Behind the Wheel

2020 Nissan Titan PRO-4X Review: Its facelift was kind, but the transmission is not

The 2020 Nissan Titan PRO-4X is the most off-road-ready version of the full-size truck.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

In 1939, 65 years before the Nissan Titan first arrived at U.S. dealerships, Prime Minister Winston Churchill uttered the iconic phrase, "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key." Here, in 2020, we find the Titan epitomizing the subject of the quote.

Don't get me wrong. I like the Titan. I just want to like it more.

The major facelift for the 2020 model year was kind to the Titan. As tested in the PRO-4X trim, the model is beefy and brawny looking with a black grille, tailgate finisher, and badging. Red-orange detailing is present on the Nissan emblem one the grille and tow hooks. The model looks unlike all the other Titans in the lineup and that's a good thing.

2020 Nissan Titan PRO-4X Nissan has loaded the truck with standard safety features. Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Moving inside the cabin, the highlight is the Titan's Zero Gravity Seats. They were co-designed with NASA and provide hours of fatigue-reducing comfort. The truck's leather-appointed upholstery is nice but the rest of the interior doesn't hold a candle to the supple materials in and luxe looks of Ram's mid-grade and up models.

The refreshed center stack in the Titan is at least as nice as what's in the GM pickups. As equipped, the model had a 9.0-inch infotainment touch screen that is reasonably responsive though the visual design of the system is not the best there is. Still, it's cleaner than the purple graphics-heavy design of the screen in the 2020 Subaru Outback and Legacy.

Nissan has made the system capable of over-the-air updates thanks to a standard Wi-Fi hot spot. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and two USB are also standard across the Titan lineup.

As fresh as the center stack is for the 2020 model year, there are still obvious places in the cabin where leftover buttons and equipment show their age. Chief among them is the trucks's steering wheel. While the blacked out emblem on its center and black button surrounds that are part of the PRO-4X grade helped the look, there's no getting around the fact that the wheel looks like something a decade older than the rest of the design. However, as ugly and dated as it may be, it's still perfectly functional.

2020 Nissan Titan PRO-4X The Titan PRO-4X also has red-orange accents in the cabin. Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Powering the truck is a 5.6-liter V8 engine. It offers 400 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque, making it plenty strong (those are best-in-class figures) and plenty thirsty. Nissan doesn't offer the truck with a host of engine options like its competition does. It's not a matter of holding back. Currently they don't have anything in their lineup that would even be a contender to be made available.

The truck's nine-speed automatic transmission was also refreshed for 2020. It has more ability in higher gears now, which is good for towing, but, quite frankly, the lower gears of the transmission are a complete mess. The nine-speed can't decide what it wants to do while on daily driver duty at moderate speed. It hems and haws and switches positions more often than a politician scrambling to get your vote.

Being behind the wheel of the Titan makes one still feel like you're driving a truck. Like the Nissan Frontier, there's a connected and true truck experience when you're driving that is a reminder of the way it used to be (which is also a reminder of just how good the other truck manufacturers are at engineering their steering systems). It does soak up the bumps in the road well and, based on previous experience, the model is good and capable off-road.

2020 Nissan Titan PRO-4X The truck's seats are very comfortable.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The truck also comes standard with Nissan Safety Shield 360, which includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, high beam assist, and rear automatic braking. A number of additional driver assist technologies are available. If you're going to spend some extra cash on a Titan, let it be for the Intelligent Around View Monitor, which offers a 360-degree view of the truck's surrounds. This makes parking a breeze.

Nissan deserves kudos for putting that camera button in an easy-to-reach, quickly accessible location on the center stack. How is this not standard operating procedure for automakers?!

After test driving the Titan for a week, and seeing the evolution of the truck landscape over the last few years, the way Nissan has designed the model gets even more confusing. It seems like the truck was a victim of the budgetary process and time constraints more than any other model in the Nissan lineup.

The Titan feels like a compromise, not necessary for the average buyer, but for the truck's engineers. That may be the key here.

