2009 Nissan Murano

Stylish, all-new second-generation crossover SUV steps up

In 2003, when Nissan introduced its first Murano, sport-utility vehicles suffered from sameness. Even the growing number of car-based models, later dubbed "crossovers," displayed a basically boxy profile. With its unique checkered grille leading the way, Murano stood apart from the pack-not unlike the FX35/45 from Infiniti, Nissan's sister company. Stretching beyond its distinctively sophisticated appearance, Nissan also defied convention by installing a continuously variable transmission (CVT) rather than an ordinary automatic with gears.

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Styling & Driving Improvements

Now called "all-new" in its second generation, the 2009 Murano has gained an inch or so in length and height, shedding its noteworthy grille in favor of a more flowing shape. Designers faced a simple challenge, according to marketing director Rich Latek: "Don't mess it up [or diminish] its Murano-ness." Latek brands the result: "evolution on a grand scale," noting that the 2009 Murano not only "moves upscale," but qualifies as "curvaceous modern art."

Fender flares are bigger for 2009, and the character line at belt-level extends all the way to the rear, reaching new large LED taillamps. For the first time, 20-inch wheels are available. The back window is slightly larger than before, and a dual-panel moonroof is available.

Developers also concentrated on maintaining the Murano's premium driving feel, while improving ride comfort. Speed-sensing steering is installed, and the 2009 Murano is built on a new D-platform that's shared with the Altima. Lateral crossmembers help boost body stiffness substantially. Mostly made of alloy materials, the 2009 model's suspension components are claimed to be 20-30 percent lighter than before.

In 2003, when the first Murano emerged, it competed against only eight entrants, according to Latek. Now, the crowded field includes 21 competitors. A year from now, the total is expected to reach 25. Principal rivals include the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, as well as the Lexus RX 350.

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Power, Performance & Safety

Under the Murano hood, Nissan's 3.5-liter V-6 engine produces 265 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 248 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. That compares to 245 horsepower and 246 pound-feet in the prior Murano. Adaptive shift control in the modified Xtronic S-CVT is meant to impart "more linear g-feel," Latek said. Shift patterns adjust to correspond to driver demands in various situations. All-wheel drive has been modified, too, with new "intuitive" Yaw Rate Moment Control.

Fuel-economy estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are 20 mpg for city driving and 25 mpg on the highway with two-wheel drive. All-wheel drive drops each figure by one mpg.

Unlike some midsize crossover SUVs that have squeezed in a third-row seat, Nissan sticks with two rows for the Murano. Pushbutton ignition and cargo dividers are standard. A 60/40 power-up/flip-down rear seat is installed in upper models, and a power liftgate is available. All Muranos contain six airbags.

Expect a nearly blissful ride on really smooth pavement, but you definitely notice the Murano's suspension tautness on harsher surfaces. Even slight road imperfections can be felt some of the time-but few of them turn annoying. Typical of Nissan vehicles, the Murano behaves with a semi-sporty overall demeanor, compared to most SUVs. An AWD-equipped Murano whips handily through curves at considerable speed. Steering is a tad heavy, which helps impart secure and confident sensations.

Performance is clearly a plus, helped by the fact that operation of the continuously variable transmission is barely discernible. Unlike some earlier CVT powertrains, which emitted plenty of engine sound when accelerating, Nissan's gearless transmission is impressively quiet and refined.

Acceleration is wholly satisfactory at some speeds and quite energetic at others. Tromp the gas pedal at highway speed and the Murano reacts smoothly as well as effectively, thanks to the masterful CVT. Just a touch of engine roar is noticeable when accelerating hard from a standstill, and a hint of whine might be evident while passing or merging. Otherwise, the powertrain is quiet and the Murano's reactions beat those of many vehicles with regular automatic transmissions.

Interior Comfort

Firm seat cushioning does not detract from comfort in the roomy interior. Side bolstering is noticeable but not bothersome, helping to keep occupants suitably positioned during treks down twisting roads. On the downside, over-the-shoulder visibility can be troublesome, not helped by the shapely tapered quarter windows. The tray-type glovebox is not the handiest to reach, or the most spacious. Nissan's navigation-system screen, if installed, is modest in size but high and clear, mounted on an attractive dashboard with a fresh instrument cluster.

Manufactured in Japan, Muranos come in five flavors for 2009: S and SL, each offered with two-wheel or all-wheel drive; plus the top-of-the-line LE, with 20-inch tires rather than 18s and produced with AWD only. Last year's Murano sold in four trim levels. There was no 2008 model.

Sales of the 2009 Murano began January 15. Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) starts at $1500 less than previous generation Muranos. Base pricing for a FWD Murano S model with intelligent Xtronic CVT is $26,330. A topline AWD Murano LE starts at $35,910. Currently, Muranos are sold in more than 130 countries, and nearly two-thirds have all-wheel drive. (www.nissanusa.com)

About the Author

James M. Flammang is an auto journalist and author, and the editor of Tirekicking Today (www.tirekick.com)

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