My grandma used to hammer the ‘Three Ps’ into me when I was a kid: Patience, Perseverance and Punctuality – her principles for a successful existence. However, these Three Ps are: Prado, Pajero and Pathfinder – the principals in the medium family wagon market.
This feature was originally published in 4x4 Australia’s April 2009 issue
The three top sellers in the medium wagon market are Toyota Prado, the Mitsubishi Pajero and the Nissan Pathfinder. The Prado sold more than double the Pajero’s total last year and the Pajero figures were double the Pathfinder’s, so there’s a clear pecking order in the minds of medium wagon purchasers.
Are buyers right, choosing the Prado over the other two? We took the latest mid-spec, diesel auto trio for an on- and off-road test to find out.
The last time we pitted these three brands together was back in June 2007, when we evaluated the top-spec models. The Prado Grande took the honours in that contest, on the basis that its superb fit and finish, quiet cabin, air rear suspension and traction aids helped justify its luxury price tag.
In comparison the Pajero Exceed and the Pathfinder Ti looked like tricked up versions of base models and they didn’t really offer the same ‘luxury’ feel as the Grande.
This time around we compared the more popular mid-specification models: the Prado GXL, the Pajero GLS and the Pathfinder ST-L. All three were four-cylinder turbo-intercooled diesels, fitted with automatic five-speed transmissions and all were in standard trim.
This ‘nobbled’ the Pajero somewhat, because no off-roader in his or her right mind would buy the new Pajero GLS without opting for the rear axle differential lock – a mere $600 ask.
What you get
There’ll be little change out of 60 grand if you buy the Prado or the Pajero, while the Pathfinder has a recommended retail of $52,990. The Pathfinder is physically smaller than the others and has a smaller engine and less ground clearance, so it’s probably a good call by Nissan to position it under the others’ price points.
The three test wagons were three-row-seat models. Toyota claims its Prado seats eight people – more on that later – while the other two have seven-seat capacity.
As standard equipment, all three feature airconditioning, tilt-only steering wheel adjustment, leather-bound steering wheel, cloth-covered seats, steering wheel audio controls, twin SRS airbags, cruise control, six-speaker AM/FM/CD players, in-glass aerials, power windows, remote central locking and power mirrors, four-wheel discs with ABS/EBD, 17-inch aluminium wheels, side steps and roof rails.
The Prado and the Pathfinder have dual-zone climate control aircon up front and the Pathfinder and the Pajero have all-independent suspension, traction control and stability control, fog lamps, electronic compasses and trip computer displays.
The Pajero has side curtain airbags which are optional on the Prado. Pathfinder buyers looking for additional equipment can opt for the Ti model that’s only slightly more expensive than the Prado GXL and Pajero GLS we tested.
We’ve been criticising the Prado GXL’s equipment levels for many years and that criticism is still valid, despite changes introduced in mid-2006 (upgraded diesel engine with competitive power and torque), in September 2007 (five-speed automatic transmission) and more recently, steering wheel radio controls and MP3 and Bluetooth mobile phone connectivity.
Despite these welcome additions, the Prado is still down on equipment levels when compared with the other two, or even cheap passenger cars for that matter. In GXL spec, Prado has no traction control, no stability control and not even driver’s seat height adjustment.
The Inside Story
Toyota LandCruiser Prado GXL
The Prado cabin has the best noise suppression and quality materials, but lacks some basic features you’d expect in this price bracket, such as driver’s seat height and lumbar adjustment. The sound system now has audio controls on the steering wheel and an intuitive bluetooth system for phone connectivity. Dash gauges are big and easy to read. Prado has the biggest centre storage bin.
The second-row seat offers plenty of width for three occupants, but the shape of the seat base in the centre position makes it very uncomfortable. There are airconditioning controls for second-row passengers and vents in the roof lining.
The third-row seats are designed to accommodate three people, but are only suited to small kids. Prado has the least leg room and occupants have to adopt a legs-up position due to the location of the auxiliary fuel tank under the floor. There are air vents in the roof lining. All seats have three-point safety belts and head rests.
