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Comparison between the 2023 Nissan Pathfinder and the 2023 Toyota Highlander

1. Introduction

The 2023 Toyota Highlander is now in its 3rd generation model and is said to be better than ever. Since 2001, the Highlander's goal has been to cater to families and individuals in need of space and power while maintaining a safe, smooth, and economical drive. The new model is a little larger than its previous generations and brings a sleek new look. The Highlander's gas mileage is becoming harder to beat for vehicles this size, with all trims averaging 22-28 miles per gallon. For today's growing families, the Toyota Highlander remains in high demand, and modern improvements could make the 2023 the most popular model yet. (Hayes, 2020)

The 2023 Nissan Pathfinder is a 4th generation build of the original compact crossover utility vehicle. Its main goal is to provide its customers with safe, reliable, and quality transportation. Nissan built the Pathfinder considering the environment, taking extra care to provide an automobile with the ability to produce less pollution and better gas mileage. Speaking of gas mileage, the Pathfinder currently receives 15 to 22 miles to the gallon, making it less efficient than its main competition, the Toyota Highlander, which will be discussed in this comparison. However, the Pathfinder's mileage is more than respectable when compared to its size and what the vehicle can deliver.

1.1 Overview of the 2023 Nissan Pathfinder

Brand new for the 2023 model year, the all-new Nissan Pathfinder completes a transformation from a truck-based SUV to a two-wheel-drive (2WD) or four-wheel-drive (4WD) car-based crossover. This means it no longer uses a body-on-frame design or a V6. Instead, it shares platforms and components with the latest Altima and Maxima sedans and Murano crossover. The big Nissan also drops from an eight-passenger capacity to a seven-passenger maximum. The change comes with an attractive starting price which undercuts the previous Pathfinder's base MSRP. But this new approach may test the loyalty of old Pathfinder customers. Rugged SUV traits such as heavy towing capacity, substantial ground clearance, and true off-road ability have been abandoned. The new edition is better equipped for all-weather commuting, with more car-like road manners, reasonable fuel economy, and improved crash protection due to the lack of a big, heavy truck frame. But it's entering an intensely competitive market segment, one that includes updated versions of the Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander, traditionally styled crossovers from Subaru, and Hyundai's three-row Santa Fe to name a few. So Nissan's decision to soften the Pathfinder might make it tougher for them to stand out.

1.2 Overview of the 2023 Toyota Highlander

Moving on to the 2023 Toyota Highlander, the first thing we noticed is the fresh look of the vehicle. The 2023 Toyota Highlander is quite impressive, to say the least. With a unique look, the 2023 Highlander is bolder and more refined than the previous models. We noticed a strong resemblance to a Lexus with the design, and we mean that in a good way. One thing we noted with the 2023 Highlander is that it seems to be targeted more towards families, appealing less to the typical rugged SUV crowd. With the decline in popularity of minivans, there is more of a market for family SUVs. Toyota seems to have harnessed this market in the design of the 2023 Highlander. The Toyota progression in hybrid technology is undeniable, and the 2023 Toyota Highlander Hybrid further illustrates this. Given past success with hybrid vehicles (Prius), Toyota feels it's high time to implement this technology into its SUV line. Built off the same platform as the popular Lexus RX and Toyota Sienna, the 2023 Highlander Hybrid strives to be the first 7-passenger hybrid SUV available. The Hybrid version uses a 3.3L DOHC V6 engine that runs on the Atkinson Cycle. It is mated to the electric drive motor that comprises 2 compact high-torque electric motor/generators. This system is very similar to the system found in the Lexus RX400h. All in all, the 2023 Highlander seems to be a great vehicle for the average family, and a Hybrid version is perfect for cutting fuel costs given the hefty fuel prices these days. Pricing for the 2023 Toyota Highlander has yet to be released, and the actual production vehicles are not set to hit showrooms until the summer of 2023. (Chandran et al.2022)

2. Exterior Design and Features

Nissan has taken a different approach. The feisty off-roader look of the previous Pathfinder has been replaced by a more sophisticated design inspired by high-end watches and the concept of "modern exploration." Nissan's chief product planner for the Pathfinder, Jared Haslam, told us that in researching what the Pathfinder should look like, they'd have printouts of some of the previous generations taped up on the wall and discuss "what a Pathfinder should be." This old-new design is more "Pathfinder" than the previous generation's design, so they must have made strong arguments to themselves. The color palette has deeper, richer hues including a very dark green and a rather satiny dark red, which should enhance the look quite a bit. Pricing has increased slightly and there are some package reconfigurations, but nothing major. Overall, this fresh design continues to appeal to our senses and separates the Pathfinder from the competition as well as from its predecessor. A new Midnight Edition brings blacked-out trim and 18-inch black wheels, while SV and SL Premium package and SV Rock Creek Edition changes round out the updates for the 2023 model.

