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Murano SUV an appealing work of art

FIRST DRIVE

Nissan's new crossover vehicle inspired by Italian glass looks great and has lots of power, but the price is steep.

December 11, 2002|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

There are those who contend that the sport utility vehicle explosion has populated our highways with a sea of lumbering, blocky, bulky, fuel-guzzling and downright ugly vehicles.

Say what you will about the others, Nissan's new Murano is going to prove the critics wrong on all counts.

This is a vehicle whose lines and name were inspired by the glass art of Murano, Italy, and although Nissan's early research found that 33% of the people who saw it hated it, I'd stuff ballot boxes to get it declared the prettiest sport utility ever.

And with its 245-horsepower V-6, the Murano is anything but lumbering. Its combination of advanced transmission technology and streamlined bodywork makes it pretty darned fuel-efficient too: 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 24 or 25 -- depending on the choice of front- or all-wheel drive -- on the highway.

Although the Murano is too pretty to be called an SUV, Nissan nonetheless insists on doing so -- afraid, no doubt, that to call it by another name would limit its appeal.

It is, by definition, a crossover: the sheet metal, tall seating, cargo space and commanding ride height of a big wagon or SUV on the unitized body of a passenger car. Using the car-type platform, instead of a standard SUV's body-on-steel frame setup borrowed from pickup trucks, makes most crossovers ride and handle better than their truck-based counterparts.

The Murano shares the platform that underpins the new Nissan Altima and forthcoming Maxima but offers an all-wheel-drive version and rides on 18-inch wheels. The four-wheel independent suspension is beefier than the Altima's, with stiffer anti-sway bars and specially tuned bushings to improve the heavier Murano's ride quality.

Nissan stuffed the engine compartment with yet another version of the 3.5-liter V-6 that, in various degrees of tuning, powers the Nissan 350Z sports car, the Altima and nearly half a dozen other Nissan and Infiniti offerings.

Murano also has the first U.S. application of Nissan's continuously variable transmission, beefed up to handle the engine's 246 foot-pounds of torque.

The CVT, like others in the market, works by replacing standard gears with two conical pulleys linked by a steel belt. The transmission adjusts the belt's position on the cones in response to the demand for power, keeping the engine running in the most appropriate power range. Additionally, there are no "neutral" moments between shifts -- there are no gears to shift -- so there is no wasted energy. Nissan says its CVT boosts the Murano's fuel efficiency 10%.

Unlikely to make it as an off-road warrior -- Nissan sells the Xterra and Pathfinder for those who go exploring -- the newest Nissan certainly has the credentials to compete in the increasingly crowded crossover arena.

The downside might be price. It starts at close to $29,000 and tops at more than $39,000 with all the bells and whistles.

By contrast, competitors such as the Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Honda Pilot, Buick Rendezvous and Ford Explorer start $1,000 to $3,000 lower (and that's before the rebates and discounted interest rates the domestics are piling on).

Drivers should avoid the low-end Murano SL model, which proved to be a bit disappointing on the road.

While putting it through its paces in San Diego County's backcountry, I found it to exhibit excessive body roll on winding roads. At higher speeds, it felt as if it wanted to lift off the road each time it rebounded from a dip or bump.

Those things won't bother most people, but if you like to push your vehicles to the limits, the SL has pretty unremarkable limits and not much transition between what it can do and what it shouldn't.

By contrast, the SE model is tight, stable and quite willing, even eager, to be pushed. The springs are stiffer, the bushings and shock damping tighter, and it is a textbook example of the difference a few hundred dollars of hardware can make in the way a vehicle performs. The good news is that the SE starts at just $800 more than the SL in each of the two-wheel and all-wheel drive configurations; all-wheel drive is $1,600 more than two-wheel.

Other than the feel of the SE when pushed to the edge, there's little to dislike about the Murano in any trim level. As befits the pricing -- which is at the top of the heap for Nissans, awfully close to Infiniti territory -- the company has done an admirable job on fit and finish, with smooth seams, no yawning gaps between body panels and an interior that, keeping a reviewer's limited use in mind, seems durable and comfortable.

One complaint: The sharply raked windshield distractingly reflects a lot of the wide dashboard in models with light-color interiors. But that's easy to fix -- select a darker interior.

Overall, the Murano is as interesting inside as out, with adjustable pedals, a modern and well-planned instrument panel and comfortable and supportive seats with an easy-to use mechanism for folding the rear seats flat into the floor if you need more space.

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