SCOTTSDALE, Arizona - Redesigning a popular model is invariably risky. When Nissan developers needed to rework the Murano crossover SUV, they faced a simple challenge, according to marketing director Rick Latek: "Don't mess it up."
Billed as "all-new" in its second generation, the 2009 Murano exhibits "evolution on a grand scale," Latek said, as "it moves upscale." Styling of the 2009 models ranks as "curvaceous modern art," according to Nissan; but the primary essential is "maintaining its Murano-ness."
Up front are a new tapered grille, fascia, and headlights. Still, the new front end isn't quite as distinctive as the one on the original Murano, which debuted as a 2003 model. That one featured a particularly noticeable checkerboard-pattern grille that stood apart from the SUV pack of that period. Since 2003, of course, the number of competitors in the booming "crossover" field has grown sharply - from only eight back then to 21 now, with several more expected in the next year or so.
Fender flares are bigger than before, and the Murano's "character" line (beltline) extends all the way to the rear, leading to large LED taillamps. For the first time, 20-inch wheels are available. A new dual-panel moonroof is available, too. Dimensions haven't changed much, as the 2009 Murano is less than an inch longer and taller than its 2003-07 predecessor. (No 2008 model has been issued.)
Engineers had another goal: to improve ride comfort, but hang onto the Murano's "premium" driving feel. Building the Murano on a new platform shared with recently-redesigned Altimas "improves body stiffness," Latek stated. Lateral crossmembers have been installed. Suspension components are made mostly of alloy materials (20 to 30 percent lighter).
Under the Murano hood, a 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 hp and 246 pound-feet for the 2006 model. Nissan continues to offer just one transmission, a gearless automatic: specifically, a continuously variable unit (CVT), with adaptive shift control and what Latek calls "more linear g-feel."
According to the revised fuel-economy estimates issued by the Environmental Protection Agency for 2008, the Murano gets a rating of 18 mpg in city driving and 23 mpg on the highway, whether it's equipped with front-drive or all-wheel drive. Essentially, Latek advises, "mileage stayed the same."
Scheduled for sale beginning January 4, 2008, the Murano is again a five-passenger vehicle, with two rows of seats. Some competitors now squeeze in three rows for seven-occupant capacity, but Nissan shunned that approach.
Three trim levels will be offered: S and SL with either two-wheel or all-wheel drive, and top-level LE with AWD only. Prior Muranos came in four forms. Six airbags are standard. So are handy cargo dividers in the rear compartment. A power liftgate is available. Nissan considers the Lexus RX 350 to be a primary target, but rivals also include the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot.
On smooth pavement, the Murano yields a ride that approaches bliss. Move onto harsher surfaces, however, and you'll definitely feel the suspension's tautness. Even slight road imperfections can be felt, some of the time.
Nissan's CVT is about as refined as transmissions get. Most drivers will hardly notice its operation at all. Even at higher speeds, too, the CVT-equipped Murano runs quietly - unlike some vehicles with the gearless transmission. Just a touch of roar may be heard when accelerating from a standstill, with the pedal pushed down somewhat hard. A hint of whine might be noted during highway passing, but on the whole, the Murano's CVT performs better than many regular automatics.
Acceleration is satisfactory at all speeds, though passing maneuvers aren't quite so vigorous, especially if extra response is needed on an upgrade. At regular highway speeds on level surfaces, passing is rather energetic and prompt, even if it's necessary to reach higher speeds to get the job done. Push on the gas pedal with some care and awareness, and responsiveness should not be a problem.
Typical of most Nissan products, the Murano handles with a semi-sporty feel. In fact, the 2009 model is able to whips handily through curves at considerable speed. Body lean in curves is less than expected for an SUV of any stripe. Steering is a tad on the heavy side, which helps impart secure and confident sensations.
Seat cushioning is firm but not uncomfortable, and side bolstering is noticeable to help keep occupants in place during curved-highway runs. Plenty of buttons line the steering wheel, but most are marked well enough. The Murano's dampened, tray-type glovebox is not the roomiest or handiest, but the dashboard is attractive.
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