For two weeks around the holidays, and over 1,000 miles of mixed-surface driving (kind of like the old pre-COVID travel weeks while working) we used and abused Nissan’s latest Pathfinder three-row crossover — the Rock Creek edition. While this latest Pathfinder is vastly more user-friendly and competent than the previous rendition, this effort to look ready for serious off-roading won’t match the performance of the earlier truck-based Pathfinders.

And that’s okay, because negligible volumes of crossover buyers really venture into the woods, the desert, or rock-strewn canyons in car-based crossovers — only the fools who think they have a Wrangler, Bronco or 4Runner get that far off-road. And then they soon learn that the hyped hardware is no match for the reality.

Recognizing that buyers want the “look,” even without the off-roading intentions (how many Wranglers do you really see that have a heavy off-road patina?), this Rock Creek edition should find ample buyers.

First, Nissan added some new two-tone paint choices to complement the Rock Creek’s different grille and additional body cladding — green and black here, while bead-lock-like rims with heavy lug pattern 18-inch all-terrain tires certainly give the Pathfinder a menacing stance. A re-tuned suspension, beefy tubed roof racks (three-bars), plus second row bucket seats with a console complete the Rock Creek package.

Pieces like surround-view monitoring are standard — and helpful in all situations — while tri-zone climate controls, rear sonar, Nissan’s ProPilot electronic driving assist plus a host of other driving wizardry are all included with Rock Creek models. A drive mode and traction selector on the console tries to mimic what a true 4WD system should do when the surface is hopelessly slick, but there is no locking button to make sure that your AWD wagon indeed stays in 4WD when you need it.

This was readily apparent when mashing the throttle to execute a two-lane passing maneuver on a dirt-shredding dump truck, as the front-drive biased chassis exhibits way too much torque steer, leaving the pilot sawing on the wheel when you most want forward stability. This trait appeared several times, leaving one to ponder whether the rear wheels were ever truly engaged in the traction mission. Only when assaulting a dirt road or an icy drive did the Pathfinder feel like it wanted to use the rear wheels to help move forward.

After several hiking excursions in the mild winter weather, two long highway drives, plus regular suburban duty, the Pathfinder revealed several pros and cons.

There is ample cabin storage for traveling gear, with the third-row seats splitting easily to fold and expand the cargo hold. The second-row buckets were spacious and supportive for all traveling companions, while the heavy-duty Rock Creek rubber mats got tested regularly and impressed. Rear seat occupants also liked their own climate controls.

The Rock Creek’s interior. Photo by Tim Plouff.

Up front, the heated synthetic material seats were fast and hot — perfect. However, no heated steering wheel, no auto-dimming mirror and no power passenger seat seem like significant omissions at this price point — $44,855 for the Rock Creek, $36,295 for a base Pathfinder. The controls are simple knobs, buttons, and dials — including the audio system, while the touchscreen offers additional Apple/Android functionality plus Wi-Fi and other apps. No wireless charging was included, yet remote starting is a reasonable trade-off.

On the coldest days, and on the highway, the Pathfinder barely averaged 20 mpg. With mild temps in the 40s, fuel economy rose to 24+ mpg, slightly better than the EPA ratings of 20/23 mpg. If you elect to fill-up with premium fuel, the Pathfinder delivers 295 horsepower. Using regular fuel, output drops to 284 horsepower — running through a nine-speed automatic. Winter temps, and winter gasoline, combine to lower every vehicle’s efficiency, yet it felt like this redesigned Pathfinder should have improved fuel economy over its predecessor — not the same or worse.

The rugged tires exacted a toll on the highway, where road noise increased along with your pace. Around the urban jungle, you don’t even notice them.

In the nit-picking department, everyone commented that they felt like the front seats were too low, when at their highest point. The absence of a power liftgate is a puzzle. The electric shifter also seemed slow to deliver the selected gear, and to really air it out, it was annoying to have to turn off the rear parking sensors on every start while employing the bike rack in the standard hitch (6,000 pound tow rating, really above average in this class). Otherwise, you couldn’t back up.

Driving comfort is good, road manners generally solid and cabin functionality is top notch in the Rock Creek. Yet it felt like there should be more at this price point. Perhaps the pre-COVID paradigms on price and performance in our vehicles are another casualty of our current era.

Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles for over 20 years.