- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

The CUVs are threatening the SUVs, and with good reason.

Some of it has to do with style, not utility, as witness one of the newer CUVs, the strikingly designed Nissan Murano, which seems destined to carve yet another niche in the burgeoning market for multipurpose vehicles.

SUV, as almost everyone now knows, stands for sport utility vehicle. CUV, which means crossover utility vehicle, has not yet made its way into the popular nomenclature.

Generally speaking, however, SUVs are rugged, thirsty, truck-based, tall station wagons with body-on-frame construction, the wherewithal to carry and tow heavy loads, and the capability to negotiate off-road terrain without much difficulty.

Crossovers, on the other hand, also are tall station wagons. But they are car-based with unit bodies, lighter in weight, more fuel efficient, not designed to haul or tow heavy loads and, although they can be ordered with all-wheel drive, usually they are not as capable off-road.

Midsize CUV examples include the tested Murano, the Chrysler Pacifica, Honda Pilot, Mitsubishi Endeavor, Volvo XC90, Buick Rendezvous and Toyota Highlander. Examples of truck-based SUVs include the Hummer, Ford Explorer, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder, Dodge Durango, Mercedes-Benz M-Class and Isuzu Axiom.

Some don’t fit into either category, like the Subaru Outback, which is a jacked-up Legacy station wagon, or the dedicated off- and on-roaders from Jeep and Land Rover.

There are now more than half a hundred SUVs and CUVs of all sizes on the market — certainly enough to handle any taste or need a customer might have. But a lot of people who favor these sorts of vehicles are guilty of wretched excess. That applies to the entertainment and sports stars who use Lincoln Navigators and Cadillac Escalades as limousines, or the soccer moms and dads who eschew minivans in favor of giant Chevy Suburbans and others of that ilk.

The vast majority of motorists truly have no need for such vehicles. They don’t tow heavy trailers, they don’t haul spring-bending loads, and statistics show only a few of them ever take their vehicles off paved roads. They are prime candidates for CUVs such as the Nissan Murano.

The Murano is yet another example of Nissan’s amazing revival as a car company. Only a few years ago it was struggling financially and it had little to offer consumers. That all changed after CEO Carlos Ghosn took over and Renault of France bought 44 percent of Nissan.

Now everything from Nissan, it seems, has pizzazz and style, even to the point of being avant-garde.

The test Murano, for example, had a dark brown metallic paint job with an interior that was done up in a bright burnt orange with silver, black and gray-beige accents.

Instruments were light orange with black markings, and a center pod contained all the audio and dual-zone automatic climate controls, with readouts on a large screen above the pod.

The tester was an SL model with all-wheel drive, with a high level of standard equipment, including side air bags, a power driver’s seat, 18-inch alloy wheels, antilock brakes with brake assist, and the usual complement of power-assisted equipment. The upholstery was cloth, but it was woven to resemble a fine suede.

The SL is the lower of the two trim levels. It comes in standard front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, as does the more upscale SE model. With the all-wheel drive, the test SL had a base price of $30,339. (With front drive, it’s $28,739). A few options, including an upgraded audio system and power-adjustable pedals, brought the tested price up to $32,085.

That’s well within the ball park for vehicles of this type, although you can bump the price up considerably — to around $38,000 — if you buy the top-line SE model loaded with options.

A lot of people might buy the Murano just for its looks. But it’s also a rousing performer, with a 245-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 engine linked to a marvel called a CVT, for continuously variable transmission.

The CVT is not a new concept, but it’s coming into its own as engineers make it work more reliably.

It uses a sophisticated combination of belts and pulleys to provide a smooth and steady surge of power up to highway speeds, without shift points.

Because the hookup is direct, with no slippage, a CVT can be even more fuel efficient than a manual gearbox, and usually is better than a conventional automatic.

On the Murano, you can get even more power by flipping the shift lever into the sport mode, which simply raises the engine revolutions — something like starting out in passing gear. Zero to 60 mph arrives in just over seven seconds. There’s also a low range for off-roading or downhill running.

The handling is agile, given the Murano’s height. But the tight suspension results in a somewhat stiff ride. However, the seats inside, both front and rear, are so comfortable and supportive you hardly notice. As on the Lexus RX330, the Murano’s cargo area, because of the sharply sloped roofline, is compromised somewhat, and vision to the rear quarters is restricted.

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