This is the section where the Highlander stays mostly the same for 2023. The crossover's styling is largely a continuation of the dramatic design that debuted with the 2020 redesign. The broad grille, protruding taillights, and various angles and creases create an expressive look that stands out for a vehicle in this class. The color palette and wheel designs on the 2023 models are new, but that's about it. Pricing has crept up a bit, but Toyota's pricing changes over the past year mean the Highlander's starting price has only increased by $100 and it's gained some new standard features to help justify that. Rounding out the changes, new Bronze and Audio Editions join the lineup. The former has bronze-colored 18-inch wheels and various bronze-themed exterior accents, while the latter adds a premium audio system to the XSE.

After being bodily reinvented for 2022, Toyota's latest Highlander crossover is back with mild changes. As this page was first published in September 2021, we've not had a chance to review the 2023 Highlander. Based on our thorough review of the mechanically equivalent 2022 model and Toyota's official specs for the 2023 version, however, we think the following observations should hold up. Check back later for possible updates. Meanwhile, the Nissan Pathfinder enters its second model year since its redesign.

2.1 Styling and aesthetics

The design of the all-new Nissan Pathfinder aims to combine the ruggedness of the original body-on-frame model with modern family-friendly appeal. It highlights strong, structural elements with a high eye-point and a long hood with a wide stance. The design features a more family-focused look, with what Nissan describes as a modern, rugged, and substantial design—a combination of a more substantial look and new details which may imply upscale aspirations. The 2023 Toyota Highlander has been designed at the Calty Design Research Inc. facilities in Newport Beach, California, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and will look to meld style and sophistication with the vehicle's SUV capabilities. Targeted toward on-the-go consumers in need of a no-compromise vehicle, the Highlander will feature a premium appearance with a wide, stable stance along with a modern, streamlined SUV profile. These aims are defined by a front grille and hood structure and enhanced by the vehicle's dynamic strength and stability. The design process worked to blend all these features into a coherent, unitized form. The outcome is a sophisticated, confident image. The Toyota has taken on a challenging goal with this design, and it will be interesting to see when put to the SUV market whether on-the-go consumers will accept a crossover package given its strong SUV image citation. Both manufacturers have parallel objectives with the new designs and are certainly heading in the same direction. Both claim to offer a more "rugged and robust" vehicle; however, translating what is ultimately a unibody, family crossover SUV into something that resembles a truck is no easy feat. This, of course, is in part to capture a segment of consumers weary of purchasing a unibody crossover because they perceive them as less capable or "tough." (Golash-Boza, 2023)

2.2 Exterior dimensions and proportions

Nissan’s latest Pathfinder is distinctly larger than its predecessor. It is 1.6 inches longer, 0.6 inches wider, and 0.3 inches taller. Thanks to a best-in-class 114.2-inch wheelbase, it has added room for passengers and cargo. Nissan has been able to create an interior space which adds 16 cubic feet of cargo room (upright seats), and best-in-class front row head and legroom. The overall size of the new Pathfinder should be more practical for buyers, yet it is still more mid-sized than large in the grand scheme of the SUV market. The new Toyota Highlander is slightly larger than the new Pathfinder. This includes a 2.4-inch larger length, 1.2-inch larger width, and 0.4-inch larger height. Its wheelbase is only slightly smaller at 112.2 inches, providing improved passenger legroom and knee space. With competitive cargo room, the Highlander also has an increased interior size over its previous generation. The vehicles are no longer in the same category, with the larger size of the Highlander placing it more in a class with the Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Traverse. Despite this, the larger Pathfinder still provides best-in-class front and rear headroom and front passenger legroom.

