2009 Nissan Murano

Five years ago, when we first drove the Infiniti FX45, its twenty-inch wheels looked so huge and otherworldly that people stopped, stared, and pointed at them. Now, Nissan's new second-generation Murano is available with footwear just as large. It's a measure of how commonplace such plus-size rubber has become that I drove the Murano for 600 miles over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend and didn't notice just how big its wheels were until afterward, when I did a walkaround. Even before the turkey went into the oven, though, I had noticed the Infiniti trickle-down effect in the Murano's cabin, where the handsome center stack looks as if it's straight out of an Infiniti M45. The plastics, the fabrics, and the primary gauges are all a step above the old Murano's as well, even if you'll want to throw the poorly designed cargo cover into a dumpster the first time you try to use it.

In general, the new Murano is not a radical departure from the old one, which was a phenomenal success for Nissan. As before, the Murano is based on the Altima platform, which itself was reworked just last year. There's still no third-row seat, which is fine, because the Murano is for people who really want a five-passenger luxury crossover - not a minivan substitute - but who don't want to spend Infiniti or Lexus money. With spiffy new options like heated, power-folding rear seats; a power liftgate; an extra-large glass moonroof; and a 9.3-gig music hard drive, it's not like Murano buyers will feel deprived.

Unless, that is, they are hoping for a measure of sportiness - that's what the Infiniti FX and new EX35 are for. The Murano has decent body control, but it can feel a bit floaty. As for the light steering, the main message it communicates is that it would prefer you drive in a straight line. The brakes are strong, though, ride quality is fine, and the familiar VQ-series V-6 and Nissan's second-generation Xtronic continuously variable transmission ought to get Murano owners to the Nordstrom clearance sale in plenty of time. Yes, that slightly odd CVT thrum reverberates through the vehicle as you mash the accelerator, but the power delivery is smooth, consistent, and very strong. Maybe too strong: we averaged only 19 mpg in mostly freeway driving in our all-wheel-drive test car.

Nissan design chief Shiro Nakamura admits that the new Murano is an evolutionary design; given the popularity of the original, its replacement had to be instantly recognizable. Nakamura-san, describing the new Murano's front end as having "a high-technology feeling," points out the projector-beam headlights - four beams on each side - and the "angle strap" center grille that's similar to the Rogue's. He neglects to mention the crooked chrome teeth surrounding the grille, the truncated greenhouse, the loss of the first-generation vehicle's clean lines, the bulbous bumpers, and the ridiculously oversize badging: the overall effect is not pretty. Dubs aside, it seems the Infiniti trickle-down didn't quite reach the Murano design studio.

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