First Drive: 2009 Nissan Murano

click above for more images from our first drive of the 2009 Nissan Murano

Nissan's original Murano was a successful and difficult act to follow. The elder statesman of crossover utility vehicles saw its sales increase every year since it was introduced in 2003, but with the segment going from crowded to standing room only, Nissan realized changes were needed to compete.

"Murano-ness" – that's what Jarrad Haslam, Nissan's product planner for crossovers, said the company insisted be preserved in the new version. Nissan invited us to Atlanta to sample this almost-totally-new Murano for 2009. You'll recognize the distinctive rounded nose, sharply-raked windshield, the side glass kicked up over the rear fender, a smallish rear hatch window topped by a sliver of a spoiler, and a lower rear bumper accentuated by dual exhaust outlets. But put the 2007 and 2009 (the Murano sat out the 2008 model year) side by side, and the differences become evident.

Continue reading about our first drive of the 2009 Nissan Murano after the jump.

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Live Photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.

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For 2009, the width-spanning chrome grille gets much more aggressive with pronounced vertical slats and headlights that are more FX45 than 350Z. The front fenders rise above the hood and blend smoothly into the A-pillars, while Murano's standard 19-inch and optional 20-inch chrome wheels are also wrapped by more muscular rear fenders that give the vehicle a bit more visual strength.

Out back, designers took the hatch glass angle even more extreme, and the old vertical taillamps are replaced with horizontal ones that mimic the headlights. The dual exhaust set up remains, as does that aforementioned sliver of a spoiler above the glass.

Inside, fans of the old Murano will find some welcome improvements. Upgraded materials cover every surface, and are especially appreciated on the instrument panel and center console. Softer plastics are found everywhere one might reasonably be expected to put a hand, and good-looking, double-stitched leather is also available. The new orange-lighted instrument cluster is a welcome improvement, as is the more ergonomic and eye-pleasing center stack.

If you like the people in your Murano's backseat, opt for the heated rear seats and the LCD screen with remote-controlled DVD player and wireless headphones. Those back seats (heated or not) do a very nice impression of a recliner, as well.

Behind the second row of seats is just less than 32 cubic feet of cargo space, which is 1 cubic foot less than the 2007 model. But fold the back seat flat and the 2009's cargo space doubles to 64 cu. feet. That sounds great until you realize that the 2007 model had a relatively cavernous 82 cubic feet with the back seat folded down. So where did all those cubes go? Haslam tells us the extra cargo space was sacrificed on the altar of attractive exterior design. That dramatically-sloping rear hatch severely cut into the vertical space of the rear and took 18 cubic feet with it. There are two reasons this may not matter to potential buyers. First, it's vertical space, and how often do you stack things floor to ceiling in your SUV? Second, Nissan is targeting young couples without kids who won't usually do things like stack plywood or baby strollers in their Murano.

Some of the Murano's updates don't translate well in words and must be experienced. The 2009 model sits atop the new D-platform, which is shared with the 2007 Altima Sedan and 2008 Altima Coupe. Nissan brags that the new underpinnings bring greatly-improved stiffness and noise isolation. Without an old Murano handy for back-to-back comparisons, it's hard to say how different the two crossovers are, but we can say that the 2009 handled itself quietly and confidently over Atlanta's decaying streets, traffic-congested highways and through the twists and turns of Georgia's countryside.

Nissan mates its Xtronic S-CVT to the Altima's VQ-Series 3.5 liter V6 in the '09 Murano, which gives the crossover 265 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. Despite my personal dislike for CVTs, the Murano's works pretty well. You'll still experience that initial lag when starting from a dead stop, but the intolerable wait before engine step-down is greatly improved and disappears entirely by taking advantage of the overdrive cutoff on the shifter. A firm press on the gas while moving will almost instantly invoke the engine's horses and, with a hearty growl from the dual pipes, you and your Murano will be breaking traffic laws left and right.

We were also able to test the vehicle's speed sensing steering when one of Atlanta's, um, less-than-courteous drivers decided his Jaguar would better catch the sunlight in our lane rather than his own. A potentially nasty accident was avoided with nothing more dramatic than a barely audible string of profanities from this Autoblog staffer. Some credit for the maneuver also goes to our sample vehicle's all-wheel-drive system with vehicle dynamics control as well as yaw rate control. The AWD system's computer can transfer as much as 50% of engine power to the rear wheels, which in this case proved quite handy.

In normal driving situations, 100% of the car's motivation comes from the front wheels alone, essentially making the Murano a front-wheel-drive vehicle until the rears are needed in slippery situations. Nissan says this allows the AWD and FWD models to get the exact same fuel-economy numbers of 18 city/23 highway. Though premium fuel is suggested if you want all those 265 horses, we're told the performance difference on regular is all but imperceptible. We'll be the judge of that when we get one in the Autoblog Garage later this year.

We only had a few hours in two different Muranos, so unfortunately we can't give it a full review, but we liked the new dual-panel glass roof (even at $1,170), the heated and reclining rear seats, the optional iPod connection that worked with our iPhone, the car's confidence-inspiring handling, quiet interior, and the grocery bag holder cribbed from the Rogue. The Murano's glove box was also refreshingly huge. A Nissan rep said a 15-inch laptop could even be stowed inside its gaping maw.

On the other hand, we disappointed with the car's preliminary EPA numbers. Surely more than 18 mpg can be squeezed out of a CVT. We asked if a hybrid or even a diesel Murano was in the works, but only got a smile and "We don't talk about future product" response. The pushbutton start is a neat gimmick, but it's just that. Same goes for the power open and close lift gate. They're great on minivans and larger SUVS for moms loaded with baby and stuff, but Nissan doesn't expect baby mommas to be buying the Murano. I can lift my own rear hatch, thanks. We were told that Muranos ordered with the optional navigation system get touch screens in their dashes, but both vehicles we drove were nav-free. We were forced to plod through screen after screen of data using numerous buttons just to change radio stations.

One more negative is that despite the fact that RCA audio and video input jacks are located behind the center console, there's no corresponding power plug back there. In fact, we only found two power plugs in the whole car: one beneath the center stack up front and another beneath the center armrest. One more power plug for rear passengers' accessories would've been nice.

So the 2009 Nissan Murano has gotten a little bigger on the outside, a little smaller on the inside, gained some weight and power, and has upgraded its wardrobe to better stand out in the crowd. And, lucky you, Nissan has dropped the price on all 2009 models. The cheapest you'll be able to get a Murano will be $26,330 for a 2WD S model. Add $1,600 for a 4WD S. A top-of-the-line Murano LE AWD will run on up near $35,910.

Before I added a kid to the family, the new Murano's driving dynamics, super quiet ride and upgraded interior would have put it on my shopping list. As a family man, however, the Murano's entry price, cargo space and fuel economy are enough to have me looking elsewhere.

Live Photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.

Nissan provided the vehicles for testing. Autoblog does not accept travel or lodging from automakers when attending media events.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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