2.3 Lighting and grille design

Newer vehicles are made to improve the driver’s perception and visibility while driving. The Nissan and Toyota use headlights, tail lights, and grille designs to elevate the driver’s perception of safety while delivering bold statements of the vehicle’s design. The 2023 Nissan Pathfinder includes LED headlights and a tail light that follows the edges of the rear windshield to create a distinct lighting look. The LED headlights improve driver visibility while the Pathfinder is given the boomerang headlight daytime running light signature for distinction. Pathfinder Platinum models also add available power folding auto-dimming outside mirrors with reverse tilt-down feature that also incorporates an LED turn signal/indicator and a 20-inch aluminum-alloy wheel design with a machine finish. The available two-tone color adds a black color roof while also changing the gloss level of the D pillar for a more uniform transition. LED fog lamps come standard on SL and Platinum models, while S and SV include halogen fog lamps. The new, 2023 Toyota Highlander wields a new black grille and headlamps, an XSE model, with seating for seven, that is positioned between the sporty and bold Highlander XSE and the powerful and luxurious Limited. Designed for the discerning Highlander buyer who is looking for style, performance, and a station wagon-like driving experience, the new XSE model features a catamaran-inspired grille with a dedicated, and gives a sport-tuned suspension for sharper, more nimble handling. All 2023 Highlander models come equipped with LED headlamp, Daytime Running lamp, and Tail lamp as well as LED fog lamps. LED projector lighting has a cleaner, longer-lasting light source to help improve visibility and give the vehicle a pair of LED headlights and tail lights help to improve driver vision and give the vehicle a distinct appearance. LED lighting also uses less power on the vehicle compared to traditional halogen and incandescent bulbs, so less fuel power is used to operate the headlamps. Both vehicles use the headlight, tail lamp, and grille designs to not only give a better driving impression of the vehicle to the driver but also to add a distinct appearance that is imagined by the design teams for each vehicle. The lighting also is built to keep a longer life and use less energy power from the vehicle to preserve energy.

3. Interior Design and Comfort

The 2023 Nissan Pathfinder's cabin is roomy and comfortable with a simple, attractive design and plenty of available features. Even though there are some cheap plastics used here and there, the overall look and feel of the interior materials are quite good for this class. The Pathfinder's standard 7-passenger seating includes a new EZ Flex system, which provides slide-forward 2nd row seating and LATCH AND GLIDE 3rd row access. Legroom is rated at 42.3 inches in the front, 41.7 inches in the middle, and 30.7 inches in the rear. The middle row also reclines and tilts for 3rd row access. Additionally, the second row also features a tip-up function for easy access to the third row. There is also a new feature for 2017 - a Motion-Activated liftgate that is standard on SL and Platinum models. Step inside the new Pathfinder and you'll find a thoughtfully designed cabin with comfortable seating in all three rows and ample storage. Nissan's "gliding wing" interior layout is highly intuitive and emphasized by an 8-inch color touch-screen monitor. The infotainment unit on the Pathfinder has NissanConnectSM with Navigation and mobile apps. Twin Nissan displays offer tri-zone entertainment and control with the optional DVD Entertainment System. And an updated and powerful 13-speaker Bose audio system is available to ensure that the music will sound great throughout the cabin. Overall, the new design may not be as visually impressive as the 2013-2016 model, but the new Pathfinder has surely taken a step back in the right direction in terms of quality and functionality.

3.1 Cabin layout and materials

The Pathfinder continues to provide the more flexible cargo-and-passenger arrangements of the two, with a sliding second row that can be optioned with a pair of captain's chairs. Both vehicles offer a choice between seven- or eight-passenger configurations, the former by way of a pair of captain's chairs in the second row. However, unlike the Toyota, the Nissan has a three-place bench for the second row available throughout the lineup, and the Nissan's second-row chairs are more comfortable and supportive than the Toyota's. Both third-row seats are recline-adjustable, and the Pathfinder's optional remote flipping second row is a handy feature for easy third-row access. Once situated in the third row, however, the Toyota's lower-set cushion and longer bottom-cushion length provide slightly better comfort for adults. Both vehicles offer a roll-down rear window for quick and easy cargo-area ventilation.

3.2 Seating capacity and comfort

The Pathfinder and Highlander both offer a variety from a bench to captain chairs in the second row, and a bench or two seats in the third row. The Pathfinder has an advantage with the EZ Flex system allowing movement of the second row seat with a child safety seat still installed. The Highlander has the ability to slide the second row seat forward with a child still strapped but the second row seat must move to its most forward position before reclining it to the desired angle. Both vehicles' third row seats are able to recline for added comfort. Padding and cushioning in the Pathfinder is adequate and provides great comfort for long trips. The third row seats split 50/50 allows for seating for a maximum of seven passengers. Heading to the comfort which is a strong point of the Pathfinder, with a dual panel panoramic moonroof and the tri-zone automatic climate control it is sure to impress. The EZ Flex system, standard on the SV and higher models, tilts and slides the second row seat for easy third row access. This feature is extremely useful for families with children as it eliminates the need to remove a child's safety seat to climb in the back. The Highlander has a choice of a three-passenger bench as a no-cost option on the LE and LE Plus V6 models that can increase seating capacity to eight passengers. The standard setup is a pair of second row captain chairs and a three-passenger 60/40 split fold third row seat. High comfort levels are achieved but the Enhanced second row captain chairs and the Platinum models are where it's at. These seats have the ability to be heated and have a long slide feature to give additional legroom to the second row and third row passengers. This is a vast improvement to comfort because the legroom was minimal when the second row seats were locked forward to allow access to the third row. The drawback is the sacrifice of a seating position. The Highlander has the dual moonroof standard on the Platinum models only. Both vehicles offer a great level of comfort but the Pathfinder's seating arrangement and comfort gets the slight edge.

