Car reviews - Nissan - Murano - ST 5-dr wagon
Bold style, excellent CVT transmission, smooth V6, interior space
Room for improvement
Temporary spare tyre, one-way adjustable steering column
16 Dec 2005
By CHRIS HARRIS
NISSAN has never lacked credibility as a maker of decent four-wheel drives, and today it has probably the most extensive single-brand line-up in Australia, spanning small SUVs to full-size, heavy-duty bush-bashers.
At the lower end we have the already respected and capable X-Trail to do battle with Honda’s CR-V and Toyota’s RAV4, while in the mid-size true off-road category there’s the all-new Pathfinder, for which there really is no direct competitor in Australia unless you rate Mitsubishi’s Challenger as such.
Then there’s the also-new, and Pathfinder-related, Navara. At the top reigns the Patrol, complete with its tough, go-anywhere demeanour and perhaps the linchpin of Nissan’s standing on the Australian market. It’s the nemesis of Toyota’s equally tough LandCruiser.
And now, Nissan is taking a swing at the mid-size luxury SUV market - populated mainly by the likes of Honda’s MDX and the Lexus RX330 - with its all-new Murano.
The new SUV is aimed straight at the respective hearts of the Honda and Lexus in just about every way except pricing. Opening at $51,990 for the cheaper of two versions – it comes in ST and Ti form – the Murano undercuts Honda ($69,990) substantially and Lexus ($73,200 for the lower-spec Sports model, $82100 for the Sports Luxury) massively.
You’d think that with an $18,000 price advantage over the Honda that there would be clear differences in specifications, and even on-road presence. But no.
The main things the Nissan lacks compared with the MDX are a power sunroof (which is standard in the $56,990 Ti anyway) leather seats (ditto) and seven-passenger capability.
The Lexus RX330 offers the same five-seat capacity as the Murano and all the equipment of the MDX, plus a few extra goodies to justify its pricing. But it’s only marginally ahead of the Murano.
Even the base Nissan is well equipped, with things like Xenon lights, power driver’s seat, climate-control air-conditioning, Bose sound system, auto-dipping rear-view mirror, trip computer and a swag of safety gear including full-length headbags, active front head restraints and electronic stability control, all standard. The Ti adds a sunroof, leather trim and heated front seats.
That’s the showroom temptation stuff – the thing about the Murano is that it not only offers all the style (arguably more) of the Honda and Lexus, but also impresses with its underlying design integrity.
It’s V6-powered, like the Honda and Lexus, except that this is the same universally admired 3.5-litre engine seen in both the 350Z and the Maxima. In the Murano, the all-alloy, multi-cam, multi-valve VVT V6 winds out 172kW and 318Nm, a version of the Maxima engine slightly fiddled to cope with the extra weight and differing demands of the 1.8-tonne SUV.
It produces the same power, but slightly less torque than the 3.3-litre Lexus (172kW and 328Nm), and less of both than the 3.5-litre MDX (191kW and 345Nm), but it has less weight to carry than the latter.
The quoted fuel economy average, on premium unleaded fuel, is a quite-decent 12.3L/100km – although we bettered that on test with 11.8L/100km. With the 82-litre tank, this means a decent, 600-700km touring range
The Murano is also based on Nissan’s big-car platform, which means the engine is installed transversely and is essentially a front-driver that brings the rear wheels into action via Nissan’s All Mode 4x4 system when required. Nissan already uses versions of All Mode 4x4 in both the X-Trail and Pathfinder.
The suspension uses struts up front and multilinks at the rear, and runs what is quite resoundingly the longest wheelbase in its class. Combined with the sharply attenuated front and rear-ends, the lowest of rooflines, a wide body and a substantial set of 18-inch alloy wheels, all this encourages a look that is more low-slung and hunkered-down than your average SUV.
A design language that is very much new-generation Nissan accentuates this.
Some synergies from the Renault-Nissan connection show in areas like the roofline (Megane hatch), while there are touches of 350Z influence here (the tail-lights), and Californian Nissan Design Centre influences (the wide, bold grille) there.
The Murano reflects the Lexus RX330 in that its sleek profile view makes it look something like an elevated station wagon. The SUV aspect is driven home by massive wheelarches that are nicely filled by the 18-inch wheels with their high-profile 225/65 R18 tyres. Certainly, it’s far from being an apologetic, conservative design.
The long wheelbase contributes to an interior that is quite astonishingly spacious, particularly in the back seat, where the Murano rivals the local Fairlane and Statesman.
Even with a tall driver comfortably settled behind the wheel, there’s knee-room aplenty in the back seat. Add to that the reclining rear backrests (actually not uncommon in SUVs) and you have the base elements for a wonderfully comfortable long-distance conveyance.
The relatively low-set (and essentially flat) floor also means the seat height is such that entering or leaving the Murano is far easier than with a taller-standing 4WD.