Nissan Pathfinder ST-L
Interior finish in the Pathfinder is no match for the other two vehicles (there are a few rattles around the cabin) but the driver’s seat has seat-height, lumbar and seat-base rake adjustment. There are steering-wheel audio controls and the instruments are basic, functional and easy to read.
Pathfinder’s cabin is narrower than the others but the three-way split/fold seat in the second row offers comfort for all. Access to the rear is good thanks to wide-opening doors but leg room in the second-row is limited. There’s an airconditioning vent in the back of the centre console.
The third-row seats offer the most space with decent head room and good width. The third-row seats “aren’t too upright” and, although you wouldn’t put adults in there on long trips, overall comfort was judged to be “not bad”. Pathfinder offers more cargo space than the others when the third-row seats are in use.
Mitsubishi Pajero GLS
Pajero’s interior offers the most comfortable front seats, the best sound system (with steering wheel controls), a decent-size centre storage bin and quality trim and materials. The dash layout is neat with well positioned controls, but the instrument binnacle is fussy and there was a small but annoying rattle somewhere in the centre console.
Second-row occupants have their own airconditioning control with vents in the roof lining, but air in the back wasn’t as cool as the Prado (it was nearing 40°C outside during the test). Pajero’s back seat offers plenty of width for three people and decent leg and foot room.
Third-row occupants aren’t afforded much leg room and the seats were judged “too upright” for adults. There’s plenty of width in the back, however, and third-row occupants have airconditioning vents in the roof lining. With the third-row seats in use, there’s not much cargo space left over, although you can use the third-row seats storage area for gear.
Power & Security
Whether they’re for powering fridges, DVD players, iPods or recharging phones, modern family 4X4 wagons need a heap of 12V power outlets.
The Pajero and Pathfinder have three 12V outlets each: one in the dash, one in the centre console and one in the cargo area. Prado has two 12V outlets in the dash and one in the cargo area.
When it comes to securing luggage, the Prado has the best tie-down hooks in the cargo floor. The cast metal hooks in the back of the Pathfinder are weak (we broke one tying down a tool kit) and the Pajero hooks are made of plastic. We recommend a cargo barrier if you don’t intend utilising the third-row seats.
Powertrain & chassis
The Pathfinder was launched in July 2005 and has remained substantially unchanged since then. Despite its relatively small 2.5-litre engine capacity, the Pathfinder’s outputs are still competitive with the Prado’s.
Nissan’s All Mode 4X4 has electric rotary switch selection of drive modes from 4X2, Auto (4X2, rear wheel drive bias), through 4X4 high-range locked, to 4X4 low-range. The automatic main transmission is a ‘tiptronic’ type with an automatic mode and a driver-selectable up and down shift gate.
The Nissan Pathfinder features a separate body-on-chassis design and the suspension is by means of wishbones and coils at all four corners. The Pathfinder’s electronic traction aids are complemented by hill descent control and hill-start assistance, in the form of brake pressure retention.
The Prado was given an engine upgrade in 2006 that just shades the Pathfinder’s outputs. It has a full-time 4X4 transfer case, with driver-lockable Torsen centre differential and lever control of high- and low-range. Prado’s five-speed automatic is controlled by a lever that works in a staggered gate, allowing the driver to hold gears when required.
Chassis is separate and Prado’s suspension is by coil-strut and wishbones up front and five-link control of a coil-sprung live-axle at the rear. The rear differential is fitted with a limited-slip clutch pack.
The Pajero NT has been given an engine upgrade for 2009 and the new figures are considerably better than the other two wagons’ outputs. A new Aisin five-speed automatic transmission, with taller gearing, has been fitted and manual and automatic Pajero five-doors now have 3000kg trailer towing capacity – up 500kg on the Prado and equalling the Pathfinder.
The Pajero has a selectable full-time-4X4 system, allowing the vehicle to be operated as a rear wheel drive or a full-time 4X4. The centre diff distributes torque 33:67 front:rear, but changes that to 50:50 if slippage occurs. The centre diff can be manually locked in high range and is locked in low range.
Although there’s no hill descent control switch, Mitsubishi’s engine brake assist control (EBAC) prevents ‘run-away’ should one or more wheels lose traction when the Pajero is crawling downhill.
Unlike the other two body-on-frame wagons, the Pajero features a monocoque chassis design. Suspension is fully independent with coil springs and wishbones all around.
