In every competition, there is one stand-out player that surprises the staff with how good it is. In this year's SUV of the Year test, that vehicle was the Nissan Pathfinder, which just seemed to do everything well, yet it didn't stand out in any specific area.

The 2005 model year is a big one for the Nissan SUV, since it is completely new from the ground up. Coming to market with enhanced off-road capabilities, the Pathfinder is also one of the few SUVs left on the market that is still designed with four-wheeling families in mind, even offering an optional package for those who love the dirt and actually use their SUVs as intended. Part of this design philosophy ensured the Nissan Pathfinder was built off the modified F-Alpha platform, shared with its fullsize brother, the Nissan Armada. The new Pathfinder incorporates Nissan's new family design cues, lending a clean and modern appearance that is distinct and attractive, more so than on the Armada.

Looking past the new body reveals the new standard 4.0L DOHC V-6 pushing out an incredible 270 hp and an almost V-8-like torque peak of 291 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm through a smooth shifting five-speed automatic transmission. Another option is an All-Mode automatic four-wheel-drive system that has settings for 2WD, Auto AWD, 4WD-High, and 4WD-Low. Other traction enhancers include four-wheel limited-slip, Hill Descent Control (HDC), and Hill Start Assist (HAS).

Nissan also aimed for more on-road refinement, designing a suspension that is now independent at all four corners. This setup contributes to the Pathfinder's improved ride, although some testers felt the body roll could be controlled better. Ride quality was good for the class, soft and compliant without being floaty. The brakes gave good feedback, but we felt the pedal was a little too soft and the travel a bit too long.

Inside, the Pathfinder comes standard with three rows of seats, which are hard-backed and fold completely flat, leaving a van-like load floor. The Pathfinder also had many other useful features, ranging from hidden storage compartments and the rear DVD-based entertainment system, to the comprehensive trip computer and adjustable pedals - all welcomed by our staff. Also available, but not on our tester, is an in-dash DVD navigation system, dual-zone climate control, and a wood-toned appliqu option that would do wonders to warm up the somewhat staid and boring dash.

On paper, the '05 Nissan Pathfinder offers just about everything someone would ask of their SUV in terms of power, utility, off-road capability, and flexibility. With a 6,000-pound tow rating, four trim levels, two- or four-wheel drive, and a sticker starting at $24,650 - or nicely equipped like our 4WD tester was for $29,680 - Nissan has one of the most competitive offerings in the midsize class. However, it just didn't tug at our emotions enough to gain the points necessary to walk home as winner of this year's SUV of the Year award.