Nashville, TN -- Although the successful Leaf proves that Nissan can build a great EV, its gasoline-electric-powered models have always left something to be desired, from the clunky Infiniti hybrids to the discontinued Altima with a licensed version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive. With the 2014 Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid, Nissan is hoping for a fresh start, as this crossover sport-utility represents the first application of a new hybrid system that has been developed in-house.
In the Pathfinder Hybrid, this system uses a supercharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder in combination with a small 15-kilowatt electric motor and a CVT, and this powertrain boosts EPA combined mpg by 4 mpg over the Pathfinder V-6. Since the hybrid has the same cargo capacity as the standard Pathfinder and only 10 horsepower fewer, Nissan emphasizes that opting for the gas-electric version requires few sacrifices. Aside from new LED taillights and hybrid badges, the Pathfinder Hybrid is virtually identical to the standard 2014 Nissan Pathfinder, which happens to be one of our favorite three-row crossovers thanks to its plush, practical interior and comfortable ride.
According to Nissan’s market research, price is the biggest obstacle preventing mainstream buyers from embracing hybrid vehicles, explaining why the company refers to the new system as an “affordable hybrid” drivetrain. Yes, the 2014 Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid carries a $3000 premium over the standard 2014 Pathfinder, but that doesn’t seem like much when you consider that the 2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid costs $6000 more than the conventional 2013 Highlander.
We drove the 2014 Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid around Nashville, TN to see if this eco-minded crossover can deliver on the promise of increased efficiency with minimal compromise.
Not quite the smooth electrical experience you’re looking for.
At first glance, Nissan’s hybrid system appears to be somewhere in between a mild hybrid like General Motors’ e-Assist and a full parallel hybrid like Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive. The electric motor is smaller than in most parallel hybrids, but the Nissan system does have a dual-clutch hybrid control system to handle the integration of gas and electric power.
Unfortunately, the limitations of this powertrain show as soon as you take your foot off the gas pedal. Since the small electric motor can only power the car when creeping forward very slowly, the gasoline engine is constantly starting and stopping at low speeds with a noticeable shudder. When you add the unpredictable feel as the regenerative brakes engage, the Pathfinder Hybrid’s progress around town feels clumsy, especially compared to the seamless system in Toyota’s hybrids.
Beyond the low-speed issues, the Pathfinder Hybrid’s powertrain lacks refinement. Part of the problem might be attributed to the supercharged four-cylinder engine, which is meant to deliver the power of a V-6 only with less sacrifice at the gas station. The engine note is coarse and the power delivery seems to come and go sometimes, although the well-tuned CVT does its best to process the power in a smoothly predictable way.
MPG in the real world.
So the “affordable” hybrid system may make some compromises in terms of the driving experience, but the fuel economy uptick is significant, according to the EPA. The 2014 Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid is rated at 25/28/26 mpg city/highway/combined for two-wheel-drive models, and four-wheel-drive models lose one mpg on the highway. That’s five mpg higher in the city than a V-6 Pathfinder. Given that hybrids are notorious for significant mpg variances in the real world, though, we set out on a combined route through Nashville to see what the Pathfinder Hybrid could do.
For the first few miles, we wondered why the gasoline engine refused to turn off at stoplights. Turns out the air-conditioning compressor is connected to the gasoline engine, meaning that having the climate control running prevents the engine from shutting off no matter what. We asked a Nissan engineer why this was the case, and he told us that converting the compressor to run on electricity would have cost much more. In other words, mark down another compromise made for the sake of affordability.
After turning the air conditioning off, we averaged 22 mpg in a mix of city and highway driving. This is disappointing considering the 26 mpg combined rating, and we imagine that most owners will have trouble meeting the estimates unless they live someplace where air conditioning isn’t needed.
Rough around the edges.
After our time behind the wheel of the 2014 Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid, we think Nissan will struggle to convince buyers to spring for this hybrid. It may not cost much more, but it doesn’t drive as well as the standard Pathfinder and its fuel economy benefit is limited by the constraints of this gas-electric powertrain. Nissan has succeeded in making the electrified Pathfinder more affordable than the competition, but with this hybrid you get what you pay for.
The Pathfinder Hybrid may represent a rough start for Nissan’s gasoline-electric ambitions, but the engineers are still tinkering. When asked if this hybrid system was adaptable to other applications, Nissan’s answer was “stay tuned.” We wouldn’t be surprised to see a Nissan Rogue or Altima hybrid crop up soon, but we hope that Nissan works out some of the kinks in this powertrain before its next gas-electric model hits the road.
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