2003 Nissan Murano
MSRP
$28,999
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2003 Nissan Murano Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

The sport sedan of crossover SUVs.

Introduction

The all-new 2003 Nissan Murano drives like a sport sedan, but carries cargo like a Honda Pilot. Murano is a crossover SUV, designed to carry people and cargo like a sport-utility vehicle, but drive and ride smoothly like a car. The Murano is different from most crossovers, however, in that it's more like a car, offering better handling and a more carlike ambiance than the Highlander or Pilot. 

It also offers more comfort for four people. Where the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot fit three rows of seating, the Murano offers two rows. Unlike other SUVs, Murano is not a substitute for a minivan. It seats four or five people, not seven. Nor does it feature the boxy, minivan styling of most SUVs. Murano's wild body work promotes better aerodynamics and high fashion with its sleek front end and a roof that curves inward. 

Murano's looks are backed by sporty performance. It's powered by Nissan's beefy 3.5-liter V6 mated to a responsive continuously variable transmission. Murano's sporty handling and grippy all-wheel-drive system put all that power to good use. It's built on Nissan's sporty Altima chassis. Unlike most SUVs, it doesn't lean in corners, dive under braking, or squat under acceleration. It drives more like a car than an SUV. 

Lineup

Nissan Murano comes in SL ($28,199) and SE ($28,999) models. SE comes with a firmer suspension and high-intensity discharge headlights, which have a manual leveling feature. 

Each offers a choice of two-wheel drive or all-wheel drive ($1600). All models are powered by Nissan's 245-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 mated to the Xtronic CVT. 

Options include the SL Premium package ($1,499), which adds roof rails, adjustable pedals, a more powerful stereo with auto volume control, and cargo cover and net. The SE Popular package ($3,499) includes leather memory seats and a sunroof. Once you buy these options, you qualify to add stability control with a tire pressure monitor system ($749) and a navigation system ($1,999). A chrome wheel package is available for SL models ($1,199). 

Walkaround

The shape of the Nissan Murano is designed to blend the look of a car and a truck. The top half of the body is sleek like a car, the bottom half bulky like a truck. The overall look is much sleeker than tall wagon-shaped SUVs, yet still rugged. Murano is name after an island near Venice known for glass sculpture. 

Contributing to Murano's husky styling are huge 18-inch wheels and tires that come standard. The shapely rear hatchback adds to it. The rear hatch is made out of reinforced plastic because steel won't bend easily to the shape. 

As its looks suggest, the Murano is an aerodynamic machine. A low frontal area and a low roof add cruising efficiency, as well as very low wind noise at high speeds. 

To finish off the high-fashion look, no less than eight colors are available for the exterior two-tone scheme, with three interior hues to mix and match. The colors were chosen carefully for their luxury look. Among them: Sunlit Copper paint and Cabernet upholstery. 

Interior

Climbing into the Nissan Murano is easy, a little easier than climbing into a Honda Pilot. Slide into the driver's seat and you'll find visibility is good from and the view rearward is surprisingly not compromised by the stylishly thick D-pillar. The steering wheel feels like it's right in your lap, arranged more like a car rather than an SUV. 

Front seats are comfortable and supportive. A big pod juts out from the center dash for audio and climate controls. We weren't crazy about the appearance of the pod, but it does put the controls close to hand. Buttons on the stereo are on the small side, but easy to use. Pressing a preset button, for example, automatically switches from an FM station to an AM station if that's the way you programmed it, saving you from having to press a separate mode switch first. Buttons on the steering wheel make it easy to change volume levels. The navigation display has a new-generation three-dimensional map view, which we find easier to follow. There is a large center console between the front seats, separating the front seats so that no one will confuse this with a minivan interior. 

Since the walls and glass of the Murano curve inward toward its occupants, your expectation is that it might be crowded inside. But because Murano is a five-seater that's the same size as a seven-seater, the backseat is like a limousine's. I could still cross my legs in the rear seat even though my hip-to-knee dimension is off-the-chart on some automakers' anthropomorphic scales. The rear seatback rake can be adjusted by pulling on a strap. That makes it more comfortable than the second row of the Honda Pilot, where passengers must sit uncomfortably bolt upright. 

The rear seats flip forward in one step and hide flush to the floor with clever manual levers, turning the Murano into a two-seat wagon with a big cargo area. It measures about the same length as the Honda Pilot's with all of its seats down. Murano's load height is now lower than the Pilot's, however. The bulky cargo cover flaps around and takes up room. We'd be inclined to toss it in the garage. 