2020 Nissan Titan PRO-4X The Titan PRO-4X stands out at the rear. Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Granted, every decision in the automotive development process is a compromise, but with the Titan, the sore spots show through more than most. The Nissan Titan is the girl you date while you're waiting for the woman who will be your wife to come along - good enough for a good time, but not the one you want to commit to for life.

While there's a lot of reasons why Nissan isn't selling as many full-size trucks as their rivals, chief among them is the trucks the Titan is up against. They're more capable, nicer appointed, and filled with more innovative features. To gain market share, the Nissan Titan needs to do something, anything, better than the competition. Ram has its interiors. Ford has its capability. GM has innovative camera tech and a new type of tailgate. Toyota has historically good reliability.

On its own the 2020 Titan stands tall, but next to other full-size trucks, it sits in the shadows.

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The Nissan Pathfinder is just at home on the trial as it is on the road.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken". The message is about making choices and, how the road taken made all the difference. Often in life and on the road, we have to make one choice. Take one road. No turning back. I thought of this poem on my recent test drive in the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder in the hinterlands of Montana, when I could take two different roads—paved and dirt—and that made all the difference!

Nissan has redesigned and retooled its fifth-generation Pathfinder instilling greater latitude for buyers who want to travel both types of roads and expand their adventure footprint. After seven decades of off-road development, 35 years in the business of selling Pathfinders, and with more than 1.8 million sold in the U.S., this Japanese automaker has moved the needle with a ground-up revision of the previous-gen model.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is a capable off-roader.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The full-sized sport utility is available in four trims (S, SV, SL and Platinum) and two- and four-wheel drive versions; Nissan expects that nearly 60 percent of buyers will choose four-wheel drive. The Pathfinder is in a segment that has grown larger each year as more families want a vehicle for around-town, school and playdate runs and for weekend getaways with traction technology that allows travel in the backcountry and good towing capability. Direct competitors are the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Ford Explorer.

A day-long drive of approximately 150 miles on tarmac and over a variety of dirt roads and tracks provided the opportunity to assess the Pathfinder's updates. A late-spring snowstorm added slickness to all the road surfaces in the region and allowed the Pathfinder to show off its traction capabilities at both slow and higher speeds and with lane change and emergency-braking maneuvers, when towing. I concentrated my evaluation on the augmented hardware and software designed to enhance the crossover's capabilities for backcountry travel and towing.

What I found most notable over every road surface was the comfortable ride and responsive handling that come from a collection of upgrades—and, in particular, as a result of the following: the gearing on the new nine-speed transmission, with paddle shifters for personal and more precise shifting for sport driving and slowing over rough terrain; the new terrain mode system that's engineered for different driving conditions; the four-wheel drive system that moves torque more quickly to avoid wheel slip; the improved suspension system; and new tires with a larger contact patch and more aggressive tread pattern, among other changes.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Pathfinder's drive modes are designed to inspire confidence. Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The Pathfinder provided sure-footed motoring and comfort over uneven surfaces. Its 7.1 inches of ground clearance easily maneuvered over the small obstacles on the trail and hill descent control took the reigns without hesitation for steeper and longer downhills on traction-compromised surfaces.

I was also impressed with the Pathfinder's towing competence and appreciated the standard trailer sway control onboard all trims. It offered notably strong, mannered acceleration from a standing start and excellent straight-line braking without porpoising for either exercise.

The new 2022 Pathfinder brings off-road and towing attributes that are important to families who are seeking to spend time in the backcountry for days trips and longer and for overlanding in terrain that doesn't require a true off-road vehicle with a low range. It's will appeal to buyers who want don't want to have to choose only one road.

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The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder arrives on dealer lots this summer.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder doesn't have to be capable of rock crawling or deep water fording. What it has to do is service the needs of families in their daily life and give them the opportunity to competently go off-roading on rocky trails should they desire. The new, fifth-generation models does just that and adds in enough nifty features to make it among the most compelling choices for three-row SUV buyers.

