A red 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is shown parked in an open area during a 2022 Nissan Pathfinder vs 2022 Subaru Ascent comparison.

Which is Better for Off-Road? Nissan Pathfinder Intelligent 4X4 or Subaru Ascent AWD X-Mode?

The midsize crossover space has a lot of worthy contenders that just keep pushing the bar and elevating the standards of what people expect from these moderately sized three-row monsters. Nissan and Subaru are both tackling the midsize market with 2022 model years using their own respective nameplates in the form of the Pathfinder and Ascent. Both these crossovers are fully loaded with a lot of features that many SUV enthusiasts love, but how about the design of their all-wheel drive systems? How well do these two stack up against one another, and who does it better between the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder vs 2022 Subaru Ascent?

The center console of a 2022 Nissan Pathfinder shows the shifter and terrain modes knob.

Who Has What and What Makes Them Special?

2022 Nissan Pathfinder comes with what’s called an Intelligent 4X4 system. This system is designed around redistributing torque based on the wheels that need it most using a unique braking system. This makes it perfect for trudging through thick pockets of snow or loose gravel where traction is difficult to maintain. The system also has what’s called yaw control, so that it changes the distribution of power to help with reducing understeer. However, this is not a true four-wheel drive, but rather an intelligent all-wheel drive system, since there is no transfer case included with the Pathfinder, even though it’s called Intelligent 4X4.

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is outfitted with an all-new iteration of Nissan’s Intelligent 4X4 system, which includes seven different drive and terrain modes. These help the vehicle adjust to various road conditions, driving styles, and different kinds of terrain formations, from rock climbing, to hilly dirt roads, to undulating formations with loose surfaces. The idea is to give drivers a lot of leeway and control in how they drive the Pathfinder and how it performs. The seven drive modes include Normal, Mud, Sand, Snow, Eco, Sport, and Tow.

2022 Subaru Ascent features the patented Subaru Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive with X-Mode. The X-Mode is Subaru’s ace up its sleeve to counter features like Nissan’s Intelligent 4X4 system and works almost identical to Nissan’s system but with a few extra features. In addition to controlling torque distribution for even handling and traction control across uneven terrain, it also features engine throttle control for controlled torque output.

The X-Mode also works with every aspect of the powertrain, which includes the transmission as well. It keeps the transmission in low gears so that it’s capable of maximizing the engine’s torsional energy at lower speeds. The Ascent also has a Vehicle Dynamics Control System, known as a VDC. When the VDC is activated, the X-Mode begins to dynamically apply brake pressure to the wheels based on sensors monitoring slippage. This also works with the hill descent control, so you’re never losing control of the way the Ascent handles.

A black 2022 Subaru Ascent is shown driving on a city street.

So Who Does It Better?

This is the million-dollar question. Both of these family-sized SUVs have some impressive four-wheel drive technology under their hood and throughout the drivetrain, but what’s on paper is completely different from what’s applied in the real world. Some vehicles are fantastic when it comes to giving drivers options and a wide variety of different settings to tweak the handling and driving experience, but sometimes the practical application of those systems doesn’t always render the most effective results. So between the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder vs 2022 Subaru Ascent, who does the four-wheel drive system better?

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder has been put through quite the torture test when it comes to off-road capabilities. Most off-road enthusiasts would probably not advise taking a midsize SUV off the beaten path due to the dangers of flipping, rollovers, and other potential hazards that can befall a larger vehicle when it strays from the paved road. However, the Pathfinder seems to be a special kind of beast and doesn’t mind charting its own path to whatever destination the driver has in mind.

In real-world examples of the Pathfinder making use of the Intelligent 4X4 system, many owners have tested the Pathfinder in various scenarios, including hill climbs, articulation, and gravel-based off-road conditions. YouTube outlet Engine Adventures encountered some troubles getting up a steep incline, but with a bit of momentum and the 4X4 system in full swing, he was able to get up the crest. For moderate dirt paths and off-road trails, the 2022 Pathfinder does a fine job, and various reviewers noted that it handles well and offers a fairly smooth ride, with the 4X4 system keeping traction a high priority depending on the setting, with very little wheel slippage. However, a common criticism among critics is that the ground clearance is relatively low and any aggressive off-roading could easily damage the vehicle’s body, especially with higher-end trims.

TFLoffroad focused more on the brake-based torque-vectoring when it was time to test the Pathfinder’s off-road capabilities. While it may not be a true four-wheel drive system, the ability for the vehicle to apply the brakes to a specific wheel that has lost traction and then distribute the torque to the other wheels compensates quite nicely. When there’s wheel slippage taking place, the Pathfinder very quickly counteracts by applying the brake and sending power to the other wheels, so it can climb through and scale very specific paths.

2022 Subaru Ascent’s X-Mode functionality has been put to the test almost about as rigorously as the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder. Handling dirt trails and some light rock climbs, the Ascent can put in the work to keep its momentum going. Both the Pathfinder and Ascent won’t be barreling over rocks or up hills quite as handily as a Bronco or Wrangler, but to be three-row passenger crossovers, they seem to be designed to do their job well enough. In particular, the Ascent’s X-Mode is designed to shift power from the front to the rear axle or from the rear axle to the front axle based on what kind of torque and grip is needed to achieve traction.

During an impressive demonstration on snow-covered ground by Car Question, the Ascent’s X-Mode did well enough to keep the vehicle moving and avoid getting stuck in snow pits. However, much like the Pathfinder, the Ascent did have trouble with ascending hills on loose terrain. It took a little while to get up the hill and required momentum to overcome that feat, just like the Pathfinder. With a little nudging and the right amount of velocity, it can achieve some hill climbs, though.

One of the bigger differences between the two is that the Ascent’s X-Mode, whether it’s on or off, still behaves quite the same when it comes to its all-wheel drive capabilities. The Truck King crew took note that whether the Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive X-Mode was on or off, handling in off-road conditions was still very much the same. So the changes in the way the brake distribution for torque vectoring was applied wasn’t quite as pronounced as with the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder.

Intelligent 4X4 Edges Out… Here’s Why

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder and 2022 Subaru Ascent are awfully close in terms of their all-wheel drive systems. While the Pathfinder is promoted as having a four-wheel drive system, the Intelligent 4X4 is actually an intelligent all-wheel drive system. However, it still gets the job done when you’re tackling some light off-road trails and loose-surface pathways. The 2022 Subaru Ascent’s X-Mode is quite useful for gaining traction and overcoming some obstacles, but it lacks the ability to switch seamlessly between as many modes as the Pathfinder. When it comes to specific situations, you simply get more options with the Nissan Pathfinder, even though it gives up just over an inch in ground clearance. In the end, though, it still manages to tackle off-road surfaces much better than some people might have expected from a three-row crossover SUV.