3300Z Nissan has been on to a good thing with the Murano, and it's getting better. Since 2003 the Murano's upscale intentions and feast of features have nearly doubled sales. Now Nissan has evolved the Murano's hardware, design and, yes, features to class-leading levels with a significant freshening for 2009. If the off-center styling appeals, the Murano's urbane ways are sure to please.
A defining member of the crossover segment, the Murano builds its SUV-like 5-door hatchback shape atop Nissan's improved D-platform, shared with the Altima sedan.
Benefitting from a relatively lightweight but now 1.5-times more rigid unibody structure, the Murano's car-based genealogy and two-row seating make it a prime people mover. Built around front-wheel drive, just over half of Murano's trim and driveline combinations actually employ computer-controlled all-wheel drive (AWD) for year-round on-pavement traction.
For 2009 (there was no '08 Murano) the same five trims reappear, all powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine mated to a continuously variable transmission. None lack for amenities, from the S to the SL and luxurious LE. Both the S and SL offer a choice of front-wheel drive (FWD) or AWD, while the LE is AWD-only. Highlighting the LE's status are its exclusive 20-inch wheels; the S and SL roll on 18-inch rims.
To make sense of the many options, from heated outside mirrors to the power liftgate, Nissan groups most of them into five packages. This includes the airy dual panel moonroof on the SL and LE models. Other highlights are a power-folding rear seat and nifty pop-up cargo organizer in the rear cargo hold.
Under the Hood
Simpler to categorize is the Murano's single powertrain offering, a 265-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and continuously-variable transmission (CVT). Both are notably improved. The suavely sophisticated engine now employs variable valve and induction strategies, along with tweaked camshafts, twin knock sensors along with various friction reductions to rev more freely and powerfully.
Torque is not a highlight of the V6's new tuning, peaking at an almost unchanged 248 lb-ft at a relatively lofty 4400 rpm. So too the power, with 6000 rpm showing on the tach before all 265 horsepower arrive.
But this tach-happy demeanor matches the Murano's newly assertive CVT. Friction reductions up to 20 percent highlight the internal modifications, but what's noticed is the tranny's new brain. More aggressive shift speeds and improved logic replace the old slush-box feel, with a sense the transmission is happy in its work.
Deciding real room for five was better than cabin fever for seven, Nissan maintained the Murano's two-row seating when redecorating the interior cellar-to-cupola. Nissan's goal of retaining a sporty appeal while building sophistication was met using wood and aluminum accents, along with a contemporary instrument cluster with nested electroluminescent gauges.
On SL and LE trims the large, dual pane moonroof — only the front panel opens — lets in welcome light despite heavy tinting, while all versions benefit from theater-like "welcome lighting." No sundae-cup dome light here!
Digging deeper for the SL or LE trim does bring out the best of the all-new Murano interior. Swathed in leather with heated and power-folding seat options, along with the optional 11-speaker Bose sound setup, the up-level versions do round the edges off long distance travel. The deluxe interiors really are at Infiniti rather than Nissan levels, as evidenced by a 9.3 GB Music Box hard drive, a touch-screen nav system with available XM NavTraffic, a back-up camera and Bluetooth.
Two of our favorite options are the power-folding rear seats, activated from either the driver's position or standing near the open hatch. Likewise, the power liftgate is embarrassingly sybaritic, but amusing to watch nonetheless.
On the Road
Freshening a popular design like the Murano is tricky business, and Nissan reports considerably noodling went into maintaining the "Muranoness" of the original. They succeeded without fault, largely because of the Captain Nemo styling. A vaguely French celebration of curves, slabs and accenting lines sets a modish tone when ambling up to the surprisingly tall and flowing Murano.
Once inside, the décor is less polarizing, and driving is a serene passing of the landscape from a lofty crossover perch. Considerable effort on body and suspension isolators, inherently quiet tires and a whispering wind signature nearly eliminate occupant fatigue. Even more pleasing, the rigid chassis and supple suspension admirably combine a cushioned ride with stable, accurate steering.
Hushed power flows in the background, and the CVT transmission goes largely unnoticed. Speed adjustments at a freeway clip do jump engine rpm, but this is really just an upward swing in the tach needle. Certainly we had no complaints with response. We were also reassured by the 3500-lb tow rating — a good sign power remains when heavily loaded.
In AWD mode the Murano seems extra secure. Wired into steering and yaw sensors, the AWD system shuttles power around the two axles as necessary. Typically this means a four-wheel-drive launch, then FWD cruising, with some power to the rear tires in slippery conditions. On our easy dry-weather drive the power placement was seamless.
Our nits to pick were few. The 300ZX-derived switches at the rim of the instrument cluster are a clean design but often obscured by the steering wheel rim, and over-the-shoulder rear vision is a bit compromised by styling.
Right for You?
With its refined execution and host of features, the Murano sets a high mark for a non-luxury brand crossover. Entry pricing is $26,330 for the front-wheel-drive Murano S, with the two-wheel-drive SL enticingly close at $27,880.
Desirable options quickly cross the $30,000 threshold and into the center of the Murano market, while the no-excuses LE starts at $35,910. Distinctively styled for a strong appeal to a fashionable audience, the Murano definitely delivers the practical performance and near-luxury experience so many desire.
Longtime Road & Track contributor Tom Wilson’s credits include local racing championships, three technical engine books and hundreds of freelance articles.