Review: 2009 Nissan Murano

2009 Nissan Murano – Click above for high-res image gallery

It just so happens that the all-new 2009 Nissan Murano is one of those nondescript mid-size crossover utility vehicles that may blend into the crowd. Its styling is certainly modern, if not overly exciting. The cabin is accommodating, if not excessively spacious. The handling is inspiring, if not unduly sporty. The engine is strong, and even reasonably efficient. How would this perfectly acceptable, yet hardly over-achieving CUV handle five passengers and full luggage on a 1,000-plus mile road trip across the Southwestern desert? Read on to find out.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Michael C. Harley/ Weblogs, Inc.

The task at hand was to deliver three adults and two children, with their overstuffed baggage, round-trip between Los Angeles and Phoenix in the middle of summer. It's a trip this writer has been doing for more than a decade, but always in a seven-passenger SUV (Chevrolet Suburban, Dodge Durango, Volvo XC90, etc...). Now, in a CUV with seating for five, we wanted to see how we'd fare (without resorting to strapping Aunt Edna to the roof).

The first-generation Nissan Murano arrived on the market as a 2003 model, the same model year the Infiniti FX made its debut. While Infiniti's FX offered concept-like styling on a sporty rear-wheel drive platform shared with the Infiniti G35, Nissan's Murano took a mainstream approach with its more conservative sheet metal and front-wheel drive architecture shared with the Nissan Altima. Arguably, the most innovative part of the Murano was its continuously variable transmission, or CVT.

A solid seller for Nissan, and popular with consumers, the Murano was re-designed for 2009 (there was no 2008 model). With little fanfare, the second-generation arrived looking much like the first (expected, as Nissan didn't want to ruin a winning formula). The significant improvements were found on the interior where the all-new Murano had taken hint and grabbed more than a few components from the Infiniti parts bin. Compared to its predecessor, the 2009 Murano is a major step up in interior quality and ergonomics, although it is down on overall cabin space. We were bound to see if it mattered.

Under the hood of the Murano is Nissan's very familiar VQ-family 3.5-liter V-6 powerplant. While the first-generation Murano also had a VQ, Nissan has revised it for the 2009 model to provide 265 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque. The engine isn't the smoothest out there, or the most frugal with fuel, but it has proved to be consistently strong and very dependable. Mated to the six-cylinder is Nissan's Xtronic CVT™ (Continuously Variable Transmission) with Adaptive Shift Control (ACS). While the engine/transmission combo is set in stone, consumers are offered the choice between front- and all-wheel drive.

We are holding the keys to a 2009 Nissan Murano SL 2WD with the Premium Package. With cloth interior and no navigation, the sticker price fell just below $30,000. The Murano is a four-door, five-passenger vehicle with a lifting hatchback over the rear cargo area. The tapered styling in the C-pillar looks great, but it does impede on cargo capacity. Regardless, once we yanked out the cumbersome cargo cover, the mid-sized Nissan happily swallowed three wheeled suitcases, two large duffel bags, an overstuffed camera bag, and the obligatory bags of miscellaneous family debris that are required to keep the kids entertained during an extended drive. With everything strategically loaded, including a pillow or two in the second row, we could just barely see out the back window.

Behind the wheel, your author's six-foot two-inch frame fit very comfortably. There is plenty of legroom for the left foot even behind the pedals for stretching out (rare these days with the proliferation of transverse-mounted engines keeping firewalls up against the backs of the pedals). The exterior mirrors are generous, yielding a great view outside, even if thick C-pillar restricts a bit of outward visibility from within the cabin. Our Murano had the rear back-up camera, and it was very useful during parking. As expected, the CUV driving position is elevated giving a commanding view of the road.

The dash of the Murano is logically designed, and it works well once your mind is acclimated. The most offending part of the dash has nothing to do with ergonomics – it has to do with the garish back-lighting. The primary instrumentation (speedometer, tachometer, and gauges) are white characters over a dark background with bright orange indicator needles. That's fine. However, someone at Nissan went amok with the lights and added bright rings of orange around the primary gauges. The illumination is overpowering, and it effectively removes the driver's ability to quickly glance at the panel to distinguish the position of the orange needles. We overcame much of the glowing orbs by turning the dashboard illumination down. Way down.

With the aforementioned luggage already loaded, we ran into a bit of a bind. The two kids in the second row wanted to watch a movie on a portable DVD player, but Nissan didn't supply those seating positions with a 12v outlet. The single front outlet was powering our Garmin GPS (and we didn't have a splitter on hand), so we improvised by threading a long cord from the single 12v outlet in the cargo area through the luggage and into the passenger seat area. It worked, but we'd prefer too many outlets to too few next time.

