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Click for pictures“It takes courage
  not to follow the 4x4
  herd. So, if you’re
  ready to buck the
  system, Nissan might
  have just the thing
  for you. A sporty-
  looking, luxuriously-
  kitted out Murano
  3.5 V6 CVT...”

NISSAN PEOPLE are honest people, and if you pick up a Murano brochure from your local Nissan dealer, you'll
read the following:
"…there's nothing on the road like Murano." And they're telling it exactly like it is. Conceived by Nissan Design America in California and designed to drive 'n' survive in the Great American Urban Jungle, its brazen styling is holding out,
as the song goes, for a hero.

Our test Murano certainly grabbed the attention of the passing school run and commuter traffic when it was delivered at 08:30 one morning recently. Finished in an unmissable metallic Sunlit Copper (a deep orangey-bronze), six feet two inches wide and almost as tall, it stood out loud and proud. High-waisted with a slim raked glasshouse, highly sculpted lines, full-width chrome grille, well-wrapped 6-spoke 18-inch alloys at each corner and blacked-out 'privacy' rear windows, it was hard to miss. Not that you'll see many around, because there are only 1,300 Muranos available each year.

So, what exactly is a Murano? Nissan's take on the luxury sport utility, is what. Already a big hit Stateside, the 'crossover' Murano incorpor-ates both sports car and 4x4 design elements. Sharp-eyed connoiss-eurs of desirable sporting machinery will immediately spot the trapez-oidal 350Z-look front and rear lamps. Step round to the back and the two purposeful chromed tailpipes — one either side — provide another link to the Murano's make-up. Because under the Murano's high bonnet lives the same 3.5-litre V6 that powers the delicious 350Z Coupe. Okay, so the 24-valve, twin-cam all-aluminium unit has been detuned
a tad from the 350Z's 276bhp and 268lb ft of torque. But it still packs
a wallop: 231bhp and 235lb ft of torque are not to be sneezed at.
More than enough, in fact, to get the Murano off the line to 62mph in
a credible 8.9 seconds. Top speed, if you're interested, is 124mph.

And you won't be disappointed when you climb inside. Despite its size, getting in is easy: you just leap in and drive off. The cabin is com-
prehensively car-like and sporty — something the 350Z-look chunky three-spoke steering wheel only serves to emphasise. Brushed aluminium and black leather are used to good effect to generate a welcoming 'modern' ambiance. The design is interesting, orderly and simple. And all the better for it. Interesting touches include the narrow alloy-effect motorbike-style pod which houses three circular analogue dials for the revs, speed and fuel/temp. All instruments have chic sandy-yellow faces with strong red silver-edged needles and clear black graphics. At night they look really classy, thanks to restful-on-the-eyes amber backlighting.

Back, for a moment, to the roomy cabin. The all-leather seats are large and comfy — as, too, are the headrests — and although the driver gets 10-way electric seat adjustment (and very effective electric lumbar support) his — or her — front passenger has to make do with manual controls. No real hardship as the adjustment is reasonable and effortless. Everyone gets electric windows but only the driver has a one-shot up/down function. Despite the high ride, you sit low in the Murano. Adding to the impression of sitting 'in' rather than 'on' is the shallow side glazing and high waistline.

The smart businesslike steering wheel only adjusts for rake but it's easy to set a commanding driving position, thanks to the Murano's height and the fact that you can see enough of the bonnet to make positioning the car accurately on the road straightforward. Visibility from the driving seat is good and the view back — in spite of the wide, sweeping and obviously style-led triangular-shaped D-pillar — is not as daunting as you'd assume from outside. Largish door mirrors help but you can't see the corners. Which is where the rear-view camera comes into its own when reversing. Standard kit, it's a really useful feature and most definitely not to be dismissed as a gimmick.

In practice, more or less everything else you'll need is accessed via the 'floating' centre stack that juts out from the dash and which sits centrally below the recessed SatNav screen in the fascia. Large, self-explanatory buttons for the navigation system are arranged horizontally along the top of the stack in front of the 7-inch colour screen. The DVD-based Birdview navigation system shows a three-dimensional map (giving a 'bird's eye view of your route) that is as nice to look at as it is informative. Worth a mention is the well-considered night/day button that changes the display irrespective of the main lighting — so should you decide to switch on the lights before it's dark, you can keep the monitor in its daylight mode for better clarity.

