BEND, Ore. -- With a whoosh and whomp and the whip-whip work of a wily double wishbone suspension, Nissan's souped-up Pathfinder sport utility vehicle surges over whoop-de-do pavement bumps on a roller-coaster road wrapping around Mt. Bachelor in the Cascade Range of Oregon, with the three Sisters, white-capped volcanic spires thrust into a cobalt sky, filling the three mirrors as we head toward Bend.
Springs and shocks float and contract and float again in a bouncy rhythm like a jackrabbit bounding over tumbleweed, while the engine puts such a kick in the throttle that a driver spends as much energy reining horses as hanging on to steer.
But hang on we must: Pathfinder's editions of 2010 are really fired up.
Pathfinder's original model, a savvy three-door SUV built on the chassis of a compact-class pickup truck, became one of the first concepts to come out of Nissan's California design studio. Market preferences for five-door wagons eventually prompted a five-door Pathfinder which concealed the two rear door handles in broad roof pillars so it still looked like a sporty three-door wagon.
Overhauling the five-door Pathfinder in 1996 led to a larger platform with expanded wheel track and longer wheelbase that stabilized the ride quality, while another rendition in 2001 brought a more powerful V6 engine.
Then the revisions of 2005 produced a new body-on-frame scheme for Pathfinder which measured far larger than any predecessor. The F-Alpha platform -- a light-truck ladder frame with fully boxed side rails -- amounted to an abbreviated version of the frame underpinning Nissan's full-size Titan truck and the big Armada SUV.
As a result, the wheelbase length grew by almost six inches over Pathfinder's predecessor and the overall length of the wagon stretched for a similar measure.
These linear expansions propelled Pathfinder squarely into the mid-size class of SUVs as the extra inches extended the package, particularly for the five-door passenger compartment, which gained enough room in the rear to add a standard third-row seat.
This scheme serves as the structure for Pathfinder of 2010 but the new models bring strong powertrain options.
Top choice is a big V8, which is assembled at Nissan's engine plant in Tennessee and shared with the Titan pickup. The aluminum engine displaces 5.6 liters with dual-overhead cam configuration and four valves per cylinder.
It produces 310 hp at 5200 rpm and tall torque of 388 lb-ft at 3400 rpm.
Coupled to the engine is an electronically controlled automatic transmission with five forward gears and a tow/haul mode, which reworks shift patterns when towing.
Three other trims for the 2010 Pathfinder stock Nissan's impressive VQ-series V6 in a dual-cam design with lightweight aluminum block. It displaces 4.0 liters and uses the continuous variable valve timing control system (CVTCS) and the Nissan Variable Induction System (NVIS).
This plant sparks with an output of 266 hp at 5600 rpm plus 288 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
The V6 also employs Nissan's electronically controlled five-speed automatic.
Pathfinder comes with standard two-wheel-drive (2WD) traction or an optional four-wheel-drive (4WD) device.
The 4WD system tied to the V6 is a part-time unit controlled electronically with 2WD/AUTO/4H/4LO modes for serious 4WD trekking.
The XN All-Mode 4WD system linked to the V8 is a full-time rig which automatically distributes engine torque to all wheels as road conditions warrant and can send up to 50 percent of the power to the front wheels.
Nissan casts the 2010 Pathfinder in three well-equipped trims with the V6 engine -- entry-level S-V6, the upscale SE-V6 and deluxe LE-V6 -- and each offers 2WD or 4WD traction.
Pathfinder LE-V8 is the sole trim with V8 power and it stocks the XN All-Mode 4WD system exclusively.
All editions of Pathfinder carry bold lines on the body with sheetmetal incorporating styling points of Nissan's big Titan truck -- check those flashy V-angled chrome struts in a rectangular grille, the fat-lipped fascia and oversized headlamp clusters on front corners, crimped overhangs fore and aft plus fenders bulging in strong arched shapes.
Flanks reveal a pair of slab-like doors tucked between fender shoulders and three large windows, each unique in shape. And still there are traces of the original five-door Pathfinder design apparent in 2010 editions as the vehicle's aft-canted C pillars conceal high-mounted rear door handles as nearly vertical bars blended by body-colored paint.
Pathfinder's cabin layout shows twin front bucket seats followed by the second-row bench for three and a third-row bench for two. That back seat divides 50/50 and folds flat into the cargo bay's floor when not needed for passengers. Seats on the second row split 40/20/40 and also fold and tip forward, and the seatback of the front passenger-side bucket folds down.
Pathfinder contains significant standard safety systems to protect the precious human cargo, including curtain-style air bags for all tiers of seats, and electronic vehicle controls such as an anti-lock brake system (ABS), electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and Nissan's vehicle dynamic control (VDC) with traction control system (TCS), even a tire pressure monitor system (TPMS).
Pathfinder S-V6 stocks such standard gear as 16-inch aluminum wheels with 245/75R16 tires, power controls for windows and door locks, a tilting steering wheel, four 12-volt outlets around the cabin and a climate control system.
Pathfinder SE-V6 adds 17-inch wheels with 265/65R17 tires, eight-way power for the driver's seat, power-adjustable foot pedals, leather wrapping steering wheel and shift knob, automatic temperature controls with rear air conditioning, exterior foglamps and side running boards.
Pathfinder LE-V6 and LE-V8 roll on 18-inch machine-finished aluminum-alloy wheels capped by 265/60R18 BFGoodrich tires, as the equipment list shows leather seats and wood grain trim, automatic on/off headlights, RearView Monitor and Bluetooth hands-free phone system, Nissan Intelligent Key plus a Bose audio system with ten speakers.
For 2010 there are five option packages including a new SE Premium Journey Package, the LE-V8 Value Package, a HDD Navigation Package with 9.3-GB Music Box Hard Drive, and the LE DVD Mobile Entertainment System.
Nissan initiates the 2010 price list for Pathfinder at $27,440 for the S-V6 2WD.