What the Murano engineers did right was the powertrain. The matchmaker who hooked up the VQ with the Xtronic VCT deserves a promotion. In fact, after spending countless hours with the pair, we observed that it just may be the perfect mechanical marriage for this vehicle. While we've had our issues with the CVT (often when we find it stuffed under the wrong hood), the Murano doesn't pretend to be a four-door sports car, an off-road explorer, or a luxury liner. It's a family oriented CUV, and in that capacity the CVT operates smoothly, predictably, comfortably, and efficiently. Coming from a traditional slushbox, the Xtronic may seem a bit lethargic at first. But, that sensation quickly wanes when your right foot learns to drive it properly.

All five of us loaded into the Murano preparing for the six-plus hour drive to Phoenix. The car seat in the middle of the second row split the rear passengers up, but there was plenty of wiggle-room on either side. Nobody complained about space, even the person sitting behind the driver's seat. All Murano models share the same twin-tube strut/shock arrangement with front and rear stabilizer bars. Unlike many cars that wallow and roll when packed to the brim, the Murano handles nearly the same-regardless of load. While it would hardly be considered "enthusiast-tuned," one could easily argue it is much sportier than many of the other CUVs that compete in the segment. It is fun to drive, but it will not satisfy the enthusiast deep within you.

Across the LA Basin, the Murano easily darted through the light freeway traffic as we headed out of town. The freeways are deeply grooved and scattered with expansion joints (for earthquakes, not freezing temps), but the Nissan ignored the tendency to tramline and soaked up the bumps without drama. The crossover breezed through San Gorgonio Pass and its giant wind farms without flinching in the sporadic crosswinds.

In the mid-day sun, the ambient temps began to climb into triple-digits. Driving east out of Indio on I-10, the highway climbs more than 1,700 feet to Chiriaco Summit. It's a steep climb (some portions have an 8% grade) that frequently overheats, or just plain overwhelms, many types of vehicles. Loaded with full passengers and luggage, our A/C pumping at maximum, and a heavy tank of gas (having just topped-off minutes earlier), we were the Murano's worst nightmare. Without hesitation, the VCT brought the engine up to speed and the VQ pulled us heroically at 70 mph past the burdened tractor trailers that struggled in the right lanes. Through Blythe, the temperature outside was a blistering 113 F, but we were as cold as Popsicles inside the cabin (in fact, we had slowly cranked the AUTO climate control setting up to 76 F so we wouldn't go numb).

Over the Colorado River, and into Arizona with its 75 mph speed limit, the traffic lightened and we set the cruise control at an even 84 mph to remain relatively inconspicuous among the flow. We noted how accurate the speedometer was (typical with most Nissan/Infiniti products), and how absolutely serene the cabin felt at this speed. With smooth black asphalt under the all-season tires (keeping tire roar at bay) and cloth interior acting as sound-deadening, all aboard were impressed at how quiet things were considering the Category 1 hurricane winds on the other side of the glass. While we've tested countless cars that lose their composure above 80 mph, from the driver's seat the Murano was completely competent and stable at those high cruising speeds. It was disheartening to approach Phoenix and slow to city speeds, and lane-clogging traffic.

During our countless highway hours behind the wheel, the most excitement arrived in the middle of the California desert, just outside Desert Center. We'd been watching a wall of thunderclouds on the horizon for the better part of an hour. Temperatures were in the triple-digits, but the sun soon disappeared behind the cumulonimbus clouds as we approached. Minutes later, we drove into a literal waterfall as the skies violently opened up. One second we were dry and doing 80-plus mph, the next second we were fighting for visibility with the wipers on high-speed and our velocity down to 40 mph or so. While the downpour stimulated our pulse, the Murano soldiered forth without concern. The ride height kept us out of the splashing spray from the trucks, and the front and rear wipers (and aerodynamics) keep the windows clear. The rest of the trip was uneventful.

We burned four tanks of premium gasoline during our travels (including a few days running around the Phoenix basin). Calculated by hand, our worst fuel economy was 19.96 mpg, and our best was 22.31 mpg. When you consider each of those tanks were consumed while lugging five souls around with the air conditioning fighting Sahara-like temps, the numbers aren't bad (for the record, the EPA rated the 2009 Murano at 18/23). We never tried regular-grade gasoline, although rumor has it that the Murano will drink it just as happily.

With the long week behind us, it was obvious that five passengers (and their luggage) can cohabitate peacefully in the Murano for 1,000-plus miles without any hint of pending bloodshed. Sure, the mid-size Nissan will never transport seven adults legally (Nissan will gladly sell you an Armada for that), but we'd make a good argument that even loaded to the headliner, the 2009 Murano is an agreeable place to pass the time. Interestingly enough, we never missed the extra room that the engineers apparently took from the new model.

The 2009 Nissan Murano is one of those vehicles that accomplishes everything with very high marks, but aces nil. That's not to be taken as a negative -- it simply means that Nissan has done a fine job engineering a five-place CUV that is a solid B-plus performer across the board. The engine is strong, transmission smooth, and the driving dynamics comfortable and predictable. Pressed into service, it will duly serve as a reliable daily driver, impromptu cargo hauler, sporty canyon cruiser, or an effortless road trip vehicle.

All photos Copyright ©2008 Michael C. Harley/ Weblogs, Inc.

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