Nissan Goes Off-Road With the 2023 Pathfinder Rock Creek

June 10th, 2022 by

A tan 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek is shown from the front at a high angle while it crosses a bridge after leaving a Tinley Park Nissan dealer.

Take a look around Thomas Nissan, your Tinley Park Nissan dealer, and it’ll become clear: the crossover SUV is here to stay. Built with the same unibody construction found in most sedans, this new breed of SUV offers a number of advantages over its truck-like forerunners, including improved comfort, handling, and efficiency. At first, the crossover craze seemed to signal a shift in priorities. While drivers were clearly drawn to the ride height and cargo room offered by the SUV class, the “sport” aspect was quickly taking a backseat to the notion of “utility” as crossovers started to look less like trucks and a whole lot more like lifted sedans. From the outside, these crossovers might appear just as aggressive and capable as the full-size SUVs of the past, but they lack some of the heavy-duty construction and reinforced components that allow typical body-on-frame SUVs to excel in off-road conditions.

This approach served crossovers well early on, but as the style becomes more ubiquitous, drivers are seeking a middle ground: a crossover SUV that isn’t afraid to go off-road and kick up a little dirt in between trips to the grocery store. The industry has answered with a slate of new off-road-ready packages that offer the best of both worlds, allowing drivers to transform their crossovers into a new, adventurous breed of SUVs dubbed light off-roaders or “soft-roaders” by critics. Nissan is one of the latest to take on the challenge with the new Rock Creek trim for the 2023 Pathfinder. We’ll take a deep dive into this intriguing new offering from Nissan and see how this new off-road-inspired model stacks up against the competition in this increasingly popular niche.

Rock and Roll

Automakers have varied in their approach to these new off-road trims. Some, like Honda and Kia, seem content to throw some “off-road inspired” components and styling cues into the mix without substantially improving the actual off-road performance. These models usually include redesigned bumpers and interior features like weather-resistant floor mats, but nothing as game-changing as an off-road-tuned suspension, skid plates, or locking differentials. Others have taken the task more seriously, offering comprehensive trims that basically amount to top-down overhauls, including everything from improved engines and selectable AWD terrain management systems to lifted ride heights and wider tracks.

In the past, Nissan’s Rock Creek trim had skewed more towards the former: a sporty appearance package that did little to improve the SUV’s off-road credentials. First introduced on the 2019 Pathfinder, the trim added 18-inch alloy wheels, blacked-out fenders and door handles, and some minor interior upgrades. This approach might have served Nissan well back in 2019, but as the industry began to embrace the soft-road concept, the automaker knew it needed to step up its game.

Enter the 2023 Pathfinder Rock Creek. The new trim is a marked departure from its predecessor, featuring significant performance upgrades that put the midsize SUV into contention with some of the best off-road trims in recent years. The Rock Creek package includes not only a lifted, off-road-tuned suspension but new beadlock style wheels, all-terrain tires, all-wheel drive, and a host of performance upgrades. Let’s take a closer look at some of these upgrades and see how the Pathfinder Rock Creek puts the “sport” back in sport utility vehicle.

The interior of a 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek is shown from the center console.

Getting Geared Up

If you are looking for one metric to help separate the real off-roaders from the appearance package posers, suspension height is a good place to start. Lifting a suspension is not the easiest design task, so it usually serves as a good indication as to whether a brand is sincere about creating a new off-road option or just looking to latch onto a fad. The 2023 Pathfinder Rock Creek features a 5/8-inch lift to its suspension, which, while modest, does prove that Nissan was taking the task seriously. Lifted suspensions hold a number of advantages when it comes to off-road driving, allowing for greater approach, breakover, and departure angles as well as increasing traction and preventing damage to the undercarriage.