Ring-fenced by smart brushed aluminium, a purpose-designed seven-speaker 225W Bose ICE system with an internal 6-CD autochanger occupies most of the main stack. Below it are three rotary controls that between them cover all functions of the automatic climate control air-conditioning. The colour screen, incidentally, doubles as a display for the rear parking camera — the view behind the car goes live on the dashboard monitor when you engage reverse gear, and it also shows useful guide lines indicating the size of the Murano.

Under the A/C controls — on the central tunnel and behind a handy, partially-concealed oddments tray that runs back under the floating centre stack — are the heated seat (very effective, two-stage heat-ing for both front seats), 4x4 lock and power door mirror switches. Every-thing important is in one tight area not much bigger than a hand span. Also keeping everything nicely in reach are the cruise control
and remote audio buttons on the multi-function steering wheel.

And that includes the well-sited selector lever. Positioned close to the steering wheel, it represents yet another interesting aspect of the Murano. The Murano can only be had in one spec — options are limited more or less to the colour. And there's only one engine and one trans-mission on offer. That means a six-speed CVT (continually variable automatic transmission). Don't worry, because this is one very sweet set-up that — in addition to functioning as a very smooth conventional automatic transmission — also allows DIY drivers to change gear manually using any one of six pre-programmed ratios.

Nissan has incorporated a lot of useful storage areas to ensure the Murano is easy to live with on a daily basis. These range from a large lockable 'double-decker' centre console between the front seats
with a two-position sliding armrest/lid. Under that is a 5-inch wide
x 12-inch long x 6-inch deep storage box. But if you lift out the inner liner it conveniently becomes a 12-inch deep box with enough room
for a laptop, a large handbag or even bottles. And all hidden securely out of sight. There are also two small lined compartments with damped flip-up lids for coins and a mobile, and a lidded twin cupholder that
will take all manner of oddments. A welcome touch is the separate tilt and slide switches for the electric glass sunroof, each with an auto one-shot function.

The front door pockets spring wide open for access or to accommodate bulkier items, plus there's the usual glovebox. In the luggage bay
you'll find a pair of deep storage bins accessed via panels in the floor. And there's also a lift-up panel that reveals a large oddments tray sitting above the space-saver spare wheel. Although only two inches deep it is, nonetheless, extremely handy. Power outlets are provided
in the front-passenger footwell, in the central armrest bin and in the boot.

While there's bags of room in the front, there's even more behind. We're talking limousine legroom. The back seats are equally comfortable and there's masses of space, enough to accommodate three sitting side-by-side though the well-padded central armrest makes it really luxurious for just two. Each rear seat backrest reclines by 24 degrees in three steps so passengers can chill out in style screened by the privacy glass. They also get their own air-con vents in the B-pillars.

With four or five aboard, there's a not unreasonable 438 litres of space under the boot's retractable luggage blind. But if you're carrying cargo, not people, then you'll love the clever rear seat release levers in
the boot. Simply pull the lever and the rear backrest (split 60:40)
flops forward to form a flat load floor. No messing around inside the passenger compartment, no removing headrests or any other nonsense. Just brilliant. With both sections down there's a big, flat
load area that will swallow 877 litres. With only one side folded you
can still carry one or two rear passengers as well as long flat items, such as sets of skis.

Twist the key in the ignition and blip the throttle. The Murano revs freely with more than a hint of the 350Z soundtrack. Flick the selector back into Drive, release the foot-operated parking brake with your left foot — it works smoothly, doesn't take much getting used to and frees up space between the driver and front passenger — and the Murano steps crisply off the line. Keep your right foot pressed down and the seamless acceleration gets you to 62mph in less than nine seconds. The harder you accelerate, the more you can hear the snarly V6 — although still tuneful, it's notably more muted than when powering its more brutal sports car kin.

A lot of the pleasure in driving the Murano is due in no small way to its high-tech X-Tronic CVT. Whereas a conventional automatic gearbox has a fixed set of gear ratios (between 4 and 7), the Murano's CVT has a near-infinite number of ratios to ensure the engine's full potential is exploited at all times. You really don't need to give it a second thought because it works just fine and makes the Murano a very polished operator. Consequently — even though it rides well — your passengers' highest praise will be for its unruffled power delivery and air of luxury.

