STRAWBERRY, Ariz. -- For centuries the artisans on Murano, a tiny isle set in shallow lagoons surrounding Italy's canal city of Venice, have been blowing, bending and sculpting colorful globs of silicates into what has become known and prized around the world as Venetian Glass.
These days the island's name -- say "moo-RAH-no" -- has been requisitioned by Japanese automaker Nissan and applied to a contemporary crossover utility vehicle (CUV) which looks as curvaceous and colorful as Venetian Glass.
Murano the mid-size CUV, flashing a new raked face with squint-eye headlamps plus sheared fender blisters bulging over big alloy wheels, stands apart from any other vehicle on the road.
It looks edgy and athletic, like a lanky runner with rippled muscles wound tight and ready to sprint to speed on a fast track.
The first generation of Murano popped up in the Class of 2004 as Nissan's first sporty wagon rigged on the front-wheel-drive (FWD) unibody chassis of a car rather than the body-on-frame chassis of a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) truck like a conventional sport utility vehicle (SUV).
The second generation of Murano lands as one of the first vehicles in the Class of 2009 riding on Nissan's acclaimed new D platform which also underpins the wily Altima sedan.
Murano 2009 unites a powerful V6 engine with stunning new bodywork and a spacious five-place passenger compartment filled with a carload of comfort gear as well as high-tech electronic gadgets.
Stylists at Nissan's California design studio in La Jolla describe Murano as a "sculpture in motion" which fuses the best traits of a SUV and a pavement-hugging sports sedan.
Like the SUV, Murano gets a wagon's format with five seats and four doors for passengers and a liftgate in back for access to the cargo bay.
Boxy parameters of a wagon have been disguised by the fluid sculptural treatment of body panels plus the raked face and a forward-tilting tail, elements which collectively diffuse all rectangular hard corners.
But like a sporty sedan such as the Altima, Murano rides on a car's chassis.
The platform supports the 111-inch wheelbase and a wide track of 63.3 inches up front and 63.4 in back, and the 2009 rendition brings one-and-a-half times more torsional rigidity than the first-generation platform.
Pushing wheels to edges of the chassis adds stability to the stance and enhances Murano's agility when cornering.
Point this new Murano down a curvy road -- like Arizona 87 which wiggles like a spaghetti noodle down the pine-clad Mogollon Rim escarpment to the village of Strawberry -- and you'll enjoy the romp as tires paw the pavement and the wagon's body, feeling rigid and tuned, plays it hard and fast on the fun side of four-wheeling performance.
Murano carries an independent suspension system with cradle-type front subframe housing twin-tube struts and a multi-link arrangement in back plus large stabilizer bars fore and aft to check excessive lateral roll of the body.
Steering, through a quick-to-respond rack and pinion mechanism, feels firm and direct despite a speed-sensitive power boost.
A vented disc brake stands at every wheel -- with big 12.60-inch front rotors and 12.13-inch rear rotors.
All four discs tie by computerized links to a sophisticated anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and electronic brake assist (EBA).
In addition, Nissan adds a vehicle dynamic control (VDC) device with a traction control system (TCS) to check lateral skidding.
For locomotion Nissan pulls out the Altima's juicy VQ-series 3.5-liter V6, with twin cams on top and four valves for each cylinder plus CVTC (continuously variable timing control).
It pumps superior muscle -- to 265 hp at 6000 rpm with 248 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.
The engine links to an advanced continuously variable transmission (CVT) labeled Xtronic.
It never shifts from one gear to another because the CVT eliminates step-ratio gears of a conventional automatic transmission as well as the resultant shift shock. Instead, two variable diameter pulleys and a strong steel belt work to match the engine's output with the vehicle's speed, ultimately producing seamless acceleration.
Murano also offers Nissan's electronically controlled all-wheel-drive (AWD) equipment with yaw movement control for dependable grip on slippery pavement. The AWD system normally operates in FWD mode, although if front treads begin to slip, this smart rig can divert some the engine's muscle to turn the wheels in back.
Big 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels are standard issue for Murano with T-rated 235/65R18 tires, but the top AWD trim edition stocks 20-inch alloys and 235/55R20 tires.
Murano's long and broad structure whittles out a spacious cabin and utilitarian cargo bay.
Door sills are set low like the sills on a car so you can slip aboard easily.
Seats are tall so you sit up for good visibility.
The cabin layout pitches a pair of bolstered buckets in front flanking a versatile dual-level center console.
On the second row a bench is designed to seat two comfortably but hold three riders if necessary. The seatback splits 60/40 and folds flat to expand the cargo area, and convenient power controls to return the seatback upright appear as an optional feature.
The storage area is generous at 31 cubic feet but with rear seatbacks folded it expands to 64 cubic feet.
And the cargo bay can be outfitted with a foldable cargo organizer that tucks below deck but pops up with the push of a button.
The 2009 Murano shows up in trim designations of S and SL, each with FWD or AWD traction, and a top model LE strictly in AWD mode. Standard equipment ranges from a push-button starter to dual-zone climate controls, Fine Vision gauges and a six-speaker audio kit with AM/FM/CD6/MP3/WMA.
Optional packages apply more equipment like leather upholstery and wood trim, a sunroof, navigation system and a 9.3-gigabyte hard drive for music and video storage.
Nissan establishes MSRP benchmarks for Murano 2009 beginning at $26,330 for the S FWD and $27,930 for S AWD.