On-road ride, handling and performance
We ran these part-loaded wagons over typical main and back road surfaces, from smooth freeway to corrugated gravel. Tyre pressures were set at 210kPa (30psi).
The new diesel Pajero is much quieter than its predecessors, with about the same cabin noise levels as the Pathfinder, but neither come close to the Prado’s car-like interior ambience.
The Prado has the softest ride quality and by far the best noise, vibration and harshness feedback into the cabin. We can see why buyers who take a Prado for a spin from the dealership come away impressed. However, the Prado pays for this ‘cushiness’ with less directional stability on rough surfaces and vague behaviour through twisting bends. When pushed hard the Prado understeers
The Pathfinder is at home on smooth surfaces, be they gravel or bitumen, where it handles neutrally, like a sports sedan. But it isn’t very comfortable on lumpy bitumen or corrugated dirt, giving the occupants a shaking.
The Pajero sits between the others, with a firmer ride than the Prado’s, but it’s less jittery over rough stuff than the other two. Pajero’s handling is neutral and reassuring and the steering is direct and offers good feedback.
The performance honours go clearly to the new Pajero, which outpowers the other two by a considerable margin. Our stopwatch figures show that the Pajero blows the others into the weeds in a traffic light grand prix and, more significantly, is much quicker in overtaking ‘roll ons’, meaning the Pajero spends less time on the wrong side of the road. It should be noted that when we tested the vehicles, it was a hot 38°C outside.
As an on-road tourer, the Pajero offers the best ride, handling and performance of the trio.
Our off-road testing involved hot, fluffy beach sand and trails that varied from quick tracks to gnarly rock shelf terrain, with the sand often very soft and deep, really testing each vehicle’s traction capabilities.
With tyre pressures dropped to around 100kPa (15 psi) all three vehicles perform well on sand, but the Pathie’s ground clearance is an issue on furrowed beach access tracks.
In the dunes all three have enough rubber on the ground and sufficient diesel grunt to tour pretty much where any sane driver would want them to go. However, the Prado’s lack of traction control saw it stranded mid-turn on the crest of a dune, when one rear wheel lifted clear. Its weak rear LSD protested loudly, so we gave it a gentle tug off the dune top with a snatch strap to get it moving again.
On trails the Pathfinder’s underbody occasionally taps high spots that the other two roll over without contact, its long underbelly can drag itself over steeper obstacles and its traction control isn’t as effective as the Pajero’s. The Nissan’s firmer suspension is also more intrusive on bumpy sand tracks.
The Prado lacks the Pajero’s traction control, but it has much better rear wheel travel and that keeps four wheels on the deck in conditions that saw the Pajero lift a corner. It’s only on very loose or slippery off-road trail sections that the Prado’s lack of electronic traction aids limits where it can follow the Pajero. Had our test Pajero been fitted with the optional rear differential lock, however, the difference would have been even more marked.
All three diesels have acceptable engine braking for machines fitted with automatic transmissions, but the Pathfinder and the Pajero outclass the Prado in downhill speed control. The Pathfinder is fitted with an impressive hill-descent control, activated by a dashboard button, and the Pajero’s automated EBAC is the next best system of this trio.
The Pajero took the overall honours in our off-road testing.
As far as fallibles are concerned, tyres are the main offenders. Fortunately, each of these vehicles is shod with 17-inch rubber, so light truck (LT) rated replacements are easily sourced; in town or out bush. For those intending to spend plenty of time off-road, we’d suggest doing a tyre-swap deal at the time of purchase for some more durable rubber.
All three vehicles need protective bar work to shield vulnerable heat exchangers and the Pajero’s front-mounted intercooler. At the same time, the vulnerable side-steps on each of these wagons should be removed and stowed in the garage until trade-in time.
For those not needing the third-row seats, a cargo barrier is an essential bush travel item and should be one of the first things fitted to these vehicles, enhancing safety and maximising available cargo space in each.
A snorkel would be next on the trio’s shopping list. Although the Prado has the most water-resistant standard air intake, it relies on inner mudguard integrity and we’ve heard of Prados ingesting water following the fitment of bar-work that disturbed the inner mudguards. The Pathfinder’s air is also sourced from the inner guard, while the Pajero’s front-facing air intake is particularly partial to a drink.
