Second place: Nissan Murano
Whereas Toyota has overdosed on crossovers, Nissan finds itself filling the gap with only two. With the smaller Rogue battling the hotly contested compact segment, it's up to the Murano to offer the utility of a larger vehicle to anyone not interested in the brand's aging line of body-on-frame SUVs.
That the Murano is attempting to fill larger crossover shoes is clear as soon as you see it parked next to the Honda and the Toyota. Its roof juts out several inches higher than the other two, and its masculine sheetmetal, revolutionary seven years ago, now comes off as almost traditionalist compared with the Venza's tough-wagon aesthetic and the Crosstour's downright weirdness. Not coincidentally, we find its angles and creases the most agreeable of this group, if still not quite attractive.
Inside, the Murano made great strides in materials quality with its 2009 redesign, and its new plastics are much better than those in the Toyota. The overall dash layout is a bit drab but ergonomically sound, and the optional Bose radio uses the same driver-friendly interface found in most Infinitis. Our only complaint, from a comfort standpoint, is with our $33,000 test vehicle's foamy, flat seats. As noted, it loses to the Venza in terms of overall cargo room, but it still offers plenty of space for big, bulky items.
The problem with the Murano's crossover leanings quite literally become apparent when you leave the confines of the city for slightly more challenging roads. It floats and sways unnervingly through turns, the inevitable result of having the group's highest roof and narrowest track. On stretches with more than one bend, it typically fell several car lengths behind the other two vehicles, which were hardly setting a bristling pace. Even the venerable VQ V-6 is outmatched here, as it equals the output of the other two but betrays its advancing age with a nonstop sound track of pained growls and vibrations.
The Murano's spaciousness and interior refinement still make it a solid choice, but as other brands have fleshed out their lineups with a crossover for every taste and budget, the Murano feels like it's neither big and useful enough to play with other mid-size crossovers nor nimble enough to run with these tall wagons.