You can take the S.U.V. out of the country. Apparently, you can also take the country out of the S.U.V.
The rise of the citified crossover has helped to close the barn door on sport utilities that built a reputation on rugged backcountry virtues.
Whole swaths of manly-men trucks have vanished, from Hummers and Chevy TrailBlazers to Isuzu Troopers and Mitsubishi Monteros. Even 4-wheeling nameplates that once ruled the suburban commuter trails, like the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee, have been forced to adapt or die, becoming so carlike and digitized that owners of the originals would barely recognize the latest generations.
For brands that offer a choice between pure crossovers and more traditional S.U.V.'s, the identity crisis is particularly acute. As Americans vote for all-wheel-drive crossovers with not a whit of off-road pretensions -- the Toyota Highlander and Nissan Murano come to mind -- it's harder to find fulfilling roles for a hard-core Toyota 4Runner or Nissan Pathfinder.
Rather than retire the grizzled warriors, some automakers continue to soften and compromise them, sometimes to dubious effect: the 4Runner is a pale shadow of its rebellious self of the 1980s and '90s.
The Pathfinder fares better, but tiptoes down the same bumpy road: it can't get too fancy-pants and reject its country roots, or its small-town, dirt-road buds -- the ones who grew up with it and know it best -- would accuse it of selling out. On the other hand, the Nissan has to grow up and take on three-row family duties or it's not going to have a job anymore.
The result is a Pathfinder that, like the latest Explorer, throws a few bones at 4-wheeling fans even as it winks at the real target: moms and dads obsessed with numbers, counting two kids (at least), three rows, seven seats and as many miles per gallon as possible. Oh, and please don't let it look like a minivan.
The Pathfinder avoids the minivan styling curse, but what's left hardly seems a bragging point. The Nissan seems to wear its existential conflict on its sleeve: what am I, and why am I here?
The front is barrel-chested, with a black mesh grille that looks eager to suck up mud and win points with papa. From there, the Nissan goes as soft as spoiled fruit, with a falling roofline and awkward bulges to distract you from its suburban banality. It's more evidence that Nissan designers seem lost of late, the 370Z and Juke aside.
The Nissan, to its credit, looks less tortured than its mechanical cousin, the Infiniti JX, which has even more reason to be confused; that one's a pillow-plumping luxury hauler. Fortunately, the Nissan looks and drives better than the deluxe Infiniti version, and it costs thousands less.
By switching to a car-type unibody platform, the Pathfinder sheds about 500 pounds, weighing about 4,300 total. And that's despite a growth spurt of about 4.5 inches in length and four in width, with a three-inch lower roofline. The Pathfinder also adopts a powertrain that's more car than truck: Nissan's workhorse 3.5-liter V-6 -- here with 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque -- linked to a fuel-saving variable automatic transmission. That engine replaces a 4-liter V-6 that made 6 more horses and 48 more pound-feet, but was cruder and thirstier.
The slimmer Pathfinder manages 20 m.p.g. in town and 26 on the highway with 2-wheel drive, or 19/25 m.p.g. with 4-wheel drive. (Nissan's "best in class" fuel mileage claim overlooks the same-size Ford Explorer, which gets 20/28 m.p.g. with the EcoBoost turbo 4-cylinder.) Over a three-hour highway run in the Pathfinder, I achieved 24 m.p.g.
I was suspicious of how smoothly a continuously variable transmission, which eliminates the conventional stepped gears, would mate to an S.U.V. But the Pathfinder's throttle is well matched to the C.V.T., allowing feathery inputs to keep pace with traffic without making the engine rev obtrusively. While Nissan's C.V.T.'s are among the industry's smoothest, summoning a burst of acceleration results in an engine surge to high r.p.m., amplifying the somewhat coarse sound of the V-6.
The interior feels traditional and utilitarian, with a bluff dashboard and more knock-knock hard plastic than in some competitors. But the amenities are all here once you move up from the basic rear-drive Pathfinder S ($29,495). The gauges and center navigation screen are large and readable; the controls are mostly straightforward. The faux wood and metal finishes of my Platinum test model looked solid.
That range-topping Platinum 4WD version starts at $41,995 and rose to $43,850 for the well-optioned test truck.
Nissan's vexing weather alerts were in full effect, a synthetic female voice warning me ad nauseum of supposed flood risks in neighboring New Jersey even when there wasn't a cloud in the sky.
The Nissan's strong suit is interior space, despite a third row seat that's typical of this class: The lankier your body, the more you'll complain about the coach seating. The third row does recline slightly, helping matters. Fight for the second row, and the reward is outstanding legroom, aided by 5.5 inches of fore-and-aft sliding for the split seats. Flip a lever in that second row, and the seatback and cushion slide forward and sandwich in an efficient clamshell arrangement. That opens up easy third-row access, even when a child seat is strapped into the folding second row. And the seats return to their original position without excessive wrestling.
As with the Explorer, there's no low-range setting for serious off-roading. But a three-mode console knob lets drivers select full-time 2-wheel-drive to save fuel; pick an automatic mode that engages 4-wheel traction when the wheels slip; or lock the system into full-time all-wheel drive. Hill Start Assist, which is standard, holds the vehicle steady on steep grades.
On the road, the Nissan feels steady and workmanlike, more truckish than some car-based crossovers. The steering has pleasing heft, but there's body lean in swift corners and some structural shimmy over rough roads. The Explorer's superior body control makes it seem to shrink around the driver; the Nissan never lets you forget you're pushing a relatively big rig.
In the old days, you didn't necessarily need a family to want a Pathfinder, a 4Runner or, before those, the Jeep Wagoneer. Their outdoorsy nature and scouting skills appealed even to singles who knew their way around a campsite.
This Pathfinder is different. Sure, it will navigate a rutted dirt road or deep snow. But I can't imagine anyone without children having the slightest inclination to own one. If you're into real off-roading, buy a Jeep Wrangler. Place the Pathfinder on the growing list of one-time mudders that had to scrub up to survive.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.