Journalists are a cynical bunch by nature; if they're not so to start with, they become so in time. The job does it to you; and there was plenty of cynicism in the air when Nissan revealed the US-designed Murano four-wheel drive to journalists in the Manawatu and Hawke's Bay a few weeks ago.
Though it's American-penned, the Murano's styling includes traces of the French influence that runs through Nissan's current design language (French outfit, Renault, owns Nissan and there are distinctly Renault touches to Nissan's 21st century design cues). Frankly, I see that as a good thing, giving many of Nissan's products a look of daring and an air of panache they once lacked.
Going back the other way, Nissan's excellent build standards and quality control seem to be having a positive effect on Renault's vehicles.
There were jibes at the Murano launch about the way the vehicle looked, and some cynicism about it being a lounge room on wheels with Lazyboy-like armchairs in place of seats. But look at the Murano more, spend some time with it, and you start to appreciate its looks and its qualities.
It rides on big wheels - six-spoke 18-inch diameter alloys which almost fill the wheelarches, and which are emphasised by the prominent wheelarch flares. The big wheels and wheelarches give the Murano a muscular and athletic look that's amplified by the sleek, steeply-raked windscreen.
There were jibes at the media launch about the vehicle looking like two design teams had worked on it - one for the sleek front, one for the cut-off rear with its small hatch styling cues reminiscent of Nissan's Micra. I was unconvinced by that argument then, and am more so now. Styling lines that run from front to rear along the Murano's shoulders unify the design.
Regardless of what some of the more cynical motoring writers had to say, the Murano has struck a chord with buyers.
Sales have been double what Nissan anticipated; possibly the forecasts were on the low side, for the Murano is taking Nissan into a new market sector, one in which emotion frequently outweighs rationality.
For the Murano is labelled a crossover vehicle, which means it blends some of the attributes of an SUV with those of a large luxury car. The SUV attributes include permanent four-wheel drive, a high ride height which gives a commanding view of the road and traffic, a reasonable amount of ground clearance and some offroad ability.
The car-like attributes are a compliant ride that is far removed from the SUV norm, a general ease of handling, and body lines skewed towards style rather than utility.
The Murano's 3.5-litre Double Overhead Camshaft V6 - a version of the unit used in the Maxima sedan and the 350Z sports car - provides excellent performance. It delivers 172kW of power at 6000rpm, and peak torque of 318Nm at 3600rpm. That's enough to catapult this near two-tonne vehicle to 100km/h in a highly creditable nine seconds.
It will cruise all day at 100km/h with a total lack of effort, not even raising a sweat on steep climbs. The engine has a muscular feel, and is extremely quiet, offering just a mild taste of cammy note at high revs.
It drives all four wheels through Nissan's latest-generation, steel-belted continuously variable transmission (CVT). You can leave it to its own devices or use the Tiptronic-style manual shifter to select one of six ration steps.
We found the stepped "manual" shift of use only on roads where there was a preponderance of tight, lowish-speed corners, one after the other; or when you wanted more transmission/engine braking on steep and tight downhill sections. Otherwise we found it better to leave the CVT in Drive and let it get on with the job.
I'm no great fan of CVT transmissions, especially in small-engined cars where they seem to do little but make the motor sound as if it's struggling against a rubber band, and the clutch is slipping terminally. No such worry in the Murano. The engine and the CVT are well-matched, the acceleration seamless. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't a conventional auto gearbox.
Handling is biased towards understeer, though the drive through the rear wheels eliminates any tendency to sledging. Vehicles of this mass and weight could seldom be considered sporty handlers, and the Murano isn't.
But the big 225/65 tyres provide excellent grip, and Murano has a high level of roadholding; electronic handling aids include permanently engaged Vehicle Dynamic Control and traction control.
The Murano will corner quickly and with good stability, and can be placed accurately, despite its bulk. The relatively tall tyre sidewalls and the vehicle's weight mean the Murano's body moves around quite a lot during brisk cornering, and in really tight going there's a touch of roll oversteer as the weight shifts to the offside rear wheel. It was a feel we just loved, and we discovered too late in our time with the vehicle.
The Murano is completely at home in the city where it displays an agility that belies its bulk. This is no clumsy SUV, but an easy to handle big car with a commanding view of the world. And despits its curvy lines it was easy to park accurately.
The tall tyres - you'd expect 18-inchers to be be much lower profile - help with the Murano's ride quality. It's excellent, the suspension soaking up bumps. Bumps? I scarcely noticed them; nor was the Murano fazed by speed humps.
The luxury Ti version of the Murano sells for $59,950; the ST - with not a lot less spec - for $55,450. For the money you get high style, top-drawer comfort, an excellent sound system, easy city handling and outstanding open road cruising capability.
It may have had its genesis in the USA, and in comparison with some SUV rivals it may feel a little softly-suspended, but it's a very pleasant vehicle to operate and a worthy and user-friendly alternative to an SUV if the vehicle is being bought mainly for urban operation.
