COAL: 1994 Nissan Pathfinder – A Change in Direction


After driving my Honda Prelude for almost two years, life with a small, 2-door car had begun to get old. Mechanical issues aside, going anywhere with friends comfortably or hauling anything was out of the question in the Honda. So, I cracked open the classified and began shopping. I didn’t know quite what I wanted, but ended up test driving — and buying — a 1994 Nissan Pathfinder on somewhat of a whim.

At the time, there was a 1997 floating around in the family, but this first-generation machine was not nearly as refined. Basically a Nissan Hardbody pickup with an extended roofline, this truck was a *truck.* It offered real-wheel drive, body-on-frame ruggedness that I would come to enjoy quickly.

That’s not to say that the Pathfinder didn’t offer any creature comforts. My particular example came with four doors in gold with chrome wheels, window tint, cold AC and a solid (if not basic) gray interior. Being a 1994, my Pathfinder was at the tail-end of the first generation of the line. When Nissan had decided to add a 4-door version lineup to the family, it didn’t extend the wheelbase, shrinking the length of the front doors.

Nissan moved through a couple of different variations of the 4-door design. Mine featured the full-size spare tire being mounted inside the trunk, against the driver side rear window. This made of getting stuff in and out of the tailgate easier, as there was no spare tire holder in the way, but greatly ate into storage space.

This Internet-found image is actually a 1995, but it shows just how bulky the spare tire holder was on these things.

This gave these trucks a more upright appearance than I think they would have had otherwise. However, Nissan designers added a little touch that I still love — hiding the vertical rear door handles in the black trim covering the B pillar. While this design element is used all over the place now, in 1994, it was hot stuff.

Thanks to increased ground clearance and rather straight-forward nature, the Pathfinder is where I learned much of what I know about maintaining and taking care of a vehicle. I changed my own oil, rotated my own tires and performed several repairs over the course of my ownership, including a water pump over Thanksgiving break in a friend’s driveway.


My Pathfinder, surviving a rare Memphis snow event.

The weekend before I started college, my girlfriend and I were given tickets to see a play. We took a break from moving me into my dorm to enjoy a night on the town. Upon returning to the parking garage where I had stashed the Pathfinder, my heart sank.

The driver door was wide open, and spilling out of it was a mix of glass, plastic and wiring. Upon inspection, it became clear that someone had attempted to steal the truck. They had been unsuccessful, but not before totally trashing the steering column and driver footwell. The thing wouldn’t even start. With the help of a friend with a Tahoe, we got it pulled out the parking garage to where a tow truck could get it home.


It took some time — and most of the dashboard out of a junkyard truck — but the Pathfinder was resurrected by a local shop.

Sadly, the transplant didn’t take perfectly. The Pathfinder developed a nasty habit of setting its own alarm off at random once the key was removed from the ignition. I lived in a dorm at the time, and after the 4th of 5th time the campus police called me, I wired in a kill switch to the battery to keep the electrical minions at bay.

(More than once, I jumped in the truck to go somewhere, forgetting about the switch. After getting mad that the battery had gone dead, I’d remember the toggle and roll my eyes.)

Even with its criminal-induced problems, the Pathfinder served me well. It never complained when I overloaded it moving in and out of dorms my first year and a half of college, but after a while, owning an older, large SUV began to drain on me — and my checkbook at the gas pump. I put a For Sale sign in the window and looked to move on.