How many of those SUV drivers really go offroad? Is it five percent? Three? The Nissan Murano is meant for people who would like to carry some cargo now and then but want a car, not a truck, for their daily driver.
Nissan seems to understand this, which is why the Murano looks the way it does. It is sleek, rounded, and even startling compared to the common "two-box" designs found elsewhere. The body contours sweep up from the low nose with its flush-mounted headlamp units, then arc up over the long top, dropping gracefully down to a tapered tail. The way the side windows come to a point is especially notable, and is starting to be copied now. Eighteen-inch alloy wheels give the vehicle big, sturdy feet, and chrome twin exhausts convey sportiness. The smiling chrome grille, updated for 2006, makes a big impression.
You can tell this crossover utility vehicle isn't meant to traverse the Rubicon Trail by the names of the colors, such as Merlot (like my test car), Chardonnay, and Glacier Pearl. One of the print ads for the car shows people searching for antique furniture-a perfect mission for the prospective Murano owner.
The Murano delivers plenty of power to get wherever you want to go onroad. Under the tapered hood is Nissan's popular 3.5-liter dual-overhead-cam V6, which sends 245 horsepower to those stylish alloys. The Murano is rated at 19 City, 24 Highway by the EPA, but I accumulated just 16.7 mpg, so it must matter how and where you drive.
The car employs a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which quietly and efficiently finds the best part of the engine's power band at all times. Nissan's Xtronic CVT uses a belt and two pulleys to create the perfect gear ratio. This is especially handy during long uphill trips, where typical automatics tend to hunt for the right gear. You don't hear the usual shifting sound-just a muted hum-and I soon forgot all about it.
You can order your Murano with all-wheel drive or front-wheel drive. The main reason for all-wheel drive in an onroad car is to increase usable traction in cases of water, ice, or loose dirt. You can also order the optional Dynamic Control Package ($750) and stack the deck in your favor with a traction control system, a tire pressure monitoring system, and Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) itself. The latter controls brake pressure and engine torque automatically in slippery road conditions or when the car is moving too much or too little in a turn (oversteering or understeering).
There's nothing trucklike about the Murano. The four-wheel independent suspension provides a sporty, firm ride that makes it fun to get off the boring straight roads. Vented disc brakes on all four wheels, with Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist (BA), stop the car straight and quickly.
Perhaps the best part of driving the Murano is the feeling from the driver's seat. The bright, airy cabin (in "Café Latte-I'm not kidding) makes generous use of genuine aluminum for a high tech effect-almost like an ultramodern European kitchen-and the exquisitely modeled shapes and surfaces are a dream. The gauges sit in a metallic, motorcycle-style binnacle in front of the driver and are illuminated in orange. The audio system and standard 7-inch LCD color screen sit in a floating pod design-very Star Trek. There's something boatlike about the way the deep dash top and long windshield taper toward the front of the car.
You can order up your Murano in one of five models. The S and SL levels come in two-or four-wheel-drive, while the top ranking SE is all-wheel-drive only. The SE, which I was lucky enough to enjoy as my test car, also includes a sport-tuned suspension with firmer springs, struts, and shock absorbers, a manual shift mode for the CVT, unique wheels, an elegant dark silver lower front bumper, extra powerful headlamps with a "levelizer" controlled from inside the cabin, and, a personal favorite-steering wheel-mounted controls for the audio system.
Of course, you're free to add more. Nissan offers various packages, a DVD entertainment system ($1,720), or a navigation system ($1,800). My car had the SE Touring Package ($4,650, which added things like leather seats (heated in front), Sirius satellite radio, a sunroof, upgraded audio, and adjustable pedals. To finish it off, my car had glistening chrome wheels ($1,200). All of these extras served to push my SE from a base of $31,550 to a sobering $42,445. The front-wheel-drive S model starts at $27,450.
For fun, style, and surprising practicality, the Murano offers a way out of the ubiquitous box. Even the S model is loaded with performance, safety, and aesthetic features, and you can equip your car like a luxury cruiser if want to. You never know when you may need to carry home a new rack for the wine cellar, do you?