The inside story
The Murano's front seats do have more in common with armchairs than regular bucket seats. You find similar armchair-like seating in another big luxury American-designed four-wheel drive, the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
We couldn't fault the Murano's for comfort, especially in long and tedious commuting hauls; and thought it's almost out of season in a steadily warming Auckland as summer approaches, the heated cushions add a nice touch of extra luxury.
But when you're pressing on, the seats could do with a lot more lateral support, especially the leather-upholstered seats in the Ti. We figure things might be better in ST with its grippier cloth upholstery; and if you do a lot of brisk open road running on twisty roads, the ST might be the better choice.
You'd have to sacrifice the leather trim and the seat heating - along with the electrically-operated tilt and slide sunroof - but we figure your passengers could live with the trade-off.
Certainly there was a fair amount of car sickness among passengers in leather-upholstered Muranos on the media launch where we were trying to drive this heavy, and relatively softly-sprung, vehicle like a sports car on the severe twists and turns of the Gentle Annie road between Taihape and Napier. Which, of course, is not the way you should perhaps drive this vehicle; but bear in mind the willing engine and the sporty performance it delivers, and you can see why the Murano will bring out the boy in a man.
There's plenty of legroom in both the front and rear cabins, and the Murano interior is a pleasant place to be in. Noise suppression is excellent, the passengers hearing little mechanical, wind or road noise. The last-mentioned is particularly so on chip-sealed roads where the Murano is especially quiet. In fact, you don't notice how quiet until you get out of it and into another vehicle and drive along the same roads.
The digital display screen for the onboard computer came in for some stick on the media launch, some journos saying it looked like an early generation computer game. I know what they mean, but it was clear and easy to read, even if it looked a little hokey.
There's good luggage space; and storage cubbyholes, include a double-decked and lockable centre console that's deep enough to hold a laptop computer. There's also concealed storage space beneath the cargo area floor.
What you get
Standard equipment includes climate-control air-conditioning, power windows, remote control central door-locking, and cruise control. The sound system is a BOSE unit with an in-dash six-disc Compact Disc stacker, six speakers and a set of controls mounted on the steering wheel. Upholstery is leather, and the steering wheel and gearshift lever are leather-wrapped.
Both front seats are heated, and the driver's seat is power-adjustable, with power-adjustable lumbar support.
Safety gear includes front and side airbags for the front cabin, and side curtain airbags that extend along the sides of both cabins. The front-seat headrests are active, and move to support occupants' heads to help prevent whiplash.
The rear seats split-fold at one touch, and there is a retractable cover for the cargo area.
The Murano rides on 18-inch alloy wheels, has body-coloured exterior mirrors, chromed door handles and grille, and a dual exhaust system. An electric tilt and slide sunroof is standard, and there are cargo-carrying roof rails.
The ST model which sells for $4500 less, deletes the roof rails, sunroof and seat heating, and replaces the leather upholstery with cloth.
At the pump
Fuel economy on any heavy, powerful vehicle depends very much on how you use it. Make plenty of use of full throttle and the 80-plus litre fuel tank will empty with alarming rapidity. And in stop/start city traffic the Murano's fuel economy redefines itself as fuel consumption. But use a lighter touch on the throttle, and you'll reap the benefits. The official figures indicate overall economy of 12.3 litres/100km.
Regular Murano users report figures of between 12.7 and 13.6 litres/100km in predominantly city running. An independent test, covering a fair amount of open road running, returned 10,8 litres/100km. Much of the key to economy - in this or any vehicle - lies in the judicious use of the driver's right foot.
Nissan Murano Ti specifications
Engine All-aluminium VQ35, 3.5-litre, DOHC, 24 valve V6. Continuously Variable Valve Timing System (CVTCS). Sequential multi-point electronic fuel injection. Maximum power, 172kW at 6000rpm. Peak torque, 318Nmn at 3600rpm
Transmission Permanent four-wheel drive. Continuously Variable Automatic Transmission (CVT) with six-stage manual Sports mode
Electronic chassis aids Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) including Traction Control System (TCS)
Suspension Front, independent struts with stabiliser bar. Rear, multi-link
Steering Speed sensitive power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes Ventilated front and solid rear discs. ABS with Electronic Brake Distribution and Brake Assist
Wheels 18-inch diameter alloy
Performance Turning circle, 11.6 metres. Towing capacity: 1500kg with braked trailer; 750kg with unbraked trailer. Fuel economy (overall, manufacturer's figures), 12.3 litres/100km
Dimensions Length, 4770mm. Width (excluding mirrors), 1880mm. Height, 1685mm (ST) or 1705mm (Ti) Wheelbase, 2825mm. Front track, 1620mm. Rear track, 1620mm. Ground clearance, 180mm. Weight, 1822kg
Approach angle 28 degrees Departure angle 25 degrees
Fuel tank capacity 82 litres
Price Murano ST, $55,450. Ti, $59,950