2009 Nissan Murano LE front view
 2009 Nissan Murano LE front view
 2009 Nissan Murano LE interior
 2009 Nissan Murano LE GPS unit
 2009 Nissan Murano LE rear shot

The 2009 Murano is all new, but you might not realize it at a glance. Nissan apparently wants to retain the look of the first major "crossover" SUV, while still offering something fresh.

The first day I received my Saharan Stone (metallic tan) test car, I found myself a few parking spaces down from another, earlier Murano in. The two cars were even a similar color (although Sarahan Stone is new for '09). I compared them for several minutes. Despite having the same overall shape, there's not a line on the car that hasn't changed, although the distinctive upward curve of the rear side windows remains very similar.

The new car's taillamps are horizontal, not vertical, which significantly changes the shape of the tailgate and rear window. The new wheelwells are more prominent, and have a decidedly flattened edge to them. The new nose changes from a toothy smile to a strip of jewelry that makes the face of the car feel, well, uncarlike to me.

Other than the occasional bouts of hidden headlamps, notably in the late 1960's and on low volume sports models, cars normally have "eyes," however round or rectangular or stretched out they may be. That makes them look friendlier, like pets. The Chevron cars take this to an extreme. This Nissan is something else.

The interior is certainly welcoming enough, and is quite different from the old car. The confident, bold sculpture of the dash and doors has a new beauty and drama. The front section of the center console floats, cantilevered between the seats. There's a cavernous glove box. The seats are gorgeous. The materials are plush and the fit and finish looks perfect. Did Nissan invite the Infiniti interior designers from down the hall to take a crack at it?

Despite huge differences, the new Murano still offers the goods that have made it such a hit. You get one potent engine and one smooth transmission regardless of which model you choose. Those choices include the entry level S and above that, SL, with LE on top. The S and SL offer a choice of front-wheel-drive (FWD) or all-wheel-drive (AWD); the LE gets AWD standard.

The engine is a revised iteration of Nissan's successful VQ series 3.5-liter V6, which also powers some of the company's other models. It now puts out 265 horsepower, compared to original Murano, which boasted 245.

The updated continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) works quietly and seamlessly. A CVT uses belts and pulleys instead of gears, producing an infinite number of gear ratios. The car's computer tells it where to move for the ideal torque in every situation.

The V6 moves the 4,030-pound Murano forward effectively, and the car earned 18.3 miles per gallon for me. The EPA ratings are 18 City, 23 Highway. The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide rates all versions of the Murano at 7 for Air Pollution and 5 for Greenhouse Gas. For two tons of car, that's better than average, but would not put it into Al Gore's garage.

The real charm of the Murano is its crossover quality. It rides like a car, but schleps like an SUV. The new car features Nissan's new "D" platform, which improves torsional rigidity, reducing vibration and noise for greater ride comfort.

Early Murano advertising showed people bringing home cases from wineries or valuable furniture finds from antique shops. The all-wheel-drive aspect is designed for onroad safety, not offroad adventures. If you yearn to explore the muddy outdoors, Nissan has multiple offerings, including the rugged Xterra, among others.

As a family-toting vehicle, the Murano bristles with safety features, including six airbags, a tire pressure monitoring system, active head restraints up front, Zone Body construction with crumple zones, and more. Generously proportioned four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, Electronic Brake force Distribution and Brake Assist help you avoid using the airbags at all. Vehicle Dynamic Control with traction control employs the car's brainy computer to keep the vehicle moving the way the driver intends.

Prices start at $26,870 for the FWD S model. The tab works its way up into the mid-thirties for the LE thanks to things like steering-wheel-mounted audio controls on a leather wrapped wheel (SL) and 20-inch wheels, leather seats and 11-speaker Bose sound system (LE). Many other features differentiate the models, so order carefully when you configure yours. My SL AWD tester came to $33,995, including destination charge.

When the stylish Murano arrived in 2003, it had the crossover market pretty much to itself. Those days are gone crossovers are hot today but the car retains all the goodness of the old with new comfort, safety, and performance to keep it in the running.

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