more expensive (it starts at $57,450 before fees and taxes). Likewise, the Ford Explorer Timberline starts at $56,480, but packages and add-ons can send that asking price even higher. Then there’s the GMC Acadia AT4 that’s a little cheaper at $50,053, as well as the slightly small Kia Sorento X-Line that isn’t quite as committed to adventure as far as features are concerned but carries a starting price of just $40,595.
Those willing to forego the third road of seats might also be interested in the adventurous Subaru Outback Wilderness ($43,195) or its similarly equipped Forester sibling ($39,995), or the Toyota RAV4 Trail ($40,050). The Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk occupies a similar role, although Canadian pricing wasn’t available at the time of this writing. (It’s also worth noting that 2023 looks to be the last year for the current version of the Cherokee.)
The rigid ride and so-so interior materials are probably the biggest shortcomings to be found here, which is equal parts praise-worthy and problematic. The former means the 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek isn’t the most comfortable family hauler around, while the latter is hard to overlook at this price point.
More generally, though, this Pathfinder has something most entries like it don’t, and that’s character. The drive itself is nothing if not unique, while it looks great – especially in this tester’s shade of semi-gloss paint – and has at least a little more capacity for adventure than the average SUV this size. Add it all up and what’s here is a pretty special sport utility that nails the essentials with just a little bit of attitude tossed in for good measure.
|Peak Horsepower||284 hp @ 6,400 rpm|
|Peak Torque||259 @ 4,800 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||11.9 / 10.0 / 11.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||470 / 1,274 / 2,280 L behind 3rd/2nd/1st|
|Model Tested||2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek|
|Price as Tested||$54,318|
$300 – Baja Storm paint, $300