Driven: 2012 Nissan Murano

First introduced in 2003, the Nissan Murano was on the vanguard of the move to crossovers, with buyers not so much coming out of SUVs but passenger cars. Trailing in its wake came the Toyota Venza, the Ford Edge, and the Honda Crosstour, to name a few. Redesigned for 2009, the Murano's styling became more, well, pronounced -- with a pointy, shovel-faced grille and a rounded rear -- but it retained the same general proportions.

Based on the Altima

The Murano's mechanical package has changed little in all that time. This crossover is based on the midsize unibody architecture that also underpins the Altima (and, now, the new Pathfinder as well). Nissan's familiar -- and ubiquitous -- 3.5-liter V-6 provides the motivation. The normally aspirated engine's 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque are hardly headline-making numbers, but they prove to be adequate for motivating the Murano, which weighs 4163 pounds in its top-line, all-wheel-drive trim.

CVT Engineered to a T

Nissan is particularly committed to the continuously variable automatic transmission, which has been offered in the Murano since the beginning, and is the only transmission choice today. Fortunately, Nissan's considerable experience with this transmission means that the company's engineers have been able to tune it to pleasantly emulate the operation of the conventional automatic. Under acceleration, instead of zinging the tach needle to the top of the rev range and holding it there, the CVT lets engine revs climb naturally as the car gathers speed. The result is less annoying engine droning -- but also fairly quick acceleration, although off-the-line performance leaves something to be desired.

Fuel Economy No Longer Fab

Whereas in its early years, the CVT helped the Murano post some of the best EPA numbers in its class, most all of the newer entries have now passed it by. The Murano's 18 mpg city figure may be par for the course for six-cylinder crossovers, but its highway ratings of 24 mpg (front-wheel drive) and 23 mpg (all-wheel drive) lag behind nearly all comers, including the Edge, the Crosstour, and the Venza.

Comfy Cabin

The Murano interior, on the other hand, gives away nothing to its competitors. The cabin doesn't have the widebody feel of a Ford Edge, but actually seems more space-efficient, as there's lot of room for legs, feet, and heads, both up front and in the rear seats. Ingress and egress are super easy, with a low step-over height and narrow door sills. The Murano prioritizes for passenger space more so than ultimate cargo capacity; the luggage floor is high and the rounded rear end restricts the size of bulky objects that can be carried. The rear seatbacks, however, fold easily.

The cabin of my LE test car was quite plush, as well it ought to be given this fully loaded, top-of-the-line Murano's sticker price of $44,000. There are big, soft chairs, and armrests and door panels are deeply padded. The huge, dual-pane sunroof brightens the interior considerably. The wood trim, however, seems like kind of an afterthought, and is unlikely to keep Audi designers up at night. The very straightforward layout of all the controls is welcome, and Nissan persists with its touch screen supplemented by a redundant center knob controller and lots of buttons for specific functions. Although this approach may not wow showroom goers in the same way as the iPad-style MyFord Touch or Cadillac's new CUE interface, it's actually far more intuitive and much easier to use while driving. Here's hoping Nissan resists the pressure to scrap it in favor of a trendier, less functional alternative. The navigation system works well, but is pricey at $2020, where it's the major component in the Platinum Edition package, along with Bluetooth audio (Bluetooth phone is standard on all but the Murano S), 20-inch wheels, and a rear bumper cover. (Navigation also can be had outside of the Platinum Edition package for $1850.) A backup camera is standard -- again, on all but the S -- but some of the latest driver aids, like a blind-spot warning system and lane departure warning, are missing. They will be joining the options list for 2013.

Nissan is wise in attempting to keep the Murano as up-to-date as possible, because this early entrant in the crossover derby is still a quite capable all-rounder. Highway fuel economy could be better, but otherwise the Murano offers sedan buyers seeking a higher perch much of what they're looking for.

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