Winter is the season of redemption for sport-utility vehicles such as the 2005 Nissan Pathfinder.

It is when they confirm their identity and purpose, and rise to heroic status from that of pariah.

It matters not that they are multipurpose vehicles capable of transporting seven people simultaneously, or that they can be loaded with lots of stuff, or equipped to pull trailers weighing 6,000 pounds or more. Nor does it matter that with four-wheel drive, as is the case with this week's tested Pathfinder SE, and with the proper tires and underbody cladding, they can traverse treacherous terrain.

Until the outside temperature drops and the snow falls, until early-morning radio shows crackle with the news of school closings, until there are ominous TV "storm center" reports about another impending "blizzard of the century," sport-utility vehicles get no respect.

It is only when the blacktop turns white that these most controversial of vehicles are called upon by friends and foes alike to do what so many supposedly practical vehicles can't do -- get them through the mush, slush and drifts safely and comfortably.

You can expect the 2005 Nissan Pathfinder to be drafted for such duty in the coming season of discontent.

The all-new Pathfinder has jettisoned pretensions that it is a large sedan or wagon with some off-road capability, and has returned full-force to its truck-based SUV roots. Unitized construction -- in which the vehicle's body, floor pan and chassis form a single structure -- has been replaced by a traditional truck-type body-on-frame arrangement.

Body-on-frame generally is seen as more rugged, and thus more suitable to off-road driving in the SUV world. The new Pathfinder is designed to woo SUV enthusiasts who share that view. But, in truth, Nissan Motor Co.'s return to body-on-frame is also a simple matter of cutting vehicle development and production costs.

Over the past several years, the company has invested enormous sums into rolling out its full-size Titan pickup truck and its bigger-than-life, aptly named Armada sport-utility vehicle, both of which share architecture and components with the new Pathfinder.

The differences among the three reside largely in matters of purpose, style and attitude.

The Titan, of course, has a pickup truck's cargo bed. It is meant to do battle with the biggest, toughest full-size pickups available -- Ford Motor Co.'s F-150, General Motor Corp.'s Chevrolet Silverado and Toyota Motor Corp.'s earth-pounding Tundra.

The Nissan Armada SUV is all about muscle-flexing attitude. Although Nissan has tried to pass it off as "family friendly," it is a thing of mean, aggressive demeanor and pugnacious dimensions seemingly more suited for duty in Iraq than for trips along the interstates and back roads of the good ol' U.S.A.

The new Pathfinder has all of the capability of the Armada and all of the ruggedness of the Titan. But it has a substantially more benign exterior than either of those two trucks. It looks smaller, more streamlined and much more friendly. It does not seem out of place in the parking lot of a church or elementary school.

Yet, in recent off-road treks in the state of Washington, the new Pathfinder performed admirably -- nimbly stepping over rocks and fallen logs, confidently moving through mud pits and easily fording streams.

It was a hoot and a holler and all of that, an absolutely fun way to spend a day or two. But let's face it: Few of us are likely to travel those kinds of tortuous routes on a regular basis.

So, what's it all about, Nissan? Never mind. I'll answer.

It's about winter, the primal fear of being stuck in some odd, out-of-the-way place in a storm, of not being able to make it back to safety, shelter, loved ones. Doubters have only to look at the wintry TV commercials now featuring SUVs mastering the elements, going one-on-one with Mother Nature.

If you know that the new Pathfinder can climb rocks, clamber over logs and mush through mud, you should have every reason to believe that it can pull you through the deepest of winter snows. It's a simple matter of having more than you'll ever need -- just in case you need it.