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A graceful alternative to the SUV

Revamped Murano crossover is a stylish standout in market

Shoppers seeking a fewer-tears alternative to a midsize SUV are likely to like what they see in the Murano. The 2009 model has the plush ride, tank-like isolation and high-above-the-crowd perch that the sport utility crowd has come to appreciate. Shoppers seeking a fewer-tears alternative to a midsize SUV are likely to like what they see in the Murano. The 2009 model has the plush ride, tank-like isolation and high-above-the-crowd perch that the sport utility crowd has come to appreciate. (The New York Times)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter Passell
New York Times News Service / July 5, 2008

With gasoline soaring past $4 and polar bears wondering where their next ice floes will come from, the Suburbans, Navigators, and Durangos that generated much of the domestic auto industry's profits have become harder to sell than trans fats. It's no wonder, then, that crossovers - car-based utility vehicles that usually burn less fuel than their truck-based counterparts - are replacing SUVs in the showrooms of the beleaguered automakers.

Nor, by the same token, is it surprising that Nissan has a lot riding on the redesign of the Murano, one of the first crossovers to be marketed primarily as an urban antique-schlepping alternative to backwoodsy SUVs.

Shoppers seeking a fewer-tears alternative to a midsize SUV are likely to like what they see in the Murano. The 2009 model has the plush ride, tanklike isolation, and high-above-the-crowd perch that the sport utility crowd has come to appreciate. But the new Murano handles far better and gets respectable, if not breathtaking, mileage. The question haunting automakers is whether the reaction to SUV excess will also overwhelm the crossover market, particularly the brands lacking the cachet of, say, Lexus or BMW.

The new Murano offers just one engine, a 3.5-liter 265-horsepower V-6 that is a variant of the power plant that drives Nissan vehicles ranging from the Altima all the way up to the Infiniti M35. The only transmission available is Nissan's Xtronic, a continuously variable unit also found in the Altima and Maxima. But buyers do have a choice of three trim levels and either front-wheel or all-wheel drive.

The entry-level Murano S, which lists for $27,075 ($28,675 with all-wheel drive) can hardly be called stripped down. It comes with, among other goodies, antilock brakes, electronic stability control, 18-inch alloy wheels, halogen headlights, power door locks, dual-zone automatic climate control, a six-speaker sound system with CD changer and MP3 inputs, trip computer, keyless entry, tire-pressure monitor, and air bags galore.

Still, to add the features to which Americans have grown accustomed, one must move up to the Murano SL. The extra $1,550 gets you fog lights, a power driver's seat and steering wheel controls for the audio system - along with the opportunity to lay down more cash for an array of pricey options.

Nissan, of course, hopes customers will avoid all those difficult choices by opting for the top-of-the-line LE, available only in all-wheel drive ($36,655). The extra $6,000 and change above the price for the SL gets you 20-inch alloy wheels along with the leather, technology, and convenience packages that are options on the SL.

Still, you'll have to write an even bigger check if you want the navigation system, the two-panel moon roof, or the DVD player.

I tested an LE that lacked only the DVD player - an omission that held the sticker below $40,000.

Yet even at these heady prices, the Murano has much to recommend it.

Start with the exterior. From the beginning (in the 2003 model year) Nissan's design strategy for the Murano was to create the iconic un-SUV with a fluid shape that would never be mistaken for a Honda Pilot, a Toyota Highlander - or a Nissan Pathfinder.

The second-generation Murano is the same, only more so. Both the hood and rear window bulge in unexpected places, and the huge wheels add to the Toontown look. Only the sinister grin of the oversize toothy grille strikes an odd note. But that garish face serves a purpose: It's impossible to confuse the Murano with an Explorer.

Inside, the Murano LE was warm and luxurious, yet businesslike in its subdued colors, high-quality materials, ergonomically superior controls, and seamless fit - what Nissan's marketing gurus have dubbed the "mobile suite."

The pricey ($1,170) dual-panel moon roof imparts an even airier feel to the generous cabin.

And happily, Nissan has gone overboard in the fit-and-finish department, perhaps to erase memories of the low-rent materials and sloppy assembly in several Nissans of the recent past, including the first Muranos.

What's more, the Murano is as comfortable as it is handsome. While it has SUV-like ground clearance and provides a commanding view from the cabin, the Murano is relatively easy to enter. The pliant but supportive driver's seat is a keeper: My aching back prefers it to just about any seat I can remember.

And the second-row seating is more than adequate, thanks to fairly generous legroom, backrests with adjustable angles, a flat floor to accommodate the middle passenger, and upscale cushioning all around. As with almost all crossovers, the second-row backrest folds down in two parts to mix and match people and cargo.

Speaking of people and cargo, the carrying capacity of the Murano is modest by the standards of the breed. Unlike most midsize crossovers and sport utilities, it doesn't offer a third row of seats.

And the Murano's exuberant shape makes for less efficient use of space than the boxy competition. The Highlander, for example, has almost identical exterior dimensions but 50 percent more cargo capacity.

What the Murano loses in straightforward utility, though, it recoups in drivability. This crossover is no sports car: The soft suspension shields passengers from irregular pavement at the price of considerable body roll.

But thanks to some serious electronic wizardry and the beautifully designed platform that it shares with the Altima, the Murano is a lot more fun to drive hard than a truck-based SUV.

According to Car and Driver magazine, the milkshake-smooth engine propels the 2-ton Murano from a stop to 60 miles an hour in a zippy 7.3 seconds, a full second faster than the V-6 in the Hyundai Santa Fe. If not class-leading, the brakes are entirely adequate.

What's more, the Murano remains surefooted and predictable in hard maneuvers, virtues that have a lot to do with the monster tires and the multitude of computerized stability features that automatically apportion power to the left and right and to the front and rear.

It's hard to know what the Murano's real competition is, because oil-shocked consumers have yet to reveal to the market what they are willing to sacrifice to economize on gasoline.

All automakers are busy repositioning their relatively light SUVs as crossovers - consider the Hyundai Santa Fe, Ford Edge, and Honda Pilot. A slew of new ones, including the Dodge Journey and Toyota Venza, have either taken off or are idling on the runway.

In many ways, though, any midsize hatchback or station wagon qualifies as a substitute. For example, the all-wheel-drive Subaru Outback handles well and carries about the same volume of cargo, and the turbocharged 4-cylinder version is even faster than the Murano.

The only true crossover that beats the Murano on both drivability and sticker price is the Mazda CX-7. Indeed, it tops the Murano handily on both counts, providing performance close to that of a sport sedan for roughly $6,000 less.

But there's a trade-off: With a turbocharged 4-cylinder, the CX-7 is noisier, less roomy, and much less comfortable. At least for the moment, the Murano is in a class by itself, offering an attractive compromise between the guilty pleasures of a luxury SUV and the sensible shoes of a well-made station wagon.

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