A gravel road, a lot of spare time, and the 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rockcreek

Having some spare time on a Saturday is not always a good thing, especially if you like gravel roads without any tire ruts.

Recently, I tested out the 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rockcreek, which looks like something that is not afraid of gravel, dirt, snow, or pretty much any terrain. I was itching to get out in the world and do something a little crazy, and the gravel road was the best place for that to happen.

By “crazy” I don’t mean dangerous. I like to test cars in a way that any normal human would, not the way a journalist would. After all, not many of us will do the things you see in commercials, such as driving through two feet of snow with a smiling happy family in the back.

Instead, you might find yourself in a little mud, snow, or on gravel and want to actually stay put on the road. Fortunately, the Rockcreek has some cool settings for terrain that run the gamut from snow, mud, to sand. The dial is easy to find to the right of the driver, and switching between the modes makes a visceral, obvious change in the driving dynamics.

I used the sand setting and, believe me, there’s a difference. Nissan makes sure the throttle is not punchy, which is one of main reasons people spin out or get stuck. You floor it, the car goes nowhere. On the Pathfinder, the acceleration is light enough that you won’t jump ahead too quickly and find yourself stuck or digging a hole in the ground with your tires.

I was impressed, but what I really wanted to know was whether the entire vehicle stayed stable on the gravel road even when there’s the inevitable loose gravel sections of the road. I’ve experienced these multiple times, since I live out in the sticks. You’re driving along fine and then you hit a patch where the loose gravel sends you zinging a little.

I noticed how the traction control was not super grippy in the front, as though the Pathfinder thinks it is on a paved road. I’m not sure how the engineering works exactly, but in my testing and experience, there’s enough give in the traction and adjustment to the computer controlled tire spin that I felt sure on the road at all times (and so did my wife, who never gave me a look even once). In reality, what’s happening is that the sand mode sends more torque to the rear tires for extra traction.

Part of the assurance with a vehicle like this that most of us will drive to work and not through the mountains is simply that you can do some off-roading, and the settings are there if you ever need them. I often think a nicely outfitted rough-road vehicle like this will be a master of the mud in about 10 or 15 years from now, but as a brand new vehicle, it’s probably not going to be used for mudding anytime soon (the name Rockcreek is very cool and the style is awesome, but I would not recommend driving it across rocks or creeks unless you like chipped paint.)

For me, the gravel road was a light test. It was also very atypical. Gravel roads are not exactly dangerous, but it was nice to feel the grip and not experience any tire slip on a long drive all the way to the next small town over from my house on gravel. I could see the traction control working great for snow, mud, and other road conditions for any driver, not just those who go off-road.

I’m even going to say this: traction control settings provide peace of mind on any road, and while most of us won’t fully understand the engineering, we’ll be glad someone does.