Driving Impression

The Nissan Murano feels as quick as a sport sedan. Indeed, it's quicker than the BMW's 3.0-liter X5. Pulling almost 4000 pounds of Murano, the 245-horsepower engine still feels quick. The CVT is responsive and hitting a big bump at the apex of a corner doesn't upset the handling. Murano's ground clearance is taller than that of the Volvo Cross Country, but it rides and handles better than SUVs such as the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot. 

We have to judge the Murano's zoominess by how quickly it passes road markers and pavement stripes, because inside you get the sensation that the engine isn't revving very quickly at all. When you stomp the accelerator in the Murano, it feels like it stays in one gear all the way until you've reached terminal velocity. 

That sense comes directly from the CVT, which is an automatic transmission without gears. Engineers call these transmissions 'stepless.' When you accelerate, instead of the conventional upshifting from lower to higher gears, the transmission has variable-diameter pulleys that act like variable gears without teeth, and change ratios continuously. A complex steel belt is squeezed between the pulleys and transfers engine torque to the driveshafts. The CVT 'shifts' ratios smoother than a normal automatic transmission, and allows the engine to rev at a speed that's most efficient for acceleration. The efficiency of the CVT also adds to the outstanding fuel economy of the Murano: an EPA-estimated 20/24 mpg city/highway. 

The CVT is not a new device. Subarus, Hondas, and Nissans have used CVTs for more than a decade. Called the Xtronic, Nissan's new unit is similar to Audi's CVT in its ability to handle a lot of torque. The Audi unit, however, is tuned to shift like a conventional automatic, with six separate gear-like ranges. The CVT in the Murano, however, comes with just three ranges: D for normal driving, S for sportier acceleration, and L for the highest ratio, or lowest 'gear' range. Shifting from D to S raises engine revs 2500 rpm. Dropping from S to L increases engine speed by another 1000 rpm. Rev the engine near its 6600 redline and the ratio automatically reduces, thereby lowering the engine revs as the Murano's speed increases. In short, the CVT is more efficient than a normal automatic transmission, and therefore acceleration is quicker than with a conventional automatic. 

Engine braking is programmed into the electronics that control the CVT, so when you're coasting down a steep hill, accelerometers sense this condition and increase the effective gear ratio, which is akin to downshifting a conventional transmission. 

Every operation of the CVT happened smoothly and silently during our lengthy test drive in the Vallecito Mountains in southern California, and during acceleration we kept our eyes glued to the Murano's tachometer to get a better idea of what was going on in the driveline. We were particularly impressed with the silence of the drivetrain. The variable pulleys that are the heart of the CVT must squeeze a flexible steel belt with tremendous force to prevent the belt from slipping, and the pump providing this pressure made no discernable noise during our drive. 

The smooth and powerful drivetrain captured our attention first, but after several hundred miles of winding mountain pavement, the handling of the Murano also impressed us. The steering feels quick during turn-in, increasing your confidence that the Murano will corner like a sport sedan. It does just that up to about 8/10ths of the level you would drive an Altima sedan, and then it begins to understeer. The big 18-inch tires refrain from squealing until you're truly at the edge of cornering ability, which also adds to your confidence. 

The all-wheel-drive system drives the front wheels until wheelspin is detected, then an electrically operated clutch pack automatically feeds up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels. Nissan. 

Summary

The Nissan Murano is a tall and roomy wagon that drives like a sport sedan. Performance is tops, returning as much fun to the driver as a BMW X5 and likely the coming non-turbo Porsche Cayenne. 

Its pricing and luxurious ambience make us wonder if the Murano should have been an Infiniti model. It feels more like a second-channel luxury car, and a fully loaded Murano approaches the price of an entry level Lexus RX 300. Murano's price compares well with the Toyota Highlander's, however, especially when compared feature by feature. 

The best part about the Murano is its capability on the road: It handles with precision, speed, and more grace than most other SUVs. 

Model Lineup

SL 2WD ($28,199), SL AWD ($29,799), SE 2WD ($28,999), SE AWD ($30,599). 

Assembled In

Kyushyu, Japan. 

Options As Tested

Premium Package ($1,499) includes roof rails, adjustable pedals, upgraded audio, cargo cover and net. 

Model Tested

Nissan Murano SL ($29,799). 

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