From Nissan: The Best of Both Worlds?

Its Murano crossover SUV is long on style

There's no mistaking the 2003 Nissan Murano (NSANY ). It hit the streets late last year looking like a highly styled concept car that had broken loose from the auto-show circuit. Its improbable allure -- a swoopy sedan roofline perched atop a brawny sport-ute body with huge 18-inch wheels -- is still turning heads.

The Murano is one of the new breed of crossover vehicles that mates the generous cargo room and high ride of an SUV with the fuel economy and better handling of a passenger car. Or, as I quickly discovered as I tooled around in one recently, a very sporty passenger car.

It's powered by the same 3.5-liter V6 Nissan uses in its 350Z racer and Altima and Maxima sedans. From a standstill, you can hit 60 mph in 7.5 seconds. That's faster than BMW's $40,195 X5 3.0i and close behind Porsche's $56,665 Cayenne S (PSEPF ), two of the speediest SUVs around. And the Murano starts at just $28,739. The four-wheel-drive version is $1,600 more.

The engine's 245 horses are transmitted to the road through a continuously variable transmission, an unusual type of automatic transmission that changes gears seamlessly rather than with those upshifts and downshifts you feel with most automatics. The Murano handles like a well-built sedan. Okay, the suspension is stiffer than I like -- you can definitely feel the bumps in the road. But it sticks to the road around corners, too, so you don't get any of that typical SUV sensation that you're about to tip over.

Inside, there's plenty of room. While its closest competitors, Toyota's Highlander (TM ) and Honda's Pilot (HMC ), offer a third row of kiddie seats, Nissan passed up the minivan set in favor of first-class seating for four or five adults, with generous legroom even in the back. For cargo space, the rear seats fold into a flat floor at the tug of a lever in the cargo area.

Side-impact air bags and roof-mounted side-curtain air bags to protect against head injuries are standard equipment. Traction control is a $749 option, but Nissan requires that you spend $3,797 on other options, such as leather seats and a sunroof, to get it. (This car can get pricey fast.)

Up front, you'll either love or hate the cockpit. Instruments are illuminated in orange; it's especially grating on the video screen, which displays audio, air-conditioning, and trip information. Aluminum trim on the dash and center console gives everything a high-tech feel.

Despite my quibbles, I have to admire Nissan for coming up with something like the Murano. There are plenty of crossover vehicles to choose from these days, but most of them go for either the big, boxy, generic SUV look or the tall station-wagon-in-disguise look. It's nice that one of the best has a style of its own.

By Larry Armstrong

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