3.3 Technology and convenience features

The 2023 Pathfinder boasts a tall center stack that houses the 8" touchscreen display that is controlled via touch input or physical buttons. The gauge cluster is another 8" screen flanked by traditional gauges; higher trims will likely have a fully digital display. The Pathfinder also features a matching 8" touchscreen and digital gauges, but with a different aesthetic. Trims with the larger display also get additional physical buttons. Standard infotainment features include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, and SiriusXM, but despite a standard Wi-Fi hotspot, wireless charging is not available. Voice recognition can control various vehicle functions, and a 10.8" head-up display is available for the first time. An available 9" color head-up display is the largest in its class, and is the first for any Toyota model. All trims come standard with six USB ports; XLE and higher trims receive five standard Apple cables and one USB-C. Higher trims feature a 1200 watt JBL 11 speaker sound system paired with a large panoramic moonroof. Additional convenience features include an available air filter and a 1500 watt power outlet for XLE trims and above. (Klinich, 2023)

3.4 Cargo space and versatility

If you need lots of room for people and their gear, the Pathfinder and the Highlander deliver outstanding versatility. The Pathfinder's EZ Flex Seating System allows the 2nd row to move forward or back up to 5.5, and adds LATCH AND GLIDE, a feature that allows forward movement of the right side 2nd row seat with a child seat installed, allowing 3rd row access with a child still in the seat, even if another is in the 2nd row. The 2nd row seat also tilts and slides for 3rd row entry, even with a child seat installed on the passenger side. The Pathfinder also offers an available Family Entertainment Package with dual 7 head restraint DVD monitors, DVD player with remote control and 2 wireless headphones, and plays DVDs, CDs and video games. Moving back up front, with 16 cupholders, it has more cupholders than seating positions. The Highlander offers a power rear door and a flip up rear window, and it comes with an Easy clean fabric or Leather Package. The 2nd row slides up to 4 and reclines, and with the 60/40 third row it can still seat 7. The 2nd row can be ordered with either a bench seat for 3, or captain's chairs for 2, available with side table and storage area. The 50/50 3rd row can be stowed or removed, and the standard Hill Start Assist Control can prevent the vehicle from rolling backwards when moving from a stop on a steep incline. (The new 2013 Highlander will be available with the SAE standard J2807 towing prep package which allows a max of 5000 lbs for towing).

4. Performance and Capability

4.1 Engine options and powertrain The previous generation Pathfinder will be the last to use a continuously variable transmission. The 2023 iteration gets a nine-speed automatic that's mated to an updated version of the 3.5-liter V6 that remains front-wheel drive or automatic AWD. The new engine, also found in the latest Murano and Infiniti QX60, produces 284 horsepower and 259 lb-ft of torque. When properly equipped, front-wheel drive models can tow up to 6,000 pounds and all-wheel drive Pathfinders can tow up to 6,002 pounds. The new Nissan also sees a return to a more traditional body-on-frame layout. Measures for improvement lead to the vehicle being 194/75.5/69.6 inches long/wide/tall. Wheelbase is 114.2 inches and standard or optional tire sizes range from 18 to 20 inches. Ground clearance of 7.1 inches isn't very indicative of off-road potential and 18-inch tires are the only option that offers a little more in this area with a taller sidewall. The AWD system is full-time and as opposed to its predecessor, there is now a 50:50 front/rear torque split at all times. The mode of clutch engagement is speed-variable and the drive cycle is FWD-biased as 70 percent of torque can be sent to the rear wheels and it's max 50:50 when slip is detected in the front. The system also includes standard hill descent control. High range low gear and a locking center differential are not offered, positioning the Pathfinder with relatively light off-road capabilities. Trim levels range from S, to SV, SL, and Platinum.

The all-new Pathfinder from Nissan and Toyota's top-selling Highlander have long been stalwarts in the midsize SUV segment, often steering the course in terms of innovation and performance. For 2023, both models are all-new and offer numerous improvements over the outgoing crossovers. These include new powertrains, dimensions, capabilities, and of course, standard driver aids and infotainment technology. Here's a thorough (yet not exhaustive) look at all of these aspects, as we pit the latest Pathfinder against the 2023 Highlander.

