Farewell to the rough and rugged SUV; I'll miss it

Where have all the tough-guy midsize SUVs gone?

If you want a Pathfinder that can tow 7,000 pounds, you'd better hustle to your local Nissan dealer and snap up one of the remaining 2012s, because a kinder, gentler Pathfinder is on its way for 2013.

Following a growing industry trend, Nissan took advantage of a major redesign of its Pathfinder to transform it from a square-cornered, beefy sport-utility vehicle into a highly stylized, less-threatening crossover.

The next-generation Pathfinder not only doesn't offer as much towing capability as the 2012, but last year's more rugged-looking exterior has been replaced with a softer, sort of unisex styling.

Not only missing is the 2012's optional V8, but Nissan changed Pathfinder's basic architecture from that of a truck to a car-based skeleton.

2012 Nissan Pathfinder

Pathfinder isn't alone in making the switch. Other popular mid- to full-size SUVs, such as the Ford Explorer, Dodge Durango and even the Jeep Grand Cherokee have all made the transition from truck-based to car-based construction.

GM chose a different strategy entirely, killing off its truck-based Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy, and replacing them with the Traverse and Acadia crossovers.

Speaking to a gathering of auto media in California at a 2013 Pathfinder launch event last month, marketing honcho Tom Smith said Nissan realizes that truck-based SUVs in the midsize segment are all but dead.

And he's right.

The decline of truck-based SUVs as a percentage of midsize SUV/crossover sales has been meteoric over the past 11 years, falling from virtually 100% of more than 1.2 million sales in 2000 to less than 10% of 1.4 million sales in 2011.

Faced with these disappointing sales numbers, Nissan made the switch, compromising some capability for passenger space, comfort and fuel economy in redesigning the Pathfinder.

By most measures, Nissan was successful.

In sacrificing as much as 2,000 pounds of towing capacity and some off-road capability, it achieved best-in-class 26 mpg highway fuel economy, best-in-class passenger volume and a third-row reclining seat.

2013 Nissan Pathfinder

Nissan did manage to squeeze 5,000 lbs. of maximum towing capacity out of the 260-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 and continuously variable transmission (CVT). That's equal to the towing numbers of the Grand Cherokee and somewhat more than the Ford Explorer — and with a CVT no less.

However, as much back-slapping as Nissan deserves for Pathfinder's towing numbers, the truth is that options for heavy-duty towing are dwindling.

And although it's not much of an argument, the passing of the go-anywhere, do-anything SUV in favor of today's crop of metro-sexual wagons has left those wanting to project a rugged image or needing to tow more than 5,000 lbs. with few options.

A few full-size SUVs, like GM's Tahoe, Yukon and Suburban, as well as Nissan's own Armada and assorted pickup trucks, are the only options left.

Nissan and other manufacturers made the safe bet in going the crossover route, but I don't think fewer choices is ever a good thing.

Besides, I miss those tough-guy midsize SUVs.

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