For powering all your touring gear the Prado and the Pajero have pre-drilled locations for auxiliary batteries, but we’d caution against fitting a hefty volt box to either. Both vehicles are known to suffer from engine bay sheet metal cracking, caused by lead-acid batteries. The ideal under-bonnet battery for these vehicles is a lightweight, spiral-bound, AGM deep-cycle type.
The Prado’s massive 180-litre fuel tank capacity streets the other two. The Pajero and the Pathfinder would need auxiliary tank fitments for serious outback trips – 60-litre auxiliary tanks are available for both vehicles.
None of the three standard suspensions has the capacity to cope with a full load over bush roads and tracks in the long-term, especially when towing. Stronger springs, providing a 50mm lift, and better quality dampers would be our choice for each of these wagons.
With its 180-litre fuel capacity, the Prado has by far the most impressive standard touring range. On test, the Prado averaged 10.6L/100km, giving an effective touring range of almost 1700km.
Pajero has an 88-litre fuel capacity and used 10.5L/100km on test, offering a range of more than 800km between refills. The Pathfinder has an 80-litre tank and used 11.9L/100km on test, resuting in the shortest touring range of just over 650km.
Despite the heat (close to 40°C), some soft sand driving and repeated acceleration tests during our two-day trip, we were very impressed by the fuel economy of all three vehicles.
Easy: the Pajero GLS. Although still not as quiet and refined as the Prado GXL the Pajero outperforms it on- and off-road.
The Pajero’s higher equipment levels – as well as its more versatile interior, where, unlike Prado, the third-row seats fold into the floor to maximise cargo space – make it better value for money than the Prado.
The Pathfinder ST-L can’t match the others in off-road trail work – and is slightly less roomy – but it’s a good on-road performer, thanks to its torquey donk, and is excellent value for money.
Pathfinder buyers with 60 grand to spend can move up to the Ti model that has top-shelf equipment levels, including leather seats (memory adjustment and heating up front), a sunroof and DVD player in the back to keep the kids entertained.
|Mitsubishi Pajero GLS||Nissan Pathfinder ST-L||Toyota Prado GXL|
|Type||3200cc four-cylinder DOHC, common-rail intercooled turbo-diesel||2488cc four-cylinder DOHC, common-rail intercooled turbo-diesel||2982cc four-cylinder DOHC, common-rail |
|Bore/Stroke||98.5 x 105.0mm||89.0 x 100.0mm||96.0 x 103.0mm|
|Power||147kW @ 3800rpm||126kW @ 4000rpm||127kW @ 3400rpm|
|Torque||441Nm @ 2000rpm||403Nm @ 2000rpm||410Nm @ 1600-2800rpm|
|1st||3.520 (13.789/26.197)||3.827 (13.540/35.150)||3.520 (13.760/35.073)|
|2nd||2.042 (7.999/15.197)||2.368 (8.378/21.749)||2.042 (7.982/20.482)|
|3rd||1.400 (5.484/10.419)||1.520 (5.378/13.961)||1.400 (5.473/14.043)|
|4th||1.000 (3.917/7.442)||1.000 (3.538/9.185)||1.000 (3.909/10.030)|
|5th||0.716 (2.805/5.329)||0.834 (2.951/7.660)||0.716 (2.799/7.182)|
|Front||Independent, double wishbones, coil springs, gas/oil dampers, stabiliser bar|
|Rear||Independent, multi-link, coil springs, gas/oil dampers, stabiliser bar||Live-axle, upper and lower trailing arms, |
Panhard rod, coil springs,
gas/oil dampers, stabiliser bar
|Type||Power-assisted rack and pinion|
|Front||Ventilated discs, ABS, EBD||Ventilated discs, ABS, EBD, BA|
|Rear||Ventilated discs, ABS, EBD||Ventilated discs, ABS, EBD, BA|
|Type||Yokohama Geolandar||Goodyear Wrangler||Dunlop Grandtrek|
|Size||265/65R17 112H||255/65R17 110H||265/65R17 112S|
|Fuel Tank||88 litres, diesel||80 litres, diesel||180 litres, diesel|