The Murano is a good example of a crossover vehicle: It's designed to haul cargo like a sport-utility, but ride and drive like a car. However, this crossover handles better than a Honda Pilot or Toyota Highlander, and it drives more like a sports sedan.
Murano integrates aerodynamics and high fashion, with a sleek front end, smooth lines from front to back, and a greenhouse that slopes rearward, ending in a large but graceful C-pillar. Inside, Nissan resisted the temptation to cram in three rows of seats like the Highlander and Pilot do. Instead, like a car, the Murano has just two rows of seats, accommodating four (or at most five) passengers in comfort.
The Murano delivers hearty performance, boasting the same 3.5-liter V6 engine used in the 350Z sports car, tuned here to produce 245 horsepower. It comes with a continuously variable transmission, a high-tech automatic that's smooth and responsive while offering superior gas mileage within its class. Murano's road-tuned suspension offers smooth and sporty handling. Murano shares basic underpinnings with the Nissan Altima and Maxima sedans. (Murano is not at all related to the Infiniti FX, a popular misconception.) All-wheel drive is available for the Murano, giving it good grip and stability in wintry weather and hard rain.
For 2006, the Murano's styling has been freshened with a new grille design, a chrome lower grille insert and other subtle changes. It also gets LED taillights that look distinctive and illuminate faster to better alert drivers behind you when you apply the brakes.
Nissan Murano S ($27,450); S AWD ($29,050); SL ($29,000); SL AWD ($30,600); SE AWD ($31,550)
The Murano is designed to blend the look of a car and a truck. The top half of the body is sleek like a car, while the bottom half is bulky like a truck. Overall, the look is much sleeker than tall box-shaped SUVs. At first it looks a bit over the top, but most people quickly get used to it and traditional SUVs start looking boxy and dated by comparison.
Big 18-inch wheels contribute to Murano's muscular styling. Sculpted, vertical-stack projector headlights define the front corners. The highly styled rear hatchback is made of reinforced plastic because steel won't bend easily in such a complex shape. The hatch is heavy, however, and takes some effort to raise and lower. The windshield and front side windows are tinted green to deflect UV radiation; the rear side windows and backlight are darkly tinted for privacy.
As its looks suggest, the Murano is an aerodynamic machine. Details in the design help it slip quietly through the air. Airflow-improving devices include an underbody engine cover, front and rear tire deflectors, a rear spoiler, and aerodynamic mirrors. Combined with the low frontal area and roof, these enhancements increase fuel efficiency and limit wind noise at high speeds.
To finish the high-fashion look, Nissan offers 10 exterior colors (including new Brilliant Silver and Sunset Red), with four interior hues (Charcoal, Latte, Cabernet and new Hazelnut) to mix and match. The colors were chosen carefully to promote a luxury look.
The front seats are comfortable and supportive, even for people well over six feet tall. Petite drivers are also able to get comfortable, with the power-adjustable pedals that help ensure a good driving position without getting too close to the steering wheel where the air bag is housed. The overall interior fit and finish are good. Murano's instrument cluster is garnished with genuine brushed aluminum trim that gives it a younger, sportier look. The gauges have a classy grayish background with amber backlighting. Steering wheel audio controls are illuminated.
A prominent pod juts from the center of the Murano's dash presenting audio and climate controls. A new seven-inch color screen has been made standard to enhance usability and access to vehicle information. We aren't in love with the appearance of the pod, but it puts the switches close at hand. The dual-zone, fully automatic climate control is a step above the class, and it features rear air-conditioning vents located on the B-pillars.
The stereo controls are on the small side, but easy to use once you get the hang of them. The preset buttons, for example, can be programmed to select your favorite stations regardless of whether they are AM or FM; this eliminates the need to press a separate mode button when switch from your favorite FM music station to your favorite AM talk radio station, making life easier and reducing distraction while driving. Controls on the steering wheel allow easy volume adjustments.
Customers can order either XM or Sirius satellite radio as a dealer-installed accessory. Though you do have to pay an annual subscription fee, we've found satellite radio to be a nice feature to have in a car, allowing us to listen to 24 hour news stations, such as Fox News and CNN, as well as every imaginable type of music, comedy, and sports, and there's no need to ever switch stations should you decide to drive from, say, Atlanta to Seattle.
The optional navigation system works well and includes a nifty three-dimensional birds-eye view that's sometimes more fun to follow than the flat map.