The 2022 Pathfinder is thoroughly modern though not the boxy off-roader it once was. The SUV's styling harkens back to that time with a tilted, darkened C-pillar and a return to a more muscular body style. That styling makes straightforward visibility good but for shorter drivers seeing what is immediately in front of the grille is a challenge that necessitates using surround view camera technology (available only in upper trim levels) when navigating challenging terrain.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder can easily handle the roads less traveled.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Under the hood is a 3.5-liter V6 that offers up 291 horsepower and torque - plenty to do the job without complaint. The SUV's nine-speed automatic transmission replaces the continuously variable transmission (CVT) from the previous generation and delivers smooth shifts. Though low-end torque isn't as robust as I like it to be, once up over 35 mph, the Pathfinder's powertrain delivers smooth, powerful sailing.

The redesigned architecture and components underpinning the Pathfinder make it stable on the road and don't allow it to wallow on winding roads. Even off-road, the suspension provides the right blend of stability while the drive dynamics allowing the driver to feel engaged with their surroundings whether on freshly paved roads, city streets, or muddy trails.

Nissan has given the Pathfinder a 6,000-pound towing capacity and even when maxed out the engine's functionality is strong as ever. The transmission can get held up in a gear mid-range when performing this function, however, with 5,000-6,000 rpms registering on the tachometer but a quick release of the gas pedal recalibrates the offering bringing it down to a more traditional 2,000 rpm range.

The eight-seater Pathfinder clearly has the Toyota Highlander in its sights, with good reason. It's the top-selling three-row SUV in the country. Nissan boasts that three adults can fit across the rear bench seat of the Pathfinder and, as long as they're average size or smaller, the marketing talking point holds up. There is gobs more room back there than there is in the Highlander.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Nissan has given the Pathfinder ample cargo space.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Getting in and out of the third row is easy thanks to one-touch buttons on the outboard side of the second-row chairs that move the SUV's captain's seats forward creating enough room to get through to the back. Smartly, Nissan's engineers have put duplicates of these buttons on the back side of the same seats allowing third-row passengers to simply press the button to move the seat up.

The third row can also be accessed via a split between the captain's chairs as well, a space traditionally occupied by a center stowage bin/cup holders/arm rest. Owners can quickly remove the center console by opening a panel on the front and pulling the release mechanism. The one-handed operation takes seconds and the console can be easily stored in the under-floor trunk space behind the third row seat for ease.

Speaking of cargo space... The Pathfinder is one of the most spacious midsize SUVs on the market today for both passengers and cargo. There is a substantial amount of room behind the third-row seat and the under-floor storage area is nearly twice the size of the one in the Highlander. Plus, it has a feature that allows the area cover to be automatically propped up when pushed up by a user. This is especially help when carrying groceries or plants home and keeps them from being crushed.

The first- and second-row seats are suitably comfortable, even for extended periods of time and standard trig-zone climate control makes finding the right in-cabin mix easy. Bottle holders in the pockets of the front doors are exceptionally large, fitting even bulky water bottles.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder's front row seats are comfortable.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

In front of the driver is a standard tachometer, speedometer, and 7.0-inch driver information display. Buyers can upgrade to a fully digital 12.3-inch instrument cluster and head-up display but they're not reason enough to upgrade to the top-tier Pathfinder Platinum on their own.

Nissan packs the new Pathfinder with a host of desirable features that make living with the Pathfinder easier including one-touch auto up/down windows, a wireless phone charger, grocery hooks in the rear cargo area, USB ports in all three rows, second-row sunshades, rear door keyless entry, wireless Apple CarPlay, and a motion-activated lift gate.

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is priced to start at $33,410 for the two-wheel drive S base model and $35,310 for the four-wheel drive S base model. The model tops out around $50,000 with destination and delivery included, which seems fair when comparing the Pathfinder to other vehicles in the market.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder can tow up to 6,000 pounds.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

If you're thinking of purchasing a Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Honda Pilot, or Highlander, do yourself a favor and schedule a test drive of the new Pathfinder when it arrives at a dealer lot near you. You may just be surprised how seamlessly it fits into your daily life compared to the competition.

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