ROCKETING SUV sales seem to have left sales of the genre's originator, the 4WD, stuck in the mud. Australians - and I suppose Americans - want to be seen as having a sense of motoring adventure without the inconvenience of flies, dust and a lack of fast-food outlets.
But that's not to say the proper 4WDs are dead, just that in comparison with SUVs they are specialised to be competent in the dirty world away from bitumen.
Explore the 2011 Nissan Pathfinder Range
- Nissan Pathfinder 2011 review
- Nissan Pathfinder Ti 550 2011 review
They are also comparatively expensive. The new Nissan Pathfinder Ti550 costs $75,990. I don't have to tell you that's a serious amount of money and probably a lot more than you expected to pay.
Is it worth it?
The big price is relative. The Spanish-made Pathfinder is sister to the Navara dual-cab ute and now - as the Ti550 model - gets the option of the Renault 3-litre V6 turbo-diesel engine mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission and dual-range, part-time 4WD system.
Clearly, that all costs money. Add leather, the latest music storage unit within the extensive infortainment and navigation system, plus treats like the sunroof, and the dollars add up.
The Pathfinder is about $11,000 more than a similarly-equipped Navara ute but is price comparative with what true offroaders buy - Prado, Discovery and Pajero.
This is an evolutionary shape and has been around for about six years. It's purposeful and functional but because of this, looks dated compared with more edgier designs from most rivals.
The "hidden" rear door handles, for example, follow Alfa Romeo's concept and while cleverly decluttering the lines of the body, can be awkward to use for adults and impossible for some children. Cabin treatment is simple but, look closely, and it's packed with features.
The seven seats, which fold flush into the cargo floor, are irreplaceable for hauling friends of the family. The full-size spare is tucked under the chassis so no unloading the car when you get a flat. It's all very well designed.
Big news is the Renault engine that - we hope - should now be fitted to the Patrol. This V6 diesel with a single-turbo has been floating around in the Nissan-Renault alliance models and proven to be a durable unit. The 550Nm of torque is huge and impressively kicks in at a mere 1750rpm.
Better is the seven-speed sequential automatic that has enough cogs for brisk acceleration and long legs for touring. The drive system is part-time - it's a rear-drive layout - with an electric dash switch to allocate 4WD High and 4WD Low.
On top of the mechanical features, this Ti550 model has an impressive audio and sat-nav package with telephone link, Bluetooth and lots more.
The Navara version of the Pathfinder Ti550 has a three-star rating but this wagon gets four stars. It adds six airbags, electronic stability control with all the other aids. It also has the presumed safety advantage of seating occupants higher than most other traffic.
The sparkling engine and the ability of the gearbox to quickly get power to the ground is pretty impressive. What could be judged a big, bulky and slow 4WD wagon is actually remarkably quick. The slow steering ratio - lots of turns lock to lock for the benefit of dirt driving - is about the only thing that dulls the Pathfinder's on-road verve.
It's also quiet and relatively comfortable, though seat comfort - particular a lack of lateral support in the front and a low seat-to-floor height in the back that cramps the occupant's body - isn't its strong point. But there's enough room to stretch out so passenger's shouldn't be too uncomfortable on long trips. Off the road it's like the bitumen never ended.
The big boots, gobs of low-end torque and the effective drive system make beaches and gravel pits too easy. Fuel consumption on test was 10.6L/100km which gives a pleasing 760km range.
Get over the sticker shock and the Ti550's space, 3500kg towing ability, offroad competence and reasonable economy can make a strong argument against its rivals, particularly the Prado.
The V6 is arguably less-stressed than the $16,000-cheaper four-cylinder Pathfinder diesel and is therefore recommended for heavy duty work.