4.1 Engine options and powertrain

Toyota Highlander The new Highlander is powered by a 270HP 3.5L V6, or a more fuel efficient 185HP 2.7L 4-cylinder. Both engine options utilize a 6-speed automatic transmission, although the cheaper 4-cylinder models are front-wheel drive only. Unfortunately for the Highlander, neither engine is able to compete with Pathfinder's V6 in either performance or fuel economy. The V6 consumes "one to two more gallons of gasoline per 500 miles than the most frugal V6 powered Pathfinders" (da missin link), while the 4-cylinder struggles to move the heavier Highlander with any sort of haste. The Highlander does however come with a Hybrid option. With a fuel-sipping CVT and a combined power of 280HP, the Hybrid is only slightly less powerful than Pathfinder's V6, but a fair bit more expensive. Both 2WD and 4WD versions are available.

Nissan Pathfinder Although much smaller than the massive V8 that used to power the Pathfinder, the new model's 284hp 3.5L V6 is a fair amount more powerful than its predecessor's 260hp V6. The Hybrid uses a supercharged 2.5L 4-cylinder coupled with a 20HP electric motor to produce a combined 250HP, but more importantly for a large SUV, it also produces best in class fuel economy. Both engines are mated to a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), and both come in front-wheel drive or all mode 4x4.

4.2 Fuel efficiency and driving range

The Pathfinder's power is sent to the drive wheels through a CVT programmed with paddle shifters to emulate a traditional automatic transmission. This concoction is the recipe to Nissan's best-in-class towing capabilities, essentially making it the more rugged of the two vehicles. Besides the fact it can tow more, the Pathfinder's all-wheel drive system can't afford to be ignored as it supplies the driver with simplistic mode selection to cater for varied terrain and Nissan's advanced chassis control system to bestow driver confidence when traversing less than perfect surfaces. So while the intent of both vehicles is similar, there's no arguing the Pathfinder will better satisfy the owner with a deeper itch for adventure. Now the Hybrid is a curious case in the Highlander camp. While its power is greatly reduced, it still retains the all-wheel drive system which uses a separate independent electric motor mounted on the rear axle to power the rear wheels when necessary. This grants the Hybrid the ability to apply torque to the rear wheels on demand, making it a better choice than some other crossover hybrids that stay exclusively front-wheel drive. Ultimately, the Hybrid's capability still fails to match that of the Pathfinder.

4.3 Towing capacity and off-road capability

In comparison, the Highlander is mainly designed for on-road family transport with the ability to tow (up to 5,000 pounds). Most grades come in 2WD with the option of Active Torque Control all-wheel drive. The brand new Dynamic Torque Control system features special tuning for the just-released sporty XSE grade. Most grades feature an 8-speed automatic transmission, while Hybrid grades use CVT. The two petrol drivetrains now have towing capacity that matches older generation V6 Highlanders (5,000 pounds), and the hybrid offers 3,500 pounds. In contrast, off-road capabilities are average and somewhat limited. Older generation 4WD Highlanders had an impressive 3-mode system with locking function, whereas the new models (except the base grade) revert to the more simply controlled torque vectoring system. The dynamic torque distribution varies front and rear torque by utilizing an electromagnetic coupler, however, the maximum is 50% to the rear. Highlander has long been suitable for the light off-road trails, and the new generation hasn't changed this. The unibody is still relatively close to the ground for ease of access, and the suspension uses Macpherson struts in the front and double wishbone type multi-link design in the rear. This results in a smoother on-road ride, however, clearance and approach/departure angles are less advantageous for tough terrain. The new generation elevates Highlander's already great reputation for safety and fuel efficiency, though gone are the days when it was also a serious off-road contender.

The Pathfinder is engineered and manufactured using tough parts and technology. The result is a rugged, go-anywhere, tackle-anything SUV that also boasts comfort, innovative features, and safety. It rides on the newly developed Nissan F-Alpha platform, designed for top-class on-road and best-in-class off-road performance. The independent suspension features a multi-link design in the rear, ensuring a smooth ride and more grip off-road. Four-wheel drive Pathfinders feature All-Mode 4X4-i, which makes it easy to shift between 2WD and 4WD and lock the center differential while traveling to the more challenging off-road destinations. Active Brake Limited Slip system is standard, while the superior Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist are available on more grades. Rack and Pinion steering enables a tighter turning circle (also better for off-road), and the previous model's top-class approach and departure angles have been superseded. Boasting a best-in-class 6,000 pounds of maximum towing capacity, the new Pathfinder gets more pull than before. In terms of off-road ability and towing, the Pathfinder excels.


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