If you feel like taking more of a hands-on approach, simply slot the well-shaped leather-skinned selector sideways to activate the CVT's manual mode. Six pre-set ratios are available and selections are made by nudging the lever — forward for upshifts and backwards for downshifts — to effect fast, smooth changes. The sequential manual shifting adds another layer of driving enjoyment as well as being particularly useful when extra control and engine braking are required. You can, if you wish, drop more than one gear at a time by pulling or pushing the lever quickly twice. Naturally, it won't let you change if it is likely to over-rev the engine so you're protected from any mistakes. And while in manual mode, the CVT will automatically select first for you once you come to a full stop. At all times the currently engaged gear is shown in the display inset into the lower face of the combined fuel/temp gauge.

The Murano's electronically-controlled All Mode 4x4 system — originally derived from the Skyline GTR and first seen in the X-Trail — is of the set-and-forget type. Working constantly in the background, it sends power to the front wheels most of the time. However, the instant any wheel slip is detected it automatically shares out power to all four wheels, up to a maximum 50:50 split. For off-road driving, just press the button on the transmission tunnel to 'lock-in' permanent all-wheel drive.

The Murano's independent suspension is tuned for the road rather than the rough its high-riding SUV looks hint at. And let's face it, few owners will risk such a smart looking vehicle off-road. One useful spin-off of its 4x4 genes is the lofty driving position, which pays dividends whether you're driving on the black or the green. The rack-and-pinion steering is a little on the light side but accurate, and the 12-metre turning circle tight enough for easy three-point turns. Overall the Murano serves up good road manners with neat, composed handling.

The ABS brakes are very efficient — and so they should be with large ventilated discs all round backed up by electronic brake force distrib-ution and brake assist. And, as an unexpected emergency stop on a slippery, mud-covered country lane proved, they are totally depend-able. At speed the Murano is stable and very refined and the legal limit calls for no more than 1,750 revs. Surprisingly, and in particular on back roads, you're never aware that you're driving a vehicle that's a smidgen over fifteen and a half feet long!

If you're looking, then you'll already know that these kinds of vehicles are never paragons of virtue when it comes to fuel consumption. Our average test figure worked out to 19mpg over a 50:50 mix of town and motorway driving. Officially, the urban, mixed and touring figures are 16.4, 23 and 29.7mpg. So you'll be glad to know that there's an 18-gallon tank.

Active and passive safety is well addressed with the All Mode 4x4 and ABS with Electronic Brake-force Distribution. There is also an Electronic Stability Programme (ESP+) with Active Brake Limited Slip Differential and Traction Control to keep you going — even on a slope that's icy on one side and clear on the other. Dual-stage front airbags are standard, as are side and full-length curtain 'bags, active front head restraints and front seatbelt pretensioners with load-limiters. Front and rear outer belts are also height adjustable.

Bi-xenon dip and main lights, headlamp washers, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and two-stage central locking all contribute to safety and are all standard items. Yet another nice touch is the large icon display-ed in the rev-counter indicating that all the doors are locked. Or not. And while most people would consider the easy-to-use Birdview Satellite Navigation system principally a convenience item, it also contributes much to safety by allowing the driver to listen to spoken directions while concentrating on the actual road conditions. The Traffic Management Control function makes it even more useful. This is updated continuously using radio broadcasts, alerting the driver to delays and jams and suggesting a route to avoid them. If you're travelling alone at night to a place you've never been before, SatNav really is invaluable. And, of course, it also comes as standard.

More car-like to drive than many SUVs, the dramatically-styled Murano checks a lot of boxes. It is smooth, comfortable and accommodating, carries cargo as easily as it transports four people in real comfort (five if you wish) and it comes extremely well-equipped as standard — with high-end kit (including a top-quality Bose sound system, 3-D DVD-based SatNav, full leather, colour reversing camera and xenon head-lights) that will cost you thousands more if you choose one of Murano's rivals. While the lack of choice of engine/transmission/trim — apart from the external colour — might appear restrictive, canny customers will appreciate exactly what they're getting for their money.

And with those strictly limited numbers available, there's the added bonus that it's not often you'll find yourself in sight of another Murano. So while the badge on the nose might not be exclusive enough for some, the car wearing the badge most certainly will. — Maggie Woods

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Nissan Murano 3.5 V6 X-Tronic CVT | £29,995
Maximum speed: 124mph | 0-62mph: 8.9 seconds
Test MPG: 19mpg | Power: 231bhp | Torque: 235lb ft

Visit Nissan's website Click to go there now

-------------------------------------------------------------------- Nissan Murano