It's getting crowded in SUV land, particularly in the oh-so-lucrative mid-size arena. As the market becomes increasingly saturated, perhaps one way to stand out amid the herd of tall two-box wagons is by delivering more style than the opposition.
Nissan certainly has taken that route with the Murano, which is based on the same FF-L (front engine, front-wheel-drive) platform that underpins the Altima. Shod with standard eighteen-inch wheels, the Murano makes most of its rivals look dowdy and old-fashioned. Inside, a techno theme is carried through quite nicely with real aluminum trim pieces, although Nissan's obsession with cost cutting is evident. Neat features include a lockable center console stowage space that can hold a laptop computer and reclining rear seats that can be flipped flat from inside the load bay. There's plenty of space inside the cabin, although the Honda Pilot has more rear-seat legroom and cargo capacity (the Honda also has a third-row seat).
Mechanically, the Murano has a four-wheel independent suspension, is powered by a 245-horsepower version of Nissan's ubiquitous 3.5-liter DOHC V-6, and is available in front- and all-wheel-drive form. The SE model's sport-tuned suspension features stiffer springs, front struts, and rear dampers. The all-wheel-drive system uses an electronic clutch pack to transfer up to 50 percent of the torque from the front wheels to the rear when slippage is detected, and traction and stability control are available. The so-called Xtronic continuously variable transmission is standard.
As you might expect, the front-wheel-drive Murano behaves a lot like a tall, overweight Altima. Without traction control, those 245 horses are always trying to break the front wheels loose. There is some torque steer, and the ride is firm, with noticeable impact harshness. The steering and brakes are nicely connected, however, and body control is tight. In practice, the CVT works harmoniously with the fine V-6 engine, although the S and L settings are fixed ratios that are intended mainly for off-road use. The Murano provides a better drive than a conventional body-on-frame SUV, but that's like saying that dying of a heart attack is better than drowning. Neither is a great way to go.
The base Murano SL costs $28,739, well equipped with automatic climate control, cruise control, and a power driver's seat. The better-equipped, all-wheel-drive SE is $31,139. Leather, a navigation system, a sunroof, and stability and traction control will push the price past $35,000.
Is the Murano compelling enough to succeed? Compared with the Honda Pilot, which is the perfect modern-day American family wagon, the Murano is a bit sportier and much more exciting to behold. It is a pretty good value in an overpriced part of the market and will certainly find the 50,000 buyers Nissan expects. After all, there's so little differentiation in the way mid-size SUVs perform, you might as well have one that looks really good.