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Nissan Pathfinder

The seven-seater Pathfinder is ideal for taking the whole family into the wilderness on an off-road adventure - but choose something smaller for the school run...

These days, driving a large 4x4 in town is akin to wearing fur. Just as it's okay for Eskimos to wear sealskin, no one will object to you driving your Pathfinder up mountain tracks... but use it to shuttle the sprogs round Kensington and you could be in for some abuse.

Assuming you have a genuine need for off-road as well as on-road motoring - or at the very least, you live in the countryside where the roads aren't cleared of snow, or you have a 3000kg braked trailer to tow - then it's highly likely that the local Nissan dealership will be in the speed-dial function of your mobile phone. Nissan's model range leans towards the rugged, as its new TV ad suggests (you know the one: Nissans change into mechanical snakes and crocodiles as they ford rivers and scramble over rocks). The Murano, X-Trail, Patrol and Pathfinder all offer 4WD, with varying combinations of on-road/off-road ability.

The 2007 Pathfinder sits well over to the off-road side of the scale. We tested it on an alarmingly challenging course with mightily steep drops and climbs, and even a brief section scrambling along a rocky river bed. I thought we'd taken a wrong turning but no - Nissan clearly has confidence in the Pathfinder's ability to keep journalists out of trouble, and it didn't let them down. The Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist, new functions for the automatic transmission, were particularly useful, although you need a certain amount of courage to rely on the former when it comes to cresting a brow and dropping down a virtual ravine. The trick, we were told, is not to brake but to let the Hill Descent Control do its stuff. This means there's an initial and often quite terrifying burst of speed, before the clever engine software takes control and rumbles you safely down to the bottom at a sensible pace. All you need to do is concentrate on the steering.

The Pathfinder comes with either five or seven seats, but only has the one engine - a 2.5 dCi Euro IV-compliant turbodiesel which gives a top speed of 108mph and takes 11.9 seconds to reach 62mph with the six-speed manual gearbox, or 11.8 seconds for the five-speed automatic. Fuel economy is 28.8mpg combined for the manual, or 26.9mpg combined for the auto. While this is better than some of its rivals, it still won't give you green credentials.

Most buyers opt for seven seats, which are fitted in three, forward-facing rows. To access the rear row, you fold and flip the middle row forwards - a relatively simple action you can do with one hand. It's also fairly easy to fold the middle and rear seats to create a huge flat load area of 2091 litres. If you additionally fold the front passenger seat forwards, you get a massive 2.8m-long space.

If there's a downside to the Pathfinder, it's that it doesn't feel all that car-like on the roads. True, it has excellent visibility and plenty of comfort: the 4x4 market trend is heading towards increasing luxury, and the Pathfinder is no exception. Alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, CD audio and a full set of airbags (front, side and curtain) are standard on all versions, even those at the entry-level price of £22,995. Options include privacy glass, Bluetooth phone compatibility, trip computer, leather upholstery, voice-activated DVD sat-nav and even a colour, rear-view parking camera. Even so, it's not a car. The tyres you choose will have a huge bearing on its on-road/off-road character but whatever the rubber, if you're used to vehicles which soak up bumps on badly-surfaced roads, you might find the Pathfinder a bit jiggly. Nor does there seem to be much soundproofing in the engine bay. But then, as we said at the start, there's no point buying a Pathfinder unless off-road ability is a priority; in which case, it's a gem.
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