Larger all-terrain tires double down on the advantages offered by the lifted suspension, further increasing traction and ride height. While the details are still a bit scant, Nissan says the Rock Creek-badged Pathfinder will ship with beadlock-style wheels. Beadlock wheels are the gold standard in the world of off-roading, allowing drivers to deflate their tires as a means of improving traction without raising the risk of a blowout. Toyo Open Country All-Terrain tires offer improved grip over standard all-season tires, with deeper grooves and a more aggressive tread designed to ensure a firm grip on loose off-road surfaces.

Rounding out the Rock Creek’s performance upgrades, Nissan has pulled off a neat trick thanks to some clever engineering. The off-road version of the Pathfinder is sold with the same 3.5-liter V6 as the base model but manages to squeeze 11 extra horses out of the engine, bringing it up to 295 hp and 270 lb-ft. How? It all comes down to something called fuel mapping. Nissan tweaked the Pathfinder’s engine management software to allow for the use of both regular and premium fuel, allowing drivers to upgrade their power every time they pull up to the pump. It’s a fun, novel feature that speaks to the SUV’s functionality and makes it clear that the Rock Creek trim is more than just a splashy badge.

Looking the Part

With a host of new exterior styling features unique to the Rock Creek trim, this new version of the Pathfinder cuts an imposing figure. The most obvious upgrade is as functional as it is stylish, with Nissan including a new tubular roof rack as a feature on Rock Creek-equipped Pathfinders. Rated to handle loads up to 220 pounds, this roof rack isn’t some decorative afterthought; it’s a statement of intent, letting drivers know that this new breed of Pathfinder is just as functional as it is striking.

A new front fascia and mesh grille insert set the new trim apart from the standard Pathfinder, and the sharp “Rock Creek” badging lets you know just what you’re looking at. The badging features a distinctive icon with two mountain peaks rendered in an eye-catching bright orange, a color that seems popular with this new breed of off-roaders. The design works well here and is carried over to the interior, where orange contrast stitching accents the SUV’s seats, steering wheel, instrument panel, center console, and door panels. The front seats, done up in a luxurious-feeling leatherette and fabric combination, also get some Rock Creek embroidery, which goes a long way in tying the interior together.

Speaking of color, the new Pathfinder will be offered with ten exterior color schemes, including four two-tone options that lend the SUV a decidedly sporty look. One notable addition is Baja Storm, a light, metallic brown hue that not only references the crossover’s outdoorsy nature but also pays homage to the home of all things off-road: Mexico’s Baja Desert. The Pathfinder might not quite have the heavy-duty components required to complete the famously grueling Baja 1000, but with the design tweaks made to the Rock Creek trim, it sure looks the part.

The interior has one more trick up its sleeve, offering Nissan’s Intelligent Around View Monitor complete with a handy off-road mode. This system features a full complement of cameras aimed at every angle you can imagine, giving drivers the confidence to navigate tight trails or even tighter parking spots in Tinley Park with ease. The system can be used at any time but is automatically activated when entering 4LO driving mode, helping drivers to spot obstacles well in advance and taking some of the stress out of the off-road experience.

A tan 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek is shown from the rear while driving down a trail.

A Serious Contender

The 2023 Pathfinder Rock Creek is a statement of intent from Nissan. While some other automakers are content to design “off-road inspired” SUVs that skimp on actual off-road hardware, the new Rock Creek trim is a different story altogether, offering substantive upgrades that go a long way in improving the crossover’s performance. From the lifted suspension and beadlock-style wheels to the revised fuel mapping and all-terrain tires, the Pathfinder Rock Creek is a serious contender in this rapidly growing light off-road category. It also looks the part, with some careful styling choices that immediately set the new trim apart from the standard Pathfinder while also improving functionality.

The midsize Pathfinder was a good place to start, but given how well Nissan followed the assignment, we hope this will be the first of many models to receive the Rock Creek treatment. All-in-all, it’s nice to see automakers once again prioritizing sportiness in their SUVs, with the 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek serving as a shining example of how to toe the line. We can’t wait to have this fun vehicle available for Tinley Park drivers here at Thomas Nissan.