Nissan Murano SL AWD

Nissan Murano SL AWD Nissan Murano SL AWD
Road Test

The 2002 Car and Driver New-Car Guide helped welcome six new sport-utility vehicles into an already crowded market. This year's guide features more than double that number of new kids on the trendiest block in Truckville, U.S.A. Most of them are trying desperately to conform to the latest mode of fashion: the car/truck-hybrid vehicle-for-all-seasons-and-all-reasons "crossover ute." Like all the car/boat and car/plane concepts that have been attempted in the past century, car/trucks tend to be rather unconvincing as either cars or trucks, at least from the standpoint of car enthusiasts.

And so it is with increasing ennui and eye rolling that we, your faithful reporters on all things automotive, accept the assignment to cover the optimistic launch of yet another of these omni-use active-lifestyle beasts. But occasionally an automaker surprises us by straying from the everything-for-everybody formula and builds a genuine individual. Isuzu's VehiCROSS was a perfect example -- as unique and freakish as Edward Scissorhands, and a hoot to drive. Hummer's extroverted H2 is another, perhaps too obvious, case in point. A much subtler but equally exceptional exemplar is the new Murano from Nissan.

A clear message is being sent by the edgy yet rounded styling themes of this SUV, with its vaguely shoelike profile and a tail end reminiscent of the funky fannies Renault is appending to its cars these days: This ain't no me-too truck. Measuring 187.6 inches long by 74.0 inches wide, it's big. Conformist competitors of this size accommodate three rows of seats, but Nissan chose instead to package first-class seating for five adults (reclining backrests and stretch-out legroom) under a lower, more stylish roofline than one finds on those suburban family buses. Even the interior styling goes its own way with real aluminum trim and various pods and modules that appear to float in space. It's kind of an '80s look -- too recent to be retro, but reinterpreted just enough to look cool.

And if you think the body looks unique, wait till you put on your David Kimble X-ray glasses and feast your peepers on the Murano's drivetrain. Sandwiched between Nissan's increasingly ubiquitous 3.5-liter VQ V-6 and our test car's full-time all-wheel-drive system is a high-capacity, belt-driven Xtronic continuously variable transmission (see sidebar).

Why should the enthusiast care?

First and foremost because the infinite gear ratios of the transmission behave like two more cylinders when the hammer's down. In the unlikely event you haven't peeked already, check out the test results and the bar graph: 60 mph flashes by in 7.5 seconds, the quarter in 15.9 at 88 mph. Most sport-utes with scoot like that run V-8s. Brake-torque the Murano (its torque converter can handle this abuse as easily as a conventional tranny's can), then sidestep the brake, and off you go. At about 44 mph you reach the top of the 2.37:1 "first gear," after which the pulleys start changing diameter to maintain an engine speed of about 6250 rpm all the way to a 116-mph governed top speed.

There are other performance benefits, too, such as no hunting for gears when climbing long grades and ideally tailored engine braking for the downhill runs. Drop the hammer to overtake someone from a cruising speed, and you instantly get a step change to the ideal gear ratio for peak passing performance. Note that the Murano's 50-to-70-mph passing time of 5.1 seconds is 0.3 second quicker than that of our recent Lincoln Aviator (V-8 mated to a five-speed auto), which has a similar power-to-weight ratio.