Nissan's Best-Selling Truck

Thanks to its fuel performance, bold looks, and a zippy engine, the Murano now outsells both the Pathfinder and Titan

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Pep, handling, quirky styling

The Bad: No third row seats, quirky styling, relatively high price

The Bottom Line: A fun-to-drive crossover vehicle; ideal for young families

Up Front

The Nissan Murano is a pioneering crossover vehicle that's getting a big boost from gas-price jitters and shifting consumer priorities. In a down year for both Nissan (NSANY) and SUVs in general, the distinctively styled (some would say funny-looking) midsize sport-utility-vehicle saw its sales rise 9.6%, to 81,362, in 2006. Amazingly, the Murano passed the venerable Pathfinder and the Titan pickup to become Nissan's top-selling truck in the U.S. market last year.

Why is the Murano so popular? It hasn't changed all that much over the years, even though it got a modest facelift in '06. But it's still one of the best-handling SUVs on the road. And its unusual styling—the bulging lower body, highly sculpted rear door and toothy front grill—has become more acceptable to middle-American buyers as it has become more mainstream. These days, there are even odder-looking SUVs on the road, such as the Mazda CX-7.

The Murano isn't practical for people with big families or heavy-duty car-pooling responsibilities because it doesn't have the third-row seating available in SUVs such as the Acura MDX, the BMX X5, the Toyota (TM) Highlander and Hyundai Santa Fe. But it's ideal for people who are starting a family—and want a fun-to-drive vehicle that doesn't look like every other boxy SUV in the parking lot.

The Murano is bigger than it looks, for one thing. At 187.6 inches, it's the same overall length as the Honda (HMC) Pilot and three inches longer than the Highlander.

It comes in three trim levels. The cheapest version, the Murano S, starts at $28,400 with front-wheel drive and $30,000 with all-wheel drive. The S has relatively few available options, but comes standard with power windows, remote keyless entry, tire pressure monitors, and 18-inch alloy wheels.

The next level up is the SL, which starts at $29,950 with front-wheel drive and $31,550 with all-wheel drive, and comes with a 10-way adjustable power driver's seat, a better audio system with steering-wheel mounted controls, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and some extra chrome and aluminum exterior trim. You also can get all the usual options on the SL, including leather seats ($2,750), a sunroof ($2,650), a navigation system ($1,800), a DVD entertainment system ($1,720), chrome wheels ($1,200), and stability and traction control ($750).

The SE only comes with all-wheel drive and starts at $32,500. It has the same array of options as the SL, but comes standard with a sport-tuned suspension, a manual-shifting mode on the automatic transmission, and high intensity discharge (HID) headlights.

The typical buyer? The Murano is unusually popular with women, who account for 46.5% of all purchases, according to the Power Information Network, vs. 43.3% for the Highlander and just 38.3% for Honda's Pilot. At 45 years of age, the average Murano buyer is also younger than the buyer of most of its main competitors. The exception is the Pilot, whose average buyer is only 44, according to Power (like BusinessWeek, the Power Information Network is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)

Behind the Wheel

The Murano is a crossover vehicle, meaning it's based on a car rather than a truck platform. Its underpinnings are the same as the Maxima and Altima sedans, so it handles a lot like a car and feels very tightly built. I drove the Murano SL, which doesn't have the sport-tuned suspension, but there was still almost no body roll when I threw the vehicle into curves. Driving the SL made me yearn to test out the sporty SE.

The Murano only comes with one choice of engine, but it's a good one—a 3.5 liter, 240-horsepower V6 that's basically the same powerplant found in the Nissan 350Z sports car. The only available transmission is a continuously variable automatic.

This combination gives the Murano unusual driving characteristics. The engine makes it relatively peppy without being lightning-fast. In my tests, the Murano took 8.7 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 to miles per hour, and there was plenty of zoom when I needed to move into the passing lane on the highway.

The continuously variable transmission takes some getting used to because it runs out endlessly as you accelerate, without ever shifting (though it does step down like a conventional automatic when you punch the gas). But it also helps make the Murano fuel-efficient. Even with all-wheel drive, it's rated to get 20 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway, about the same as the Highlander and better than the Pilot (17/22 mpg) and the Explorer (15/20 mpg with a six-cylinder engine). In 350 miles of largely highway driving, I got 20.6 mpg in my test Murano.

The interior has some quirky design elements, but it's quite functional. The dash is very wide, with two built-in trays into which you can pitch maps, coins, and other stuff. The center console is attached to the dash like a flat panel TV—it looks like it might open up, but doesn't. There are odd little pods attached to the ends of the instrument cluster for the emergency flasher switch and trip computer controls.

You would think a diminutive SUV like this would lack for space inside, but there's plenty of leg and shoulder room. I asked one of the supervisors in a little village near where I live, a rangy six-footer, to check out the driver's seat. He had plenty of leg, shoulder, and head room with the seat set in a position comfortable for him. Yet when I sat in the rear seat behind him, I had leg room to spare.

There are lots of storage bins. The doors curve out a bit, so there's room for large bins in the bottoms of the front doors without impinging on the driver and passenger's space. The rear doors have smaller bins in them. The storage compartment under the front center armrest is two-tier. The top opens up to reveal a flat space for papers, checkbooks, and coins. Underneath, there's a large, unusually deep compartment for CDs and such.

As with other SUVs, there's plenty of space for luggage behind the back seats. The rear seats fold down flat in a 60/40 pattern to create a big, 82-cubic-foot cargo space.

The controls are easy to use. For instance, there are buttons in the center of the dash that give you average mileage and other fuel-economy readings on a little video screen. There are a number of thoughtful design touches, too, such as a dimmer switch to cut the brightness of the display during night driving. The optional backup camera has excellent resolution and includes a graphic display that indicates where you're headed as you back up.

Even the fake-wood interior trim (a $100 option on the SL) looks better than the "real" wood in many luxury cars. To me, it resembles stereo cabinetry.

However, there are some things about the interior I don't like. The glove box isn't as sturdy and solid-closing as it might be, and the joystick-style control knob for the graphics display seems flimsy. It feels like it would break after two or three years. The instruments—the tachometer, speedometer and such—are small and (to me, at least) unattractive looking, with orange numerals on a grey background.

Buy It or Bag It?

If you would be happy with a boxy, plain-vanilla SUV, the Murano isn't the vehicle for you because it's relatively expensive. According to the Power Information Network, the average Murano sells for $32,032, nearly two grand more than the Ford Edge ($30,446) and the Toyota Highlander ($30,331), and over two grand more than the Honda Pilot ($29,823). One reason for the relatively high selling price is that some of the other models have been discounted recently, while the hot-selling Murano hasn't been.

With some optional equipment on it, you'll pay $35,000-plus for the SE, the version of the Murano I covet. So, I would definitely at least test-drive the Pilot, Highlander, or a Ford Edge before buying one.

If you're pinching pennies, there are many far cheaper SUVs on the market. For instance, the Hyundai Santa Fe, which sells for an average of only $24,375, is a serviceable—though not very exciting to drive—alternative.

To go with the Murano, you have to like the way it looks, and not everyone does. And you have to be willing to pay up for an SUV with pep and handling that are better than the norm.

Click here to see more of the 2007 Nissan Murano.

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