- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

More women are familiar with the word Murano than are men. But it didn’t stop Nissan North America Inc. from using Murano as the name of its first crossover sport utility vehicle.

Carefully sculpted, decorative Murano glass from Italy is considered cutting-edge design, said Bill Kirrane, vice president and general manager of the Nissan division. Nissan officials want the nouveau-styled 2003 Murano to be viewed the same way.

Certainly, it stands out in a crowd, especially when it’s painted the eye-catching Sunlit Copper color that has been a regular on the Murano display cars at recent auto shows. Even the interior of this new five-passenger hatchback can be had in a unique orange-copper color.

In fact, this was the color scheme on the test Murano SL with all-wheel drive, and I noticed it blended well with the orange-amber background of the information display screen atop the center of the dashboard.

Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $28,739 for a two-wheel-drive, V-6-powered Murano SL. The tester, with optional leather seat surfaces, sunroof and navigation system, among other things, topped out at more than $36,000.

The Murano’s cladding-free styling, accentuated by 18-inch alloy wheels that come standard, is what gets your attention first.

But there’s more here to talk about than looks.

Riding on a platform that’s used by the Nissan Altima sedan — thus helping to explain the crossover description — the Murano doesn’t force riders to climb up to get inside.

The ride is stable, with the rather heavy all-wheel-drive Murano — nearly 4,000 pounds in curb weight — feeling well-connected to the road. A two-wheel-drive version weighs 3,800-plus pounds.

The all-wheel-drive Murano tester tracked nicely around curves and behaved well in mountain twisties, where I didn’t feel any tippy sensations.

Part of the sense of stability comes because the Murano’s wheels are pushed out to the vehicle’s corners. The Murano’s wheelbase of 111.2 inches is longer than the competing Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.

The Murano’s independent suspension uses struts up front and a multilink setup in back. I noticed some road noise from the Murano’s tires on certain road surfaces.

Power comes from Nissan’s well-known 3.5-liter, double-overhead-camshaft V-6. This 245-horsepower engine, which develops 246 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm here, is mated to Nissan’s Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT).

With an infinite variability in the gears compared with a traditional automatic transmission, this CVT doesn’t produce the annoying gear hunting that can go on when driving up and down in mountain terrain.

In fact, even in city driving, my passengers and I noticed the lack of perceptible gear shifts. The overall transmission operation is quite smooth. Yet, power comes on without hesitation and the vehicle gets moving quickly in both city and highway driving.

In fact, in both maximum horsepower and torque, the Murano bests the Pilot and Highlander.

Nissan officials say the CVT helps improve fuel economy. But it’s still nothing to brag about. The test all-wheel-drive Murano is rated at 20 miles a gallon in city driving and 24 miles per gallon on the highway. Premium unleaded is the recommended fuel.

In the Murano driver’s seat, you will notice the thickness of the steering wheel as you close your fingers around it.

Steering-wheel-mounted cruise control and audio controls are standard, and changing the tilt angle of the Murano steering wheel also moves the gauges, which are grouped into a pod. This is similar to the gauge grouping in Nissan’s sporty 350Z.

The Murano dashboard is expansive under the windshield. Be sure to look around the sizable pillars at either end of the windshield when making a turn, or you may not see a pedestrian or an approaching car.

Seats have nicely sculpted backrests and did a good job of holding me in place. The storage area between the front seats is big enough to hold a laptop computer or a purse.

In fact, Nissan even made sure each pull-out map pocket in the Murano is big enough to hold a Thomas guide, even though a navigation system is among the vehicle’s options.

Every one of the five passengers in the Murano has a height-adjustable, lockable head restraint and three-point safety belt. Other standard safety features include side curtain air bags for front and rear seats, anti-lock brakes and brake assist to help in panic-stopping situations.

Skid control and traction control, which are part of an optional Dynamic Control package, also are available.

I appreciated the optional, adjustable brake and accelerator pedals on the test Murano that move up or down as much as 3 inches.

But I still had to find a comfortable way to use the nonadjusting dead pedal — the area near the floor to the left of the driver that’s supposed to help the driver brace his left foot.

The rear seatbacks split 60/40 and recline separately, and good-sized door windows give back-seat riders decent views. These windows open only two-thirds of the way, though.

A nice touch back there: A pull-down center armrest that sits up off the seat cushion, so it’s well-positioned.

Note the back seats are positioned a bit higher than the front seats, like those in movie theaters.

I appreciated that the rear seatbacks in the Murano flop down quickly with just a pull of two levers in the cargo area. No need for fancy wiring and electric power-down seatbacks as in some Ford sport utility vehicles.

And the Murano’s rear seatbacks rest flat, making for easy-to-use additional cargo room. Maximum cargo space is 81.6 cubic feet, and no third-row seat is available.

When open, the Murano’s tailgate brushed the head of folks who are over 6 feet tall, and water bottles in the front-seat cup holders of the tester leaned and flopped around as I drove.

Also, I could scarcely figure out where the front bumper of the Murano was when I parked. All I could see, even with the driver seat up as high as it would go, was the hood closest to the windshield and a bit of the center of the hood.

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