Ken Lee has dreamed of designing cars for as long as he could remember. When he was nine years old his family moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, and an affinity with pick-up trucks and wagons quickly developed.
He says that one vehicle in particular stood out: the first-generation WD21 Nissan Pathfinder. More than 30 years later, as Senior Design Director at Nissan’s Global Design Centre in Atsugi, Japan, Lee led the design of the fifth-generation Pathfinder which was unveiled in the US today.
Ken Lee with the 1980s inspiration behind the 2022 Pathfinder's design
Lee, who has been with Nissan for 18 years, says it’s no coincidence that the 2022 Pathfinder eight-seat SUV features elements in common with the iconic three-door model.
“Seeing the original Pathfinder hit the road was very exciting because it brought something new, something fresh and exciting to the market,” he says.
“I always remember the fender blisters on the side that bulge out, showing the muscularity of the toughness underneath. But it was done in a fresh way. It's not boxy. It's integrated seamlessly with a very cool sculpture.”
Needless to say, when Lee received the project brief for the fifth-generation Pathfinder, he decided to take what made the original "super cool" and bring it to the new model.
“In the last decade or so, the family SUV segment has been going towards more and more comfort-oriented. The shapes are getting softer, more aerodynamic, and overall getting more car-like.
“As we move on to the next generation, we know there's an opportunity to inject more toughness and more strength to this segment. So we saw an opportunity here and we found inspiration in the original.
"Starting with a front end, of course, we have the famous three slots on the hood. We wanted this not to be literally incorporated into the new one but as an Easter egg. It's hidden at the top of the grille, and it's subtle.
"And yes, it was important that they be functional for the purity of the design.”
Another obvious tribute to the original Pathfinder is the forward-leaning C-pillar that replicates the triangular side-window frame.
“Now that was a three-door, so of course on the new Pathfinder which is a five-door we wanted to interpret it in a new way, and we've come up with a new floating C-pillar."
Lee also points out that the new Pathfinder’s front end has become more upright than the outgoing model’s and has a straighter bonnet much like the original one.
Of course, the all-new Pathfinder had to have its own attributes penned for the twenty-first century incorporating Nissan’s current V-Motion design language. But even then the design team looked to the original for inspiration.
“One of the elements that made the original Pathfinder look so clean and modern to me at the time was the sharpness and the details, the way they're executed. It didn't look like a traditional SUV then.
“That inspired us for the new Pathfinder to also look for high-tech expression, the details.
“Lighting is a big thing these days, and we wanted to convey a sense of high-tech."
Then there's the distinctive rear end.
"Our goal was to make it clean, simple and wide feeling, much like the original. The new tail-lamps are flush, horizontally oriented, giving a sense of width
"And you'll notice that in the centre, we proudly display the Pathfinder badge with big letters to signal that the Pathfinder is back.”
Finally, Nissan decided to give the new Pathfinder a vibrant colour palette, featuring 14 colours/colour combinations including five two-tone treatments.
What I remember from my childhood, those Pathfinder advertisements in magazines, they were in the bright red colour, very iconic and memorable," Lee says.
"And this time around, to add something new, we are introducing a two-tone colour on the Pathfinder so you could get it with a black roof. We've carefully designed the graphics on the body side, including the floating C-pillar, to allow the two-tone roof to seamlessly integrate into the overall design."