Useful features make the Murano a satisfying car for day-to-day use. A large center console separates the front seats, enhancing the sports sedan feel of the interior. The center console features a two-tiered lockable storage box with enough room for a laptop computer or a purse, cell phone, sunglasses, coins, cups and bottles. The door pockets flip out for easy access, and there's a hidden storage tray and two bins under the cargo floor. There are also three power outlets: front-passenger footwell, center console and rear.
The cabin is roomy and feels airy. The Murano is a five-seat vehicle with similar interior space as the seven-seat Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot.
The rear seats take advantage of the additional space. As a result, the Murano's back seat offers limousine legroom. We found that a six-foot, four-inch passenger can cross his legs comfortably in the back seat. The rear seatback easily adjusts for rake by pulling a strap, allowing your back-seat passengers to kick back and enjoy the ride. We found Murano's rear accommodations more comfortable than the second-row seats in many SUVs where passengers sit more upright. The optional DVD rear-seat entertainment system is particularly useful for keeping children occupied.
Cargo space can be increased by flopping the rear seats forward. This can be easily accomplished
Nissan's 245-hp V6 feels mighty healthy in spite of the Murano's considerable heft at 4,000 pounds. The Murano feels as quick as a sports sedan. Throttle response is strong any time you tap the pedal, a benefit of its 246 pound-feet of torque. Towing isn't its forte, as with others in this class, but the Murano can tow up 3500 pounds.
The continuously variable transmission is responsive and fuel efficient. Unlike a four-speed automatic, there are no perceptible gear changes. It works steplessly. As you accelerate, instead of shifting through gears, the CVT uses variable-diameter pulleys connected by a complex steel belt to change ratios continuously and transfer engine torque to the driveshafts. It changes ratios more smoothly than a normal automatic does, allowing the engine to rev at a speed that's most efficient for acceleration. This also improves fuel economy. Murano delivers an impressive 20/24 mpg city/highway, according to EPA estimates.
The CVT in the Murano has just three ranges: D for normal driving, S for sportier acceleration and L for the lowest range. Shifting from D to S raises engine revs 2500 rpm at a given road speed. Dropping from S to L increases engine speed by another 1000 rpm. Rev the engine near its 6600 redline and the ratio automatically reduces, thereby lowering the engine revs as the Murano's speed increases. Engine braking is programmed into the electronics that control the CVT, so when you're coasting down a steep hill, accelerometers sense this condition and increase the effective gear ratio, which is akin to downshifting a conventional transmission.
Fortunately, you don't need to understand any of this, or even be aware of it, to drive the Murano. We are particularly impressed with how quiet this transmission is compared to conventional automatics. Acceleration is quicker than with a conventional automatic and it's impressively smooth. Indeed, at first it may feel too smooth. It's surprising how deeply we're conditioned by the operation of an engine and conventional automatic transmission. The Murano's sensation of acceleration without an increase in the engine's pitch or speed takes some getting used to.
Handling is impressive. We found that the Murano rides and handles better than a Honda Pilot, and we liked its ride and handling better than other mid-priced SUVs. Murano's road manners are as impressive as its smooth drivetrain. The steering feels quick during turn-in, and the big 18-inch tires refrain from squealing until they are truly at the edge of cornering adhesion, increasing the driver's confidence that Murano will respond like a well-sorted sedan. It does just that up to about 8/10ths of its performance envelope, at which point it begins to understeer. Hitting a big bump at the apex of a corner doesn't upset its handling.
All-wheel drive takes much of the stress out of driving under rainy or snowy conditions. It improves overall traction and reduces the likelihood of skids, so it's well worth having for bad weather or emergency lane-change maneuvers. The Murano's all-wheel-drive system drives the front wheels until wheelspin is detected, at which point the center differential can redirect up to half of the power to the rear wheels.
The brakes are highly effective and easy to modulate for smooth stops. The braking system includes four-wheel vented disc brakes with Brake Assist, which helps ensure maximum braking force in a panic stop, and electronic brake-force Distribution (EBD), which reduces stopping distances and improves stability by dynamically distributing the braking force between the front and re
The Nissan Murano offers the roominess and practicality of a sport utility with the handling, power and smoothness of a sporty sedan. Murano comes well equipped and its luxurious ambience gives it the feel of a luxury SUV.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Phil Berg is based in the Detroit area; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Virginia and Steve Siler reporting from Los Angeles.