A surprise is that the generously arranged seating doesn’t mess too much with the load area. With the seats in place, there’s still 476 litres available in the back.
Fold the back seats down, in a single, fluid motion via the remote handles behind the (curving, lightweight plastic) tailgate, and you have a generous 877-litre load area ready to take a couple of bikes and just about anything else that might take your fancy.
Under the carpet, either side of the temporary spare (held in place by a bracket containing the woofer for the Bose sound system) are two quite voluminous receptacles for stashing stuff you’d prefer to keep out of sight.
And back up in the cabin, between the front seats, is a lockable box with a removable bin that conceals a deeper storage area underneath.
It’s all presented very nicely too, even in the ST, where the soft velour trim runs right up to the top of the doors and there’s a nice, modern ambience that contrasts with the 1980s time-warp of the new Pathfinder.
The dash sweeps in a nice clean arc between the A-pillars and the instruments are contained in a smallish pod in front of the driver that looks as if it might move up and down with the wheel 350Z-style, but doesn’t.
In the centre there’s a touch of metallic plastic trim around the radio display and climate-control buttons to match the steering wheel spokes and add some Audi-like interest.
The controls are conventionally arranged – wiper stalk on the left, indicators on the right – and functions such as the cruise control and satellite radio switches are located on the spokes.
A surprise is that, US-style, the steering wheel only adjusts up and down, and then in a short arc that changes the angle dramatically even with a small adjustment. And, Lexus-style, the parking brake is a pedal operated by the left foot.
On the move, one of the greatest features of the Murano goes unnoticed by passengers and, often, even the driver.
This is the Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) that is standard on the Murano and endows it with perhaps its most noticeable competitive advantage.
If you’ve driven with CVT before, you’ll know that, apart from the seamless, gearless efficiency, there’s one particular defining characteristic that takes some getting used to.
This is the sound of the engine, under moderately hard acceleration, reaching optimum rpm and staying there as the speed continues to rise. It sounds like massive clutch slip, but it’s really just the CVT doing its job.
The Murano hardly does this. On the road, Xtronic is hard to pick from a regular auto except the "shifts" are so smooth they are unnoticeable. That’s fair enough, because there aren’t any ratio shifts, but there’s not that hard-revving, continuous racket under acceleration that accosts the cabin of most CVT vehicles.
And, if you want, you can shift the Murano manually through six ratios, which the transmission will hold if, for example, you are descending a hill and want some engine braking.
Generally, Xtronic is among the sweetest and smoothest of transmissions, providing maximum power when you want it and extracting the best possible economy at the same time.
It suits the character of the Murano because this is an SUV that leans towards comfort and passenger-pampering more than tempting the driver to tense up, sharpen the reflexes and have a bit of a go.
Rather, the suave Nissan proceeds with silent comfort, barely emitting any mechanical, road or wind noise and sponging-up rough surfaces with ease. Only occasionally will the suspension let forth with a complaint – usually on striking a particularly hard-edged bump even the high-profile tyres find hard to absorb.
The Murano handles well enough though, with quite well-weighted - but slightly vague - steering and steady tracking around G-force-inducing bends. It heels over just a little, reminding you it’s no BMW X5, but always feels secure. If the Murano is being pressed, mild understeer is the essential characteristic.
It feels car-like, if not car-identical with its low roofline and the awareness from inside that you’re sitting a bit lower than many SUVs.
There’s always the underlying knowledge that Nissan’s Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) is standard. Nissan hasn’t messed around with brakes either. Ventilated discs are used front and rear, along with ABS, EBD and brake assist.
The all-wheel drive system isn’t intended for adventures in almost impenetrable jungles, but it’s designed to cope with a certain amount of off-road work.
A limited-slip front and rear differential system works in with the VDC stability control to manage individual wheel grip in slippery conditions, while the whole system can be locked into full-time, 50-50 split 4WD via the centre console button.
In normal, on-road conditions, the Murano runs as a front-driver, but the system is always monitoring what’s going on and will step in if, for example, a sudden patch of wet road threatens loss of grip. Or when scrabbling along a tricky, rocky track.
All this happens mostly invisibly. Drivers will generally be unaware that the Murano’s electronics are constantly beavering away to ensure the maintenance of stable progress.
The Murano is perfectly happy in the company of pricier Honda and Lexus SUVs. Particularly if you go for the top-spec Ti (our test car was an ST), you’ll find the Murano is hardly disadvantaged.
The Lexus might get front-seat knee airbags and offer a (highly recommended) rear-view camera and the Honda might have seven seats, but the Nissan gets all the important equipment and is comfortable, incredibly spacious, highly stylish and as capable dynamically as either.
Welcome to the prestige SUV market, Nissan. You might find the reception from the buying public is quite warm.
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