First drive: 2014 Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid

NASHVILLE, TENN. — While the rest of the auto industry was racing to catch up to rival Toyota’s increasingly popular gasoline-electric hybrids, Japan’s Nissan stubbornly stuck by its non-hybrid fuel-economy strategy, touting the fuel-saving benefits of it continuously variable automatic transmission technology, and forging ahead with its all-electric Leaf.

But now, after the departure of Nissan’s only hybrid vehicle (the previous Altima Hybrid that used a Toyota-licensed system), the automaker is introducing its all-new, in-house-designed gas-electric powertrain in the 2014 Pathfinder mid-sized crossover.

Before it eventually ends up as an option in Nissan’s Altima and Murano, and Infiniti’s QX60 (née JX35), Nissan’s so-called PUREDRIVE hybrid system becomes available in the 2014 Pathfinder Hybrid this fall as an alternative to the gas V6. And instead of copying Toyota’s hybrid ways, Nissan’s hybrid system adds a few engineering tricks.

For starters, PUREDRIVE marries a 2.5-litre, four-cylinder gas engine with a 15-kilowatt electric motor that’s sandwiched between the engine and continuously variable automatic transmission. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But to help achieve similar power and torque ratings as the 3.5L six-cylinder gas Pathfinder, the Hybrid’s gas-four gets a supercharger, and what Nissan calls its Intelligent Dual Clutch System, a one motor/two clutch parallel system that manages power from both the electric motor and the gas engine for maximum efficiency.

The end result is a Pathfinder Hybrid that offers only 10 less horsepower than the V6’s 260 rating, and 243 pound-feet of torque (three more than the gas model.) Acceleration from rest to 100 km/h for the Hybrid and V6 Pathfinders are both in the under-seven-seconds range. But with a rating of 7.8 L/100 km in the city, compared to 10.9 for the V6, the Hybrid has an advantage in around-town fuel economy.

That said, PUREDRIVE isn’t designed to be driven on electric power alone. There would be instances at continuous highway speeds where the Pathfinder’s Intelligent Dual Clutch System would disengage the gas motor and the e-motor would power the wheels, but the Nissan hybrid can’t be driven away from a stoplight under e-power alone, unlike the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which scores a better 6.6 L/100 km city estimate.

Like most hybrids, the fuel savings at highway speeds are less impressive. The Pathfinder Hybrid is rated at 7.1 L/100 km on the freeway while the gas model is rated at 7.8. (The rival Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a bit worse, at 7.3.)

Externally, there’s little to let your neighbours know you’re trying to save the planet and get your kids to hockey practice on time when driving the hybrid Pathfinder. A smattering of “Nissan PUREDRIVE Hybrid” badges and LED tail lights are about all your neighbours will notice. While inside, you can watch a graphic via the crossover’s central information screen that shows the flow of energy between the gas engine, battery pack and regenerative braking system.

Other than these details, the Hybrid remains a Pathfinder throughout. That means three rows of seats for up to seven, with access to the third row helped by a clever second-row seat that tips up and slides forward even with a child seat in place. And unlike some hybrid sedans, you don’t lose any cargo space in the Pathfinder Hybrid model because the e-motor is powered by a lithium-ion battery pack tucked under the crossover’s third row of seats.

Hybrid or V6, the Pathfinder is best for families who need a minivan but want an SUV. As such, the Hybrid’s driving characteristics can best be described as benign. During my one-day media drive, I managed to get out of Nashville proper and make my way to the Natchez Trace Parkway, a scenic drive that starts just outside of Nashville and ends over 700 km away south in Natchez, Louisiana. Typical of a family holiday drive, I cruised along in the 80 to 100 km/h range, an environment the Pathfinder Hybrid is comfortable at.

However, when driving out of and back into downtown Nashville in more stop-and-go traffic, it was evident Nissan’s new hybrid system lacks some refinement. Pulling away from stoplights, the Pathfinder Hybrid’s throttle response is lacklustre unless you really dip into it, followed by a whine from the supercharger. And like some early Toyota hybrids, the Nissan’s regenerative braking system is especially grabby. Overall, the Highlander Hybrid offers a more refined hybrid driving experience.

Back at the hotel, the vehicle’s trip computer said my Pathfinder Hybrid sipped fuel at a rate of 8.9 L/100 km. Not bad, but if you’re pinching pennies, know that the Hybrid demands a $4,000 premium over comparably trimmed Pathfinder V6 versions. The Pathfinder SV 4WD Hybrid comes in at $40,808 while the fully loaded Platinum/Premium Package 4WD Hybrid model rings in at $50,758.

While, the 2014 Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid costs considerably less to get into than the $45,090 to $54,140 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, you’ll need to drive farther than the Natchez Trace to make up the difference in fuel savings.

About John LeBlanc