Thumbs Up: A great road trip ride with more style than the average crossover.
Thumbs Down: Nissan’s CVT is as good as they get, but it’s still a CVT.
Buy This Car If: You need a crossover but want one with style and some entertainment value.
When it comes to road trips, few things add or detract from them as much as the choice of vehicle. When time isn’t a factor, and you’re cruising the back roads (preferably winding back roads), a convertible sports car is the road trip ride of choice. When you’re looking at gobbling up long miles of relatively empty interstate highway, nothing satisfies like a good GT car. When you’re doing the five hour drive from Jacksonville to Miami, the rules are that the ride has to be comfortable and has to have a great stereo; using those guidelines, I can officially give the 2011 Nissan Murano an enthusiastic thumbs up as a road trip vehicle.
The Murano launched in the U.S as a 2003 model, and immediately re-defined what a crossover segment vehicle was (and wasn’t). The Murano was stylish, and shaped more like a Hot Wheels car than a box on box SUV. It was right sized, and perfect for two, three or four passengers plus cargo. It wasn’t meant for off-roading, but buyers could opt for AWD if winter-time traction was a concern. It wasn’t a luxury car, but it could be optioned out to near-luxury levels. Unlike most in the crossover segment, it didn’t come with a fuel efficient but anemic four cylinder engine; instead, Nissan built the Murano only with their superb 3.5 liter V6. Even the suspension was firmer than most others in the segment, which made the Murano a must-shop vehicle for buyers who needed a crossover but still liked to drive.
The first generation Murano soldiered on until 2008, when it was redesigned as a 2009 model. The new Murano carries on the original’s styling, but features more muscular fender and door sill lines. The front fascia is more distinctive (and angrier) than the original version, but the rear has lost something in translation. The rear of the original Murano had tail lights that looked to be straight from the 350Z parts bin, which helped give the Murano a more unique look from the rear. The update now uses more conventional wrap-around taillights, but it’s been genericized in the process. In fact, the new Murano looks like just another crossover (VW, perhaps) from the rear where the original version carried a bit of attitude.
That’s a minor point, because the Murano still looks like nothing else on the road. If you like the way it looks on the outside, chances are good that you’ll love the way it looks on the inside. For the refresh, Nissan put a considerable amount of effort into re-doing the interior. Hard plastic was replaced by soft touch vinyl, and the original car’s cheesy instruments were replaced by more conventional (and far more upscale) chrome-trimmed pods. Chances are you bought the first generation Murano despite its interior; chances are equally good that you’ll buy the new Murano because of its interior, and Nissan deserves praise for development money well spent.
If you opt for the SL trim level, expect an Infiniti-like interior complete with thick leather seats and lumbar support for the driver. Driver and passenger seats are heated (but not cooled), and even the steering wheel is heated for driver comfort in cold weather. The driver gets a seat position memory that also adjusts the outside mirrors, which is a key feature if drivers of different sizes share a vehicle. You’d expect all this in a luxury vehicle, but Nissan delivers it in the Murano for thousands less.
Rear seats give a generous amount of head and leg room, and the seat backs recline for maximum passenger comfort. A concession to cost savings is that rear seat passengers don’t get heated seats (at the SL trim level), and they don’t get separate HVAC controls, either. That’s not a huge concern, since the cabin of the Murano doesn’t take long to heat or cool, and you can always step up to the LE trim level if rear heated seats are a must-have. Rear seat passengers do get their own HVAC vents for comfort.
When not in use, the rear seats fold (nearly flat) to give a good amount of cargo space. You won’t be hauling 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood in the Murano (at least with the hatch closed), but the space is easily big enough to swallow a bicycle, a pair of large dogs, a flat screen TV or some serious tower speakers; in other words, the Murano gives all the hauling capacity you’re likely to need on a day to day basis.
With the rear seats up, the hatch of the Murano is still large enough to haul a reasonable amount of luggage for four adults. A week long road trip shouldn’t be a problem, and adding a roof-mounted cargo pod is an option if you need more storage space. One thing my Murano tester didn’t provide was any type of hidden storage: with no cargo cover and no under floor bins (of any size), I was nervous leaving my camera gear and laptop unattended for any length of time. The cargo area windows are limo-tint dark, but that really doesn’t prevent someone from seeing what’s inside. If you’re shopping for a Murano, be sure to check the option box for the $230 retractable cargo cover.
Power comes from Nissan’s venerable 3.5 liter V6, good for 260 horsepower and 240 ft lb of torque in the Murano. The engine is mated to a continuously variable transmission, which is a mixed bag for me. I still don’t like CVT’s but Nissan builds the best in the industry, and the seamless power of the V6 engine overcomes a lot of the transmission’s flaws. Maybe the best praise I can give is that the CVT in the Murano wouldn’t prevent me from buying one; that said, I’d still much rather have a conventional six speed automatic with a manual shift option. The EPA says the Murano will get 18 MPG city and 23 MPG highway, and I saw an actual 19.7 MPG in a mix of city and highway driving. You can get better fuel economy from four cylinder crossovers, but they lack the Murano’s grunt for hauling passengers and cargo. For me, that’s worth the trade-off in fuel economy.
On the road, the Murano drives smaller than it is, but that’s a good thing. I’d stop short of calling the crossover “nimble”, but it is maneuverable at both high and low speeds and handles better than you may expect. Acceleration is surprisingly good, and although I never clocked a zero to sixty run my best guess is somewhere around eight seconds. The relatively high seating position gives an excellent view of the road, but the Murano never feels top heavy like so many box on box crossovers and SUVs do. Others have complained about the Murano’s blind spots, but I found outward visibility from the driver’s seat to be good. Adjust your mirrors properly, pay attention behind the wheel and the Murano’s visibility will be a non-issue.
My 2011 Murano SL FWD tester had a base price of $36,250, including a destination charge of $800. Options on my tester included the $185 Floor Mat Kit (which also includes a cargo area mat), and the $1,850 Navigation Package (HDD Navigation System, 9.3 GB Music Box Hard Drive, Touch Screen and Voice Recognition, Bluetooth Audio Streaming, XM NavTraffic and Real Time Traffic) for a total sticker price of $38,285. A comparably equipped Toyota Highlander SE would run you $37,075 but gives you a third row of seats; a similarly equipped Chevy Equinox would run $32,555, but you’d forgo some of the Murano’s luxury touches (like the Bose audio) and a lot of the Murano’s power and drivability. If you’re in the market for a “right sized” crossover, you really should include